Notes and Editorial Reviews
BACH Motets, BWV 225–230; BWV Anh. 159 • Frieder Bernius, cond; Stuttgart C Ch; Christof Roos (org); Hartwig Groth (vne) • CARUS 83298 (SACD: 66:29 Text and Translation)
When Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the first of his handful of motets, such church music had been a Bach family industry for over 100 years. Of course, by Bach’s time this oldest of polyphonic forms had given way to the cantata as the central musical focus of the Lutheran worship service. So while Thomaskantor Bach maintained a backbreaking compositional schedule producing cantatas for Sunday services, the motets sung at St. Thomas’s Church were likely taken from the Florilegium portense, two volumes of early 17th-century compositions which Bach is known to have procured for his Leipzig choirs. Bach’s own few motets, written on various commissions for funeral, memorial, or other special occasions, are outliers in what was by then an antique form. No matter; here as in all things, Bach was glorious. Such was his success in these shorter works—shorter being relative in the case of the 20-minute quasi-cantata Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 227—that even when the passions and cantatas fell into disuse after his death, the motets remained continuously in the repertoire of the St. Thomas Choir. It was thus appropriate that the first commercial recording of the six “canonical” motets, BWV 225–230, was made between 1951 and 1955 for Deutsche Grammophon by the Leipzig ensemble led by Thomaskantor Günther Ramin. Though the war-ravaged choir is technically challenged by Bach’s considerable demands, even at tempos quite leisurely by today’s standards, these performances still are an important document of the remnants of a 200-year performance tradition.
Frieder Bernius and the Stuttgart Chamber Chorus have recently completed a superb survey of the often Bach-inspired Mendelssohn choral works for the Carus label. This new release suggests that, with their ease in the language, unstrained precision, lightness of touch, depth of feeling, and warmth of tone, they are natural curators of this Bach tradition, as well. Bernius uses, as do most conductors of these works, a mixed chorus, and employs tempos more consistent with current research into baroque performance practice than Ramin’s, but in all essentials these are performances in the German style.
This is actually Bernius’s second recording of the motets. The first—which excluded Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230 on grounds of doubtful origin—was made for Sony in 1989. This new release restores not only that motet, but Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich den, BWV Anh. 159, originally thought to be by his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, but now believed to be an early work by Johann Sebastian. Otherwise, the readings, per se, vary only in some details. Bernius, for instance, uses a second verse in his earlier traversal of the Chorale/Aria of Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied, BWV 225, as per Bach’s performance note, but not in the latter. The primary difference between the two is in accompaniment. In the earlier release Bernius uses the Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra to double all choral lines, assigning the strings to choir one and double reeds and organ to choir two, as in the surviving orchestral parts for Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226. In the newer release he limits the accompaniment to a discrete use of organ and violone, throwing the focus on his fine chorus. In doing so, he creates a more word-centered performance—beautifully shaped and varied according to the demands of the text—and a more homogenous and luminous sound. The effect is less colorful but subtler. Which is more authentic? Both have some justification.
There are several dozens of recordings of the motets available, approximately half of which I’ve heard. Many of the most highly touted recent recordings impress me more for their technical virtuosity than for communication of spiritual devotion. So it is to the recordings of choirs heir to the tradition that I consistently return. These are most often, but not exclusively, German chamber choirs. Favorites are those led by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi), Frieder Bernius (I) (Sony), Konrad Junghänel (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), Nicholas Harnoncourt (Teldec), and Peter Dijkstra (Channel). That is really too many recommendations, but I enjoy them all for their many and varied felicities. Now I add this new recording to the list; there is, after all, no such thing as too much Bach. Established collectors with an appreciation for the time-honored German manner will welcome this new, beautifully recorded Bernius release. Those new to these magnificently uplifting works would be hard put to find a better introduction.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames