Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
La Chapelle Harmonique/Valentin Tournet
rec. 2021, Chapelle Royale, Versailles, France
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Outhere
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS067 [78]

The motet has been one of the main genres in sacred music in the course of music history. The first were written in the Middle Ages, and this form is still used by composers, although since the late 18th century it is often not connected to the liturgy. The motets by Johannes Brahms, for instance, were written for performances outside the church. During the Renaissance large numbers of motets were written for the Roman Catholic liturgy. Although the German Reformation had quite some effects in liturgical matters, motets were still a fixed part of Lutheran worship. In the early 17th century several collections of motets, mostly in Latin and from the pen of Catholic composers, were published and remained in use until far into the 18th century. The fact that they were mostly written by Catholic composers was not considered a problem, as long as their texts were not in contradiction to Lutheran doctrine.

The fact that these motets were still sung in Bach’s time indicates that there were hardly any composers who were willing to write motets to replace them. This has everything to do with the influence of the Italian style. This resulted in the composition of sacred concertos, in which the monodic principle manifested itself and which were less suited for performances by school choirs, which played a central role in the liturgy. Later it was the cantata, modelled after the Italian secular cantata with its recitatives and arias, and also influenced by opera, which prevented the emergence of a new motet repertoire.

However, motets were written in the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th century, for instance by members of the Bach dynasty. Several of them have left a substantial corpus of motets, in particular Johann Christoph, Johann Ludwig and Johann Michael. These were not intended for regular services but rather for special occasions, in particular funerals. That also goes for the motets by Johann Sebastian and his colleague Telemann. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that composers started to write motets for liturgical use, as replacement of the motets which were increasingly considered to be too old-fashioned.

Bach’s motets are among the most frequently performed and recorded vocal works of the baroque period. Most of them are for two choirs, just as many motets by other members of the Bach dynasty. German composers of the 17th century enthusiastically embraced the cori spezzati technique which had emerged in Venice in the first half of the 16th century and had been brought to prosperity by Giovanni Gabrieli, the teacher of Heinrich Schütz, who was one of those who frequently made use of this technique, for instance in his Psalmen Davids. The motet collections of the early 17th century, among them the Florilegium Portense (1618), also included a number of motets for two choirs.

There are several issues regarding Bach’s motets which performers have to tackle. The first is the question which motets are authentic. The authenticity of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is sometimes doubted. Some performers (among them Sigiswald Kuijken; Channel Classics, 2005) decide to omit it, but Valentin Tournet did include it. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, does not refer to any doubts about its authenticity. Tournet did not include Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, which is part of some recordings (for instance the one by the Bach Collegium Japan; BIS, 2009). This motet was once attributed to Johann Sebastian, then to Johann Christoph Bach. Recently Bach scholars tend to consider it an authentic composition by Johann Sebastian after all. Another piece which is included in some recordings and is omitted in others is O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118). It was once thought to be part of a lost cantata, which explains the BWV number. However, Bach himself entitled it Motetto, which is a good reason to include it, as is the case here.

This piece comes with instrumental parts, and that brings us to the second issue: the role of instruments. Only for one of the ‘common’ six motets, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, instrumental parts are extant: strings for choir I and winds for choir II. From this some interpreters have drawn the conclusion that this must have been common practice in Bach’s time, and opted for instruments playing colla parte in other motets as well. That is the case here; in his personal notes to this performance Tournet also refers to Bach’s own practice in his performance of music by others. Both in Sebastian Knüpfer’s motet Erforsche mich, Gott and Johann Christoph Bach’s Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf, which are included here, Bach added parts for strings and winds. O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht has been preserved in two versions. The early version may date from 1736/37 and requires a cornett and three sackbuts, which is a clear link to the past, when these instruments were often used in this combination in sacred music, playing colla voce. Furthermore are two instruments required which Bach called lituo, which is thought to refer to a high-pitched horn. In this recording we have the second version, probably from 1746/47, in which the cornett and sackbuts are replaced by strings and basso continuo, with three oboes and bassoon ad libitum. The litui are kept, but for reasons that are not given, these are entirely omitted in this recording. As far as the basso continuo is concerned, whereas in quite some recordings a plucked instrument is part of the basso continuo, the participation of a lute or theorbo is omitted here, which seems historically correct.

The third issue concerns Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. At the end of the second section Bach asks for a repeat: “The second verse is as the first, except that the choirs change around; the first choir sings the chorale, and the second the aria”. But there are differences of opinion on what Bach means with “second verse”. The American musicologist Robin A. Leaver suggests to interpret “second verse” as the one following the third, meaning the fourth. Whatever Bach may have meant, it is clear that the second section should be repeated. Only a few performers follow Bach’s instruction, and unfortunately Tournet is not one of them (the issue is not even mentioned in the liner-notes).

Lastly, one aspect which makes a difference between the various recordings on the market is the size of the vocal forces. In the old days performances with large choirs were the rule. Since the early days of historical performance practice, most recordings are by vocal ensembles of mostly 16 to 20 singers, and in recent years several recordings have been released in which each part is sung by just one voice. With its 19 voices (6/4/4/5) La Chapelle Harmonique takes the middle ground between the two ‘extremes’. It is notable that even some conductors who perform the motets with a chamber choir, opt for a one-to-a-part performance of Jesu, meine Freude. Tournet uses his full forces here as well.

As one may have gathered, there are quite some factors in which the many recordings differ. In some cases it is impossible to say who is right. As far as the authenticity of some pieces is concerned, this may well be a subject of on-going debate, and the issue may never be solved. The same goes for the use of instruments. Bach added instrumental parts to some motets of his own pen and some by other composers. Does this mean that he also used them in motets without instrumental parts or rather that he did not use them there? We may never know for sure. The size of the vocal ensemble is also an issue that may never be entirely solved. There are good arguments for a performance with one voice per part, but also for a larger ensemble.

In the end it may be a matter of taste what kind of performance one prefers. Over the years I have heard quite a number of recordings, some of which I did like, even though I may have preferred different solutions to the problems mentioned above, and some of which I did not like, even though I generally agreed with the decisions taken by the interpreters. Personally I tend to prefer performances with smaller forces than we have here. However, I very much appreciate the way the motets are performed by La Chapelle Harmonique.

This is a French ensemble, but has also some non-French singers in its ranks. Some of the five members who also take care of the solo episodes, are German. Anyway, I find the singing very idiomatic, for instance with regard to phrasing and articulation, which shows a thorough understanding of the German language and the style of German music. I like the dynamic shading and the emphasis given to key words in the text. Overall the tempi are good; I may have preferred a slightly quieter tempo in Lobet den Herrn. The addition of instruments sets this performance apart from most recordings in the catalogue. The balance between voices and instruments is satisfying. One probably needs to get used to the reverberant acoustic. Fortunately it does not damage the intelligibility of the text, or the significant pauses in the opening section of Komm, Jesu, komm. The only really disappointing aspect is the omission of the repeat of the second section of Singet dem Herrn.

On balance, I am quite happy with this recording and impressed by the stylistic approach of Valentin Tournet and his ensemble. This is definitely a recording which earns a place among the best in the catalogue.

Johan van Veen

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225)
Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229)
Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227)
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228)
Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)
Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf
Johann Sebastian Bach
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226)
O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118)
Sebastian Knüpfer (1633-1676)
Erforsche mich Gott
Johann Sebastian Bach
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230)