Johann Sebastian Bach: The Motets

Media Review / Comparison

2012-12-28 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-08-07 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-08 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-10 — Brushed up for better readability


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): The Motets — The Recordings:

Frieder Bernius, Kammerchor Stuttgart

Bach: The Motets, Bernius, Kammerchor Stuttgart, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230, BWV Anh.159

Frieder Bernius, Kammerchor Stuttgart
Vocalists: 8+6+7+6 (a capella); Basso continuo (BWV 226, 230 only): violone, organ

Carus 83.298 (CD/SACD stereo/multichannel); ℗ / © 2012

Bach: The Motets, Bernius, Kammerchor Stuttgart, EAN-13 barcode
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Harry Christophers, The Sixteen

Bach: The Motets, Christophers, The Sixteen, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Vocalists: 4+4+4+4; Basso continuo: cello, violone, theorbo, organ

hyperion CDA 66369 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1990

Bach: The Motets, Christophers, The Sixteen, UPC-A barcode
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John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists

Bach: The Motets, Gardiner 1982, Monteverdi Choir, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-231, Cantatas BWV 50, 118

John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
7 Vl., 3 Vla., 2 celli, double bass, 2 Ob., Ob. da caccia, 2 bassoons, organ

Erato 2292-45979-2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1982

Bach: The Motets, Gardiner 1982, Monteverdi Choir, UPC-A barcode
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John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir (live, 2011)

Bach: The Motets, Gardiner 2012, Monteverdi Choir, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230, BWV Anh.159

John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir (live recording, 2011)
Vocalists: 12+6+6+6; Basso continuo: cello, double bass, bassoon, organ

Monteverdi Productions Ltd. SDG716 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2012

Bach: The Motets, Gardiner 2012, Monteverdi Choir, UPC-A barcode
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Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus musicus Wien, Stockholm Bach Choir

Bach: The Motets, Harnoncourt, Stockholm Bach Choir, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus musicus Wien, Stockholm Bach Choir
2 Ob., 2 Ob.d’amore, Ob.da caccia, bassoon, 5 Vl., 2 Vla., Vc., violone, organ

Teldec classics / iTunes download (stereo, 256 Kbps); ℗ 1980 / 1997
(no booklet)

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Philippe Herreweghe, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent

Bach: The Motets, Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230

Philippe Herreweghe, La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent,
Orchestre de la Chapelle Royale
Vocalists: 2+1+1+1 (BWV 227) — 3+3+3+3 / 4+2+3+3 (BWV 225, 226, 228, 229) — 4+4+4+4 (BWV 230); 2 Vl., 2 Vla., cello, Ob., Ob. d’amore, 2 Ob. da caccia, Basso continuo: bassoon, cello, double bass, organ
Harmonia mundi France 901231 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1986

Bach: The Motets, Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, EAN-13 barcode
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Konrad Junghänel, Cantus Cölln

Bach: The Motets, Junghänel, Cantus Cölln, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230

Konrad Junghänel, Cantus Cölln
Vocalists: 2+2+2+2; Ob., taille, bassoon, 2 Vl., Vla., cello, violone, organ

Deutsche harmonia mundi 05472 77368 2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1997

Bach: The Motets, Junghänel, Cantus Cölln, UPC-A barcode
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Wolfgang Katschner, Amarcord, Lautten Compagney

Bach: The Motets, Katschner, Amarcord, CD cover

Bach: Motets BWV 225-230, BWV Anh.159

Wolfgang Katschner, Amarcord, Lautten Compagney
Vocalists: 2+1+2+2+1+2; 2 Vl., viola, cello, double bass, 2 Ob., Ob.d’amore, Ob. da caccia, bassoon, theorbo, chamber organ

Sony Music 88725 465292 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2012

Bach: The Motets, Katschner, Amarcord, UPC-A barcode
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Comments, by Motet

Motet “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn”, BWV Anh.159

This short motet is only present on the three most recent recordings. Here are my (brief) findings:

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012)

The artists perform with perfect intonation, voice balance and articulation — however, it all feels static, artful, but equally “artificial” (rather than coming from the heart); there is little variation / evolution over this piece, the ornaments are all performed uniformly, with a strange accent on appoggiaturas, and a certain tendency towards bulge notes.
Duration: 4’19”, Rating: 3.0

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011)

Compared to Bernius, this is definitely livelier, with excellent diction, intonation and articulation. And I prefer the way appoggiaturas are performed here!
Duration: 4’21”, Rating: 4.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012)

Among these 3 recordings, this is the only one using a very small “choir” — and they take the freedom to use (period) instruments in lieu of voices in some sections (one of the choirs in the middle section, the accompaniment to the chorale in the third section), then they repeat that section with the roles reversed. I think this is totally legitimate and reflects common practice at Bach’s time — plus, that motet is so short (a fragment, perhaps?) that the extension is a very welcome addition to the composition!

