Bach Family Motets Christophorus

Bach Motetten
Tölzer Knabenchor/Michael Hofstetter
Michael Schönfelder (violone), Axel Wolf (lute), Sören Leupold (theorbo), Thomas Leininger (harpsichord, organ), Robert Schröter (organ)
rec. 2022, Stadtpfarrkirche, Bad Tölz, Germany 
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download
Christophorus CHR77467 [55]

Since the Middle Ages, motets have been a fixed part of the liturgy of Christian churches. Such pieces are still written, and can be intended either for the Catholic liturgy or that of Protestant churches. When Luther initiated the Reformation, this had far-reaching effects on the liturgy. Part of Luther’s reform were the introduction of music in the vernacular and of chorales: often versified adaptations of traditional liturgical chants. In later times, poets wrote entirely new texts, and these were set to music by contemporaries or composers of later generations. However, this was not the end of the motet. The motets which were part of the Catholic liturgy continued to be sung by (school) choirs during services on Sundays and feast-days. One of the most important collections was Florilegii Musici Portensis, printed in Leipzig in 1621 and reprinted numerous times since. Johann Sebastian Bach purchased several copies as late as 1729, which shows that they were still in use, undoubtedly because of a lack of newer material.

The latter fact is remarkable and shows that composers of the 17th century were not interested in writing motets of their own. This was largely due to the influence of the Italian style. Part of the seconda pratica which emerged around 1600 was the monody: a sacred work for solo voice(s) and basso continuo, sometimes with a few melody instruments. This resulted in the composition of a large number of sacred concertos. Heinrich Schütz was one of those who composed many such pieces. However, he was also one of the very few who continued to compose motets, for instance in his Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648.

In the last quarter of the 17th century the influence of Italian opera made itself felt. Composers started to write cantatas with recitatives and arias, often closing with a chorale. Given this development it is remarkable that so many motets have come down to us which were written by members of the Bach dynasty. Several of them are represented with one or two motets on this disc. They have written many more. To give just one example: Johann Ludwig Bach’s Unsere Trübsal is only one of eleven motets of his pen that have been preserved. It is very likely that a substantial part of the motets that have been written by members of the Bach family have been lost. Their motets were not meant for performance during the regular services on Sundays and feast-days, but rather written for special occasions, such as funerals. Nearly all the motets of Johann Sebastian were written for funerals.

The disc opens with two motets by Johann Bach, the brother of Johann Sebastian’s grandfather Christoph. There are doubts about the authenticity of Sei nun wieder zufrieden; it may be a composition of Jonas de Fletin, a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were the sons of Heinrich, another brother of JS’s grandfather. Johann Ludwig was Johann Sebastian’s third cousin. Two things are notable in the motets of the Bachs: many of them are scored for eight voices in two choirs. On the present disc the only exceptions are Johann Ludwig’s Unsere Trübsal and Johann Sebastian’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, for six and four voices respectively. Johann Bach’s Unser Leben ist ein Schattenis a special case. It is scored for nine voices in two choirs, but with different scorings. Choir I is for six voices (SSATTB), choir II for three (ATB); the latter is marked chorus latens, which means that it is to be placed at a distance. The second thing is the important role of chorales. Often one choir sings a free poetic text, a kind of aria, whereas the second choir sings the chorale.

There is no lack of recordings, and these motets are also often performed by choirs and vocal ensembles of all sizes across the world. Therefore it is not necessary to say much about the individual pieces and rather focus on the way they are performed. That is all the more interesting, because the interpretation is different from what has become common practice these days.

As I mentioned, these pieces are performed by ensembles of different sizes. In recent years several recordings have been released with performances by ensembles of single voices. It is assumed that in most cases motets like these were performed with one voice per part. This recording is very different: the Tölzer Knabenchor consists here of more than fifty voices. This is quite remarkable as the founder and former director of the choir, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, focused on the training of voices that would be able to sing solo parts. In his latest years at the helm of the choir, he often performed music of the baroque era with an ensemble of soloists. Therefore I was quite surprised to see such a large list of singers in the booklet. Considering that the performance aims at bringing us closer to the way the motets were performed in the time they were written (more about that in a moment), I find this surprising and hard to defend. It seems very unlikely that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries such large vocal groups were used for the performance of motets as those included here. Musically it is rather unsatisfying. In many motets episodes are performed by solo voices. This creates a rather wide gap between the two. Music in the time of the Bachs was ensemble music, which guarantees a strong coherence between ‘solo’ and tutti. Here the soloists are sometimes close to be overpowered by the choir. It is probably a matter of recording technique and the way of singing that they are mostly audible.

