CD Review: Bach’s Motets by Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent

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Bach’s motets are vocal works for small choir and continuo group; very subtle, small-scale works with very big musical power and energy. This is the second time that Philippe Herreweghe has recorded Bach’s motets; he first recorded them in 1985 for Harmonia Mundi. This new recording is the second release on Herreweghe’s own label, Phi (or φ). The works range from a single movement (BWV 228), to a 19-minute, 11-movement work (BWV 227).

Bach’s motets are perhaps the composer’s most subtle works. One hears the same type of small choral compositions in many movements of his cantatas, but the touch in the motets is much lighter and the effects are more impressionistic.

Herreweghe uses small forces, with a group of 12 singers in Choir I, and 12 singers in Choir II, for the motets for double choir, an additional 12 musicians that are present at different times, as well as a continuo group featuring a cello, double bass and organ. Herreweghe rejects the idea of performing these works with one singer per part, saying, “we are still of the opinion that several approaches are possible and even necessary if this wonderful music is to sound at its best.” In this recording, he varies the use of singers, rather than dogmatically imposing the same template on each motet. Here’s how his forces work on this recording:

  • BWV 225 Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied: Choir I, tutti and soli; Choir II; wind instrument group; basso continuo
  • BWV 226 Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf: Choir I, soli; Choir II; soli; wind instrument group; basso continuo
  • BWV 227 Jesu, meine Freude: Soli; basso continuo
  • BWV 228 Fürchte dich nicht: Soli; Violin I-II, alto, cello; brass instrument group; basso continuo
  • BWV 229 Komm, Jesu, komm!: Choir I, tutti; Choir II, tutti; basso continuo
  • BWV 230 Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden: Choir I, tutti; Choir II, tutti; basso continuo

From the stark minimalism of BWV 227 to the lusher works with two choirs, there is a vast difference, but the sound world remains the same, that of Bach’s choral music based on liturgical themes. Herreweghe claims that his “one line of conduct” is “to sing and play the text in the manner of an ‘inspired preacher,’ […] who would transmit the text to his parishioners in order to persuade them by moving them.”

In some ways this results in a minimalistic approach; where others may pile on the instruments to create a bigger sound, Herreweghe is content to use instruments for highlights and little else. The result is a carefully crafted sound world where the voices take centre stage, but are not left stranded on their own.

If you’re not familiar with the motets, these questions of numbers of musicians may seem obscure. It’s true that in the world of baroque music, such questions are hotly argued, with some fundamentalists coming down on the side of one voice per part, and others saying that a large choir is needed. Herreweghe’s flexible approach has the advantage of giving each of the motets a slightly different colour, something not found in OVVP recordings or in recordings with larger choral groups.

These performances are imbued with delicacy and grace, where every note is in the right place. Herreweghe’s recording approaches perfection, both in performance and sound, and that this recording is destined to stand as the benchmark for recordings of these works in the future. Quite simply, if you want a recording of Bach’s motets, this is the one to get.