Using a very small choir adds a great deal of directness and personality in the expression; with this, plus the extra color added by the instrumental parts, the excellent articulation, transparency and intonation, the natural voices (very little, if any vibrato), this is clearly an interpretation that is hard to beat — my clear favorite!
Duration: 6’13”, Rating: 5.0

Motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”, BWV 225

This motet features three “movements”:

  1. “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (double choir)
  2. “Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet” (choir II) /
    “Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an” (Aria, choir I)
  3. “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (double choir) /
    “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn, halleluia!” (choirs in unison)

Comments, sorted by rating:

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

[1]: static, rhythmically stiff, vowels too bright;
[2]: celebrated, too much vibrato;
[3]: too detached, rhythmically too systematic / inflexible, a lost like military music
Duration: 19’43” (5’30” / 10’10” / 4’02”), Rating: 2.0 (2 / 2 / 2)

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

[1] / [2]: I get the impression of an interpretation that is mostly based on the musical interpretation, mostly neglecting the text content (a “purely instrumental” interpretation);
[3]: seems rather static, with sometimes questionable diction.
Duration: 13’53” (4’57” / 4’59” / 3’57”), Rating3.0 (3 / 3 / 3)

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

[1]: The Bach Choir Stockholm is vastly more homogeneous than the Monteverdi Choir in the recording from the same year! The articulation is light, as is the accompaniment, which is also very discreet; the baroque oboes help the clarity of the articulation and support the female voices, making their sound more equilibrated. The diction could be clearer — but this could also be a limitation of the recording technique.
[2]: a smaller choir — and too much vibrato, unfortunately!
[3]: somewhat rigid, rhythmically, with some tendency to exaggerate.
Duration: 12’51” (4’56” / 4’09” / 3’54”), Rating: 3.3 (4 / 3 / 3)

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

[1]: Like Harnoncourt, this recording features a rich instrumental accompaniment with winds and strings, better tempo than Gardiner (1980), nice sound overall, good diction / pronunciation.
[2]: The aria is somewhat schematic in the accents / articulation.
Duration: 13’04” (4’53” / 4’25” / 3’45”), Rating: 3.3 (4 / 3 / 3)

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

[1]: Perfect choir balance, though very linear, yet feels constantly pushing forward, accelerating — why? The articulation is often soft, superficial, some details appear “artificial”, especially the closing phrase. Some tendency towards bulge notes.
[2]: The smaller partial choirs expose some single voices (and their vibrato).
[3]: Feels a bit too much “ex cathedra”, otherwise see [1].
Duration: 12’13” (4’31” / 4’14” / 3’30”), Rating: 3.3 (3 / 4 / 3)

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

Professional singers (too professional, maybe?), with the usual vibrato, unfortunately, especially in the soprano; elastic / flexible, with drive; good text interpretation & diction. Excellent vocal ornaments, despite the fairly fast tempo (as expected, given the professional level of the ensemble).
Duration: 12’12” (4’29” / 4’15” / 3’28”), Rating: 4.0 (4 / 4 / 4)

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

[1]: Very good — light, lively, accented / rhythmic, and fairly fast!
[2]: Somewhat ex cathedra (not very natural to me).
[3]: Slightly exaggerated.
Duration: 16’37” (4’22” / 9’07” / 3’09”), Rating: 4.0 (5 / 3 / 4)

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

[1] / [2]: Partly instrumental, which makes the music more transparent; solo voices — very virtuoso, and with very little (if any) vibrato.
[3]: Very fast and virtuoso again, almost instrumental in all voices.
Duration: 12’08” (4’14” / 4’57” / 3’00”), Rating: 5.0 (5 / 5 / 5)

Motet “Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf”, BWV 226

This motet for double choir features three sections:

  1. “Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf”
  2. “Der aber die Herzen forschet” (alla breve)
  3. “Du heilige Brunst, süßer Trost”