A second notable feature of these performances is the choice of tempi, which are much slower than what we are used to hear these days. If I compare these performances with those of Vox Luminis (Ricercar, 2015), the differences in duration are quite remarkable. Johann Bach’s Unser Leben ist ein Schatten takes here 12:18, Vox Luminis needs just 7:35. In this case that is not only due to a difference in tempo. In this recording each motet is preceded by an instrumental introduction. “[The] well-documented custom of ‘preluding the music’ has inspired us to create tonally diverse preludes for each of the motets”, Thomas Leininger states in his liner-notes. Another cause is that several sections are repeated, which I can’t remember having heard in other recordings. The motet opens with a section for choir I, which is followed by a chorale in two stanzas, sung by choir II (Ich weiss wohl, dass unser Leben). Unlike any performance I have heard so far, before the second stanza choir I repeats the first section. The penultimate section consists again of a chorale in two stanzas (Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig). This is the first performance I have heard, where the second half of each stanza is repeated. However, in other motets the Tölzer Knabenchor also takes substantially more time than Vox Luminis (which is not particularly fast), for instance in Johann Michael Bach’s Halt was du hast: 8:58 vs 5:26. It is rather remarkable that Johann Sebastian’s Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden is performed at a tempo that is much more ‘conventional’ than the other motets. I had expected a slower tempo here.

Leininger argues that in the 17th and 18th centuries fast tempi were certainly not unknown. However, these were only used in instrumental music and in opera. For the church other rules were used. “The overriding concept concept for sacred music specified a measured tempo and there is a myriad of consistent sources advocating a ‘devotional’ musical practice in churches from the 16th century onwards. (…) Among many other figures around the beginning of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius clearly reiterated the devotional character of sacred music, considering it perfectly consistent to perform music in church with ‘gravity, mellowness and magnificence’. (…)In the 18th century, Telemann, Quantz, C.P.E. Bach and Kirnberger wrote on the subject of a devotional tempo, the ‘measured fire’ and the ‘heavy and severe’ manner of playing music in the church.” Over the years I have seldom encountered recordings which gave the idea that the performers had given this subject any real attention. The tempi in this recording are very unusual; I can’t remember having heard motets by members of the Bach family in tempi as applied here. Interestingly, Manfred Cordes, director of the ensemble Weser-Renaissance Bremen, being asked about his performances of music by Michael Praetorius, stated that the tempi at the time were so slow that “you don’t want to hear them now”.

Having read the liner-notes, I was curious to hear how it would sound in practice. I could not imagine that the performances would drag on. I have known and followed the Tölzer Knabenchor for many years and consider it one of the best all-male choirs for the performance of 17th- and 18th-century music. I was not disappointed. I found it much easier to accept the relatively slow tempi than I had expected. That is largely due to the way of singing, where one notices that the singers receive individual training as soloists. Their articulation is really outstanding, which is one of the reasons that the text is always intelligible, despite the size of the choir. The performances are very rhetorical: time and again words and phrases are emphasized, by dynamic means, but also by varying the tempo. It is important to add that the tempi are not uniform from start to finish: sometimes the speed is increased when the text asks for it. Johann Michael Bach’s motet Nun hab ich überwunden is a telling example of the way the text is treated: the words “Kreutz, Leiden, Angst und Noth” (affliction, suffering anxiety and distress) which need to be repeated several times, are performed forte in various degrees of intensity, which hardly can miss to have an effect on the listener. The solo episodes are given admirable executions by singers from all voice groups. Another interesting aspect is the addition of small ornaments and cadences in the solo passages.

As one may have gathered by now, this is a really interesting recording, and certainly not just one of many. Michael Hofstetter and the Tölzer Knabenchor have managed to add something meaningful to the catalogue. The interpretational approach is interesting and thought-provoking. The actual performances are the best-possible case for this approach. These performances are unusual, but very expressive. I can’t imagine that they leave anyone untouched. And to touch the listener is exactly what these motets were written for.

Johan van Veen

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Johann Bach (1604-1673)
Unser Leben ist ein Schatten
Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele
Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694)
Halt, was du hast
Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)
Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener
Johann Michael Bach
Nun hab ich überwunden
Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731)
Unsere Trübsal
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230)