The trend toward historically authentic performance has until now somewhat bypassed Bach's motets, whose uncanny spiritual intensity makes up for the swirling lines that bedevil community choirs. This disc by England's Trinity Baroque under Julian Podger aims to fill the void, and it's likely to be different from any other Bach motet recording you've heard. The recording stands out in three ways. First, and least controversially, Podger breaks up the sequence of five motets (the six were apparently never conceived of as a unity) with organ works and chorales, introducing sober but clearer-textured interludes into the program. He doesn't try to reproduce any specific liturgical use of the motets (and indeed it's not yet clear how one would go about that); the decision is purely musical. Second, the group favors the one-voice-per-part approach popularized by American musicologist Joshua Rifkin and making strides across Europe; there is no choir. The approach remains controversial, with many believing that the essence of the Lutheran chorale is that it was congregational, and that Bach built his sacred music from that socio-religious basis (one musician who rejects the idea reportedly asked Rifkin, "So, are you conducting the B minor madrigal tonight?"). Whatever your opinion may be, you will likely find that Podger makes an unusually good case for the one-voice-per-part approach. The motets do not involve chorales, for one thing, and they can (especially "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" and "Fürchte dich nicht") get awfully muddy in versions by all but the best choirs. True, a lot of Bach's music is difficult, and that doesn't suggest that it should necessarily be rescored. But the ringing chords that punctuate Podger's vocal textures will sound fresh and new to most listeners. There are actually eight singers, with "ripienists" or extra voices coming in for sections where Bach implied solo-chorus contrasts. Finally, there is the matter of instrumental accompaniment. The motets are often sung unaccompanied, but a set of wind parts exists for one of them, and much evidence suggests that Bach would have considered accompaniment optional. Another recent recording in this vein, by British conductor Andrew Parrott, uses wind parts, but the use here of a small organ from Bach's time -- one that still has Bach's original labels, no less -- seems equally defensible. The recording, in Naumburg's St. Wenceslaus church, is superbly clear. Many listeners may still prefer choral recordings of the motets, in which the textural thorniness of the music seems to have something to do with another set of thorns, but those wanting to try state-of-the-art approaches can select this one with confidence.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, motet for double chorus, winds, strings & continuo, BWV 226 (BC C2)
O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, chorale prelude for organ (Orgel-Büchlein No. 24), BWV 622 (BC K51)
Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (I), chorale prelude for organ (Orgel-Büchlein No. 3), BWV 601 (BC K30)
Fuga sopra il Magnificat: Meine Seele erhebet den Herren, fugue for organ (by J. L. Krebs, not JSB), BWV 733 (BC K120)