Comments, sorted by rating:

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

[1] / [2]: good tempo, but not very transparent (big choir)
[3]: too massive, static, linking some verses does not serve the purpose!
Duration: 8’04” (3’49” / 2’33” / 1’42”), Rating2.7 (3 / 3 / 2)

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

[1]: moderate transparency
[3]: sounds rather massive
Duration: 7’54” (4’05” / 2’09” / 1’41”), Rating3.0 (3 / 3 / 3)

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

[1]: too much “absolute music”, not interpreting the text
[2]: I can’t see the agogics & the phrasing as being text-based / interpreting, illustrating the text
[3]: good phrasing
Duration: 7’22” (3’39” / 2’09” / 1’36”), Rating3.3 (3 / 3 / 4)

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

[1]: differentiated, vivid, transparent (as possible with a big choir, and within the limitations of the recording technique)
[2]: good for a big choir!
Duration: 7’41” (3’39” / 2’22” / 1’39”), Rating3.3 (4 / 3 / 3)

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

[1]: Even though this is with soloists, the transparency is moderate, as the instruments are rather massive; the voices — especially female — use lots of vibrato, unfortunately.
Duration: 7’38” (3’39” / 2’17” / 1’42”), Rating3.3 (3 / 3 / 4)

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

[1]: more transparent, lighter than Gardiner (1980)
[3]: here, the phrases are too separated, fails to “tell the story”
Duration: 8’20” (4’05” / 2’28” / 1’47”), Rating3.7 (4 / 4 / 3)

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

[1] / [2]: transparent, subtle, differentiated, excellent phrasing — very good!
Duration: 7’20” (3’16” / 2’22” / 1’41”), Rating4.7 (5 / 5 / 4)

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

[1]: rich in sound; the tempo is at the upper limit
[2]: good tempo
Duration: 7’54” (2’59” / 2’18” / 2’38”), Rating5.0 (5 / 5 / 5)

Motet “Jesu meine Freude”, BWV 227

I hated this 5-part motet when I was singing it some 35 years ago! Well, this was in a big, non-professional choir (around 100 members), and even though the conductor had at that time already started taking up / adopting ideas from the HIP scene, there are limits to what is possible with such a choir — today, such a choir is probably to be regarded “incompatible” with Bach’s motets, especially when considering the most recent recordings.

But it’s a demanding piece of music, even for smaller ensembles — also because this motet is very much text-based, i.e., conveying (& illustrating) the text content is an essential part of the interpretation; of course, text can be translated and hence “understood” also in other languages — but that does not automatically lead to proper German phraseology. Even for native German-speaking singers, the pietistic language in many of Bach’s compositions (notably cantatas and motets) may sound strange!

The Structure of BWV 227

The motet features the following movements / sections:

  1. “Jesu, meine Freude” (4-part chorale)
  2. “Es ist nun nichts” (biblical text, 5-part)
  3. “Unter deinem Schirmen” (5-part chorale)
  4. “Denn das Gesetz” (biblical text, 3-part)
  5. “Trotz dem alten Drachen” (5-part chorale adaptation)
  6. “Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich” (biblical text, 5-part double fugue)
  7. “Weg mit allen Schätzen” (4-part chorale)
  8. “So aber Christus in uns ist” (biblical text, 3-part)
  9. “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” (4-part chorale adaptation)
  10. “So nun der Geist” (biblical text, 5-part)
  11. “Jesu, meine Freude” (4-part chorale)

And here are my comments / findings:

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

This recording is dominated by its “large choir sound”, with the voices — especially female ones — exhibiting very strong, “operatic” vibrato (even more so the vocal soloists). The performance is often broad, relatively slow, sometimes celebrated — when viewed from the perspective of newer recordings; to do justice to this recording, though, it should be viewed from the point-of-view of the more traditional performances in the 60’s and 70’s, typically employing rather large vocal bodies.

There is a tendency towards charged end notes. Gardiner tried breaking out from “schematic” chorale singing by (occasionally) combining verses, where appropriate — however, the result does not sound very natural (thinking of spoken language) — and, after all, the singers must breathe from time to time! The instrumental accompaniment is rather discreet, essentially just reinforcing the bass foundation in the pieces sung by the full choir.
Duration: 22’17”, Rating2.0

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

Herreweghe must have realized the difficulties that this composition presents with big choirs — he has this motet sung by 1 – 2 singers per voice, but with substantial instrumental support by a rich basso continuo (organ, viol one, bassoon). This has the advantage that ornaments such as trills and acciaccaturas are performed “professionally” / instrumentally — but unfortunately this also exposes the strong vibrato in some of the voices (especially the sopranos).

