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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225 [12:34]
Der Geist hilft, BWV 226 [7:09]
Fürchte dich nicht, BWV 228 [7:47]
Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229 [8:13]
Ich lasse dich nicht, BWV Anh. 159 [4:10]
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 [19:05]
Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, BWV 230 [7:26]
Capella Cracoviensis/Fabio Bonizzoni
rec. 2014, The Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Luslawice, Poland.
ALPHA 199 [66:26]

What do you think of when someone mentions Bach’s motets. Are they, as they were for Wagner, an “absolute music” and almost unsurpassed jewels of the genre, or are they a rag-bag of prosaic and rather antiquated ecclesiastical survivors. Reading about their use for funerals or other solemn commemorations doesn’t really prepare one for the lively jollity of some of Bach’s writing or for the ardent and full-on performances by Capella Cracoviensis. It’s hard to imagine this is the kind of sound the church elders of Leipzig would have expected. As usual however, Bach’s music can cope admirably.

I’ve come across a few different recordings of these works and still have the feeling my own personal ideal is still out there waiting to be found. The augmented Hilliard Ensemble on ECM 1875 is very lovely, but is performed a capella so is not really comparison material. The lack of accompanying instruments is by no means an unrealistic, and is the result if you follow many of the manuscript scores to the letter. The fuller harmonic realisation with organ, cello and double bass in this release from the Alpha label does help things along however. Going in the other direction brings in an complete instrumental band and a full choir, such as with the St Jacobs Kammarkör and REBaroque directed by Gary Graden on Proprius PRCD 2066, which is as richly opulent as its packaging and was only really spoilt for me at the time by the over-exposed lead violin in the recording balance. A more civilised version with instrumental ensemble and smaller choir is the 2011 recording by Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herreweghe on PHI LPH002.

Further exploration will take you to the Monteverdi Choir and John Eliot Gardiner on Soli Deo Gloria SDG 716, which is very a fine choral version with accompaniment restricted to the bass lines as with Capella Cracoviensis. Gardiner is every bit as lively in his approach, but the contrast is in the more generalised sound of well-disciplined choral sections when set against solo voices. Singet dem Herrn is as good a place as any to make comparisons, but it will be to your own taste if you prefer the passion of solo singer to the cooler colours of a choir. On hearing Capella Cracoviensis for the first time my associations were more with Italian madrigals than with German church motets. These performances are indeed quite warm-blooded, with plenty of vibrato in the singing, and no shortage of sibilant emphases. You can hear the ‘S’ of Singet being slightly elongated almost into a ‘zzz’ sound in the first half minute, and while this doesn’t turn into a plague of bees further along there are other moments where this can become a bit too much of a good thing. There is a nice contrast with the chorale Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet which follows the opening to BWV 225, showing that these singers are sensitive to the stylistic requirements of the music and not too switched-on the whole time.

Single voice to a part performances also come in a variety of guises, and Voces8 with The Senesino Players under Barnaby Smith on Signum SIGCD213 make pretty brisk work of their set, described as “fun” by Gavin Dixon. This recording balances the voices lower against the instruments than some, creating a different kind of generalization; exposing us less to the confrontational aspects of the human voice while maintaining chamber-music intimacy in a church setting. This is the reverse with Capella Cracoviensis, with which the text is clearly a highly important element. What I miss in the singing over the entirety of the disc is real dynamic contrast. Quiet moments don’t drop much below a mezzo-forte, and while there is a good sense of balance between leading voices and accompanying vocal lines and some lovely moments of genuine sensitivity there is also the feeling that everyone is projecting for concert performance and few if any allowances are being made for the closer proximity we have with microphones. This is by no means painful or unattractive and I don’t want to be unfair to what is clearly this ensemble’s natural and unforced level, but I found my attention wandering during several of these tracks.The ambush of some really magical sotto voce quiet would be welcome, and it is not as if these musicians are not capable of such things as the opening of Komm, Jesu, komm shows. The pressure eases up a little in the chorales as well, and I don’t want to ditch this recording because of the evident enthusiasm of these vocalists, but you have to become a ‘fan’ of Capella Cracoviensis’s sound, vibrato and all, as much as you might or might not be a fan of the Hilliard Ensemble’s distinctive sonic profile.

This is a fairly typical set of Bach’s Motets, though we don’t have O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht, BWV 118. The performance of the other orphaned motet Lobet den Herrn is indicated as a live recording but it doesn’t stand out as particularly different from the rest other than having the whole thing end with applause, which might easily have been avoided. Full texts are given in the booklet, in German, English and French, and there are useful notes on each of the motets in a stylishly presented gatefold package. There is no shortage of Bach’s Motets in the record catalogues, and for me the search goes on for that one recording which would be my ‘desert island’ choice. Capella Cracoviensis is a crack vocal ensemble with highly regarded recording credits to their name, including some magnificent Charpentier and Zilienski for the Polish DUX label. I like their Bach Motets very much indeed, but like all the others, I didn’t really fall in love with them.

Dominy Clements