Bach Motets/John Eliot Gardiner

Komm, Jesu, Komm!, BWV229
Fürchte dich nicht, BWV228
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225

Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 28 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This late-night Prom drew a surprisingly large audience to the Royal Albert Hall. Surprising because of the start time (10.15) and because of the slightly obscure nature of the music.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaJ. S. Bach’s motets are not well known, despite being produced during the composer’s highly productive years at the ducal court of Weimar (1708-17) and as Cantor at St Thomas’s in Leipzig (1723-50). The reason for their drift into obscurity lies with the rise of the cantata as a vehicle for sung religious texts. The motets, however, offer a glimpse into ‘old style’ devotional music, for which Bach retained great fondness.

Three of the four works performed were written for eight-voice double choir, with the first piece, “Komm, Jesu, Komm!”, written for two four-part choirs. With 38 singers involved, it was almost impossible to hear the continuo accompanists on cello, double bass, bassoon and chamber organ. But it is the singing that matters. The Monteverdi Choir was crisp and clear, with excellent German diction. Even the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics failed to undermine the clarity of the singers’ delivery. Under John Eliot Gardiner’s controlled direction, the choir exploited the rhythmic vitality and textural contrasts of Bach’s writing to the full. “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”, was especially well performed, music that Mozart heard in Leipzig in 1789, prompting him to declare, “Now, there is something one can learn from!”.

Yet despite the particular qualities of the motets, and the excellence of the performance, one cannot escape the impression that Bach was better suited to the cantata, with its greater opportunities for vocal expressiveness and instrumental variety. For listeners today, as was probably the case in Bach’s era, the motets just seem too indistinct from one another and a little past their time.

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