Chorales are sung rather statically, with detached verses (short-phrased), sometimes rather celebrated. Overall, the performance offers more expression, is more direct than Gardiner’s recording from 1980. There are some bulge notes, but in general, the vocal articulation is light and clear.
Duration: 21’30”, Rating3.0

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

Chorales are rather, often very slow, heavy, don’t appear to be interpreted from the language. Some of the pronunciation is clearly non-German (“sooondern”). Even though these are just 16 singers, one often has the impression of a “big choir”, with heavy articulation and limited interpretation of the text content. [6], the “center piece” (“Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich”), is very much celebrated, slow, uniform, “just music” (but perfect as such!), but does not convey the ideas in the text content. Some pieces are sung by soloists — with a fair amount of vibrato, unfortunately.
Duration: 21’49”, Rating: 3.3 (3 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3)

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

Big choir, unfortunately with lots of vibrato in the female voices. The sound of the recording is pretty dull and suffers from distortions (oversteering). Very good text interpretation (especially [2], [4], [5], [6]); [7] is a bit heavy.
Duration: 20’10”, Rating3.5 (3 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3)

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

The chorales are static, celebrated, slow; professional, homogeneous choir sound, but with limited expression — not lively, not  vivid, not very emotional. [8] is done with soloists — celebrated, too artful / artificial, exaggerated in articulation; [9] is good, but exaggerated, feels like “ex cathedra”.
Duration: 19’33”, Rating3.7 (3 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 3)

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

The chorales are much better than in the recording from 1980 — unfortunately still with some “language defects”: details such as the “ach” almost sounding like “asch” (singers not daring to pronounce the “ch” deep in the throat) raise the suspicion that the text content is not understood, leave behind some discomfort. The tempi otherwise are natural, the interpretation expressive.

[2] is dramatic, though initially a bit too staccato. [3] and [5] are almost too dramatic, and in the latter there are again some language issues (“Macht” and “verstummen” sounding like “Mascht” and “vährstummen”) — though, overall, the German pronunciation isn’t really bad for an English choir.

In [6], the choir nicely elaborates the contrast between “fleischlich” (in the sense of “earthly”) and “geistlich” (in the sense of “heavenly”) — and Gardiner clearly takes this as the true center / pivotal piece of the motet. [7] is a bit too staccato, and in [8] (sung by soloists) there is too much vibrato, and some questionable vowels again. [10] is exaggerated, the rhythm / articulation almost “military”.
Duration: 20’04”, Rating3.9 (4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 4)

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

Dramatic, vivid, transparent, excellent articulation & language — overall, an interpretation that respects the text rather than just the notes, and the language in the chorale verses sounds natural, good! On the other hand, one could argue that the vocalists are maybe “too professional”, “artful-artificial”, should be more natural in the articulation, less “opera-like” (especially the sopranos are at the limit of sounding forced and use a fair amount of vibrato), could maybe sometimes also use more p.
Duration: 18’28”, Rating4.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

Just briefly, avoiding duplication from the comments to BWV Anh.159 above: As one would expect for a recording with very few voices, especially with female voices that sing with the clarity of a boy soprano, this performance is very direct, with clear phrasing and diction; it is fast, virtuosic, has drive — simply excellent!
Duration: 17’04”, Rating4.9 (5555555 / 4 / 555)

Motet “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir”, BWV 228

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

Too much vibrato, lacks transparency, somewhat heavy, massive
Duration: 9’27”, Rating2.0

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

At times a bit heavy / broad (compared to other interpretations)
Duration: 8’31”, Rating3.0

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

Sounds massive, lacks differentiation, not enough text / language-based; the last part is rather uniform
Duration: 8’32”, Rating3.0

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

Too much legato in the accompaniment
Duration: 8’16”, Rating3.0

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

Transparent, light, good articulation, expressive, text / language based!
Duration: 8’09”, Rating4.0

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

Transparent, light in the articulation; the tempo in the middle part is somewhat soft / flexible; vibrato at the limit.
Duration: 8’16”, Rating4.0

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

Somewhat exaggerated in the staccato — this distracts from the text content.
Duration: 8’40”, Rating4.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

Expressive, colorful, fast, virtuoso — excellent!
Duration: 7’13”, Rating5.0

Motet “Komm, Jesu, komm”, BWV 229

This motet for double choir features two major sections:

  1. “Komm, Jesu, komm”
  2. “Drum schließ ich mich in deine Hände”

Comments, sorted by rating:

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

[1]: rather slow, vibrato (intonation?!)
[2]: the (some) ornaments are too schematic
Duration: 9’47” (8’04” / 1’33”), Rating2.0

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

[1]: Sometimes a bit academic, dry
Duration: 7’54” (6’41” / 1’12”), Rating3.0

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

[1]: rather slow, linear, uniform, not enough text interpretation
[2]: should be more chant-like, “speaking” / text-based (“nice music with some text”!)
Duration: 9’15” (7’39” / 1’36”), Rating3.0

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

[1]: “ex cathedra”, with bulge notes, celebrated. lots of legato
[2]: Too repetitive, schematic, not enough text-based
Duration: 7’59” (6’41” / 1’18”), Rating3.0

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

Expressive, good text interpretation, strong tempo contrasts in first part — very nice!
Duration: 8’52” (7’16” / 1’35”), Rating4.0

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

[1]: The pronunciation is sometimes a bit forced (“Khomm”), very careful in articulation — too careful, maybe?
[2]: “Big choir sound”
Duration: 8’59” (7’30” / 1’29”), Rating4.0

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

[1]: Talking, expressive, pictorial — excellent
[2]: Good, natural phrasing
Duration: 8’09” (6’41” / 1’28”), Rating5.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

[1]: Dramatic, pictorial, talking — excellent!
[2]: Once more switching between vocal and instrumental settings: very nice idea / concept!
Duration: 8’15” (5’51” / 2’24”), Rating5.0

Motet “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden”, BWV 230

This motet for 4-part choir features two major sections:

  1. “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden”
  2. “Alleluja”

Musicologists are pretty sure this composition is not by Johann Sebastian Bach, but probably by a minor composer of the same period (there is no manuscript, the composition only turned up in the early 19th century). Comments, sorted by rating:

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

Vowels too broad / bright, rhythmically schematic, rigid
Duration: 6’47” (5’14” / 1’32”), Rating2.0

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

Flat, but with bulge notes; what’s worse: at around 0’50 in the first part, there is an irritating, major rhythmic divergence (the rhythm “falls apart”) — very strange that this was not corrected, and even if this is not a composition by Bach, it does not speak for the artists if they treat a severe error so carelessly.
Duration: 6’38” (5’05” / 1’32”), Rating2.0

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

Duration: 5’44” (4’33” / 1’11”), Rating3.0

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

Duration: 6’42” (5’11” / 1’31”), Rating3.0

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

Vocal and overall sound very nice, harmonic
Duration: 6’27” (4’48” / 1’29”), Rating4.0

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

Virtuoso, vivid, fast (solo voices), a little too much vibrato.
Duration: 6’14” (4’54” / 1’20”), Rating4.0

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

Homogeneous in choir sound, very good!
Duration: 6’18” (5’01” / 1’17”), Rating4.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

Playful, joyful, vivid, virtuoso — excellent!
Duration: 6’31” (5’03” / 1’28”), Rating5.0

 Overall Ratings, Conclusions, Recommendation

Summary Table

Bach, The Motets, comparison, rating table
Bach, Motets — Ratings Table

Summary Comments

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists (1980) —

This recording appears to fall off against the others in this comparison — but this merely shows how much of change we have seen once 1980 in the way baroque music is performed. One should rather compare this recording with the preceding “big” ones from the 60’s and 70’s, where it certainly would fare well — but in view of the newer recordings now available, it is clear why Gardiner wanted to re-record the Bach motets after 31 years!
Overall Rating: 2.1

Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus / Stockholm Bach Choir (1980) —

The recording technique is rather limited, somewhat dull, the text barely understandable; Harnoncourt’s interpretation is at its best in the fast, virtuoso choral parts, and overall, I definitely prefer it over Gardiner’s recording from the same year. A better recording technique would make it compete even better against Herreweghe’s recording.
Overall Rating3.4

