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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Motets, BWV225-230
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV226 [7:24]
Komm, Jesu, komm! BWV229 [9:17]
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227 [20:34]
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV228 [8:23]
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV230 [6:13]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225 [13:34]
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Richard Marlow
rec. Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, 7-10 January 1988. DDD
ALTO ALC1271 [65:36]

I had two reasons for requesting this CD: it’s an example of the first-rate material that was lost when Conifer folded, though I’m pleased to see that much of that lost material is being restored to us from a variety of sources. I missed this recording when it was first released on CDCF158 and wanted to see if Richard Marlow and his choir could revise my opinion of these Motets – my one serious blind spot in Bach’s sacred music. I love his cantatas and often turn to them to de-stress but I’ve never managed to do more than admire the motets, though I’ve listened to several highly regarded recordings.

Reviewing the Warner/Teldec USB set of the whole of Bach’s extant works – here – didn’t help because the Harnoncourt recordings included there are the very same that I own on CD and they didn’t persuade me any more on USB than on disc. I listened to the award-winning set recorded by Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium of Japan for comparison then and found myself warming to the music a little more (BIS-SACD-1841). As well as the six motets included here, Suzuki offers BWV118b, O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht, usually classed as a cantata because of its obbligato instrumental part, and BWV Anh 159, Ich lasse dich nicht, which some scholars now ascribe to JSB rather than to Johann Christoph Bach.

That makes the BIS recording better value in terms of length but, as neither of these extra works is included here, the obvious comparison on this occasion is with another super-budget-price recording, from The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, recently reissued on Hyperion Helios CDH55417: from hyperion-records.co.uk on CD and as mp3 or lossless download with pdf booklet.

Marlow keeps the music moving at a goodly pace, which I think is to its advantage. Christophers mostly takes the motets a little more slowly. Neither allows the pace to slacken to the extent that the music seems not to be going anywhere, which is the problem with some of those other recordings which have failed to gel.

A good track for comparison would be the opening section of Lobet den Herrn, available as a free sample download from hyperion-records.co.uk. In both sections of this motet Marlow is a shade faster and, heard one after the other, I have to award him the palm for keeping the music together. He also shows slightly great commitment to the music – at least he comes closer to getting me involved.

Some performances interpret these motets as a cappella in the strictest sense, with no instrumental backing. The Marlow recording credits Graham Jackson and Richard Pearce on chamber organ and Christophers uses a slightly larger team: Jane Coe (cello), Amanda MacNamara (violone), Robin Jeffrey (theorbo) and Paul Nicholson (chamber organ). Both use the instrumentation very discreetly, Marlow simply underpinning the vocal parts, which seems to have been a common practice with a cappella music in the eighteenth century. Christophers comes a little closer to employing his instruments as a conventional continuo.

If you find even this modest instrumental involvement too much, there’s always the somewhat ascetic Harnoncourt recording. This is currently available only on the USB recording of all Bach’s music, which you will already have if you took my advice and snapped up this wonderful bargain: 2564661127 – review. If you didn’t, some dealers still have it, though it’s a little more expensive now at prices varying from around 135 to 165 or around $320. It can be ordered from Amazon UK and Amazon US. Don’t be discouraged by the grumpy ‘reviewer’ on the Amazon website who complains that all the keyboard music is played on the harpsichord – that’s the instrument that Bach had in mind.

Philippe Herreweghe’s earlier recording for Harmonia Mundi, employing simple instrumental doubling of the vocal parts, has been reissued at super-budget price on Musique d’Abord (HMA1951231) but his more recent recording for his own PHI label employs varied instrumentation (LPH002 – review). Much as I like most of Herreweghe’s recordings, I give Marlow and his team a slight edge over both of his recordings of these motets.

The reissue is licensed from Sony so, presumably, is taken from the Conifer master tape. The recording is very clear but with a sense of the ambience of the Trinity College chapel. If anything it’s slightly fuller than the Hyperion, but there isn’t a great deal in it: both still sound very fine.

Alto include the texts and the original notes from Richard Marlow in the booklet even if they are printed in a rather small font. This puts to shame those labels who think that inexpensive CDs merit brief and poorly detailed booklets. Hyperion, as always, includes the original booklet from the full-price release with texts and translations in a more legible font and excellent notes from Peter Holman. I haven’t seen the material that comes with the Herreweghe but budget-price Harmonia Mundi releases rarely come with anything more than rudimentary documentation.

The same performers also recorded for Conifer motets by other members of the Bach family – several generations of them. I enjoyed their recording of JSB’s motets so much that I’d very much welcome the reissue of that, too. Two other recordings from them have been reissued at the same time as ALC1271: Purcell Anthems for the Chapel Royal (ALC1268) and Victoria Holy Week Lamentations and Responsories (ALC1269), both well received when first released. I asked for the reissue of the latter more than four years ago – it’s especially valuable for placing the Lamentations in liturgical context. Sometimes you do get what you ask for.

Brian Wilson