Herreweghe / La Chapelle Royale / Collegium Vocale (1985) —

In the rich, colorful accompaniment, this recording is comparable to Harnoncourt’s though the choir is smaller, and the recording quality substantially better. BWV 227 (“Jesu, meine Freude”) is performed with soloists (hence closer to the newer recordings), while the other motets are performed with a bigger choir, hence closer to older recordings such as Harnoncourt’s — definitely a good interpretation!
Overall Rating3.5

Christophers / The Sixteen (1989) —

Compared to Junghänel or Katschner, this recording still features “choir sound” more than solo voices — the voices are very well tuned and mix very well, such that individual voices rarely stand out to a degree that would irritate: the choir is excellent and homogeneous. The difficulty with Bach’s motets, however, is that for these motets (more than for other choral works by Bach, maybe), it is not enough to play and articulate the melodies with expression and good phrasing, and accurately, and it is even not sufficient to understand the language and the meaning of the words: at least for German natives, it is crucial also to use the natural / native flow of the language / language melody — and this puts non-German (speaking) ensembles at an inherent disadvantage.

30 – 40 years ago, when Bach’s choral works were usually still performed by big choirs with around 100 members, performances by Harry Christophers and his choir “The Sixteen” were fairly revolutionary — though conductors such as Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott went even further by performing Bach’s large choral works with a single singer per voice — an idea that has since rapidly gained popularity, as seen in the recordings below. In the range of recordings discussed here, Christophers now occupies a middle position: compared to the above recordings, the choir sounds relatively (moderately) slim — with the double-choir motets, there are no more than two singers per voice, the sound is still very homogeneous, though.

In addition, in this comparison, ensembles using one singer per voice have the advantage that soloists can “speak to the listener” more directly. Still, a good recording, overall!
Overall Rating3.1

Junghänel / Cantus Cölln (1995) —

An excellent recording using soloists, expressive, direct, virtuosic, good diction, good interpretation of the text / language. The only criticism I have is some excess of vibrato, especially with the female voices.
Overall Rating4.1

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (2011) —

If you dislike performances of “choral” works by soloists, then this is definitely the recording to go for: lively, expressive, never boring, light articulation, good text interpretation, mostly good diction (especially considering that this is is an English choir!), good tempi, with discreet instrumental support — essentially flawless (and it’s a live recording!): excellent, overall!
Overall Rating4.1  

Bernius / Kammerchor Stuttgart (2012) —

I only knew about Bernius from an early recording (Brahms choral works, from around 1980, if I remember correctly), and that was — frankly — pretty awful, such that I only listened to it once.

More recently, I heard a commenter on the radio (who had once been a member of the Kammerchor Stuttgart) rave about this conductor and his choir, pointing out its extremely high vocal standards and perfect choral balance and sound quality. I can essentially confirm this — but still, overall, I dislike this recording: yes, the sound, the voice balance is near-perfect, the sound smooth, the diction flawless — yet, I’m not really touched by this recording. To me, it all is too polished, “soigné” (and using too much legato), lacking expression, emotion, interpretation of the text content: not really competitive with the recent recordings by Gardiner, Junghänel, or Katschner. Plus, not correcting that flaw in BWV 230 (see above) is unforgivable!
Overall Rating3.0

Katschner / Amarcord / Lautten Compagney (2012) —

Clearly my favorite recording — I’m so glad I added this to my collection! They use solo voices, women for soprano / mezzo, with the clarity of boy’s voices, without vibrato, counter tenors for the alto voices. It’s all very lively (the rather fast tempi may take some time to get used to!), expressive, virtuoso, with a rich instrumental accompaniment, using a chamber organ and a lute as foundation (compared to all other interpretations, the lute adds an interesting new color / flavor!). Also, they take the freedom insert instrumental sections (repeats or alterations), especially with chorales. As expected with such a setup, the language / text interpretation is excellent.
Overall Rating5.0

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1 thought on “Bach: The Motets”

  1. Not sure how I missed this, Rolf, but happy to find it now, as I couldn’t agree more with your choice that is, unfortunately, an undervalued gem by a very talented musician (Katschner).
    As we seem to share the love to the small choir / OVPP style, I’d like to recommend you venture to explore another such performance by The Sarum Consort & Andrew Mackay, as well as Andrew Parrott’s melancholic masterpiece “Heart’s Solace”, where he offered an exquisite rendings of BWV 227 & 229, in addition to the main item on the program, Cantata 198 Trauer-Ode.


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