Bach Motets

St John’s Smith Square, 6 May 2000

Bach motets – singers on great form!

The Vasari Singers’ latest concert at St John’s, Smith Square in London was a splendidly ambitious programme of the sort that we have come to expect from this expert team. Performing all six Bach motets in a single evening is a daunting task, but was handled with aplomb by Jeremy Backhouse and the choir, abetted by Jeremy Filsell in the only motet that has a continuo line, Lobet den Herrn. There is a considerable danger that the motets, heard like this all at once and especially when most of them are unaccompanied, can be dull or wearing to listen to, as well as exhausting to perform, but there was no sign of flagging either in the choir’s concentration, stamina and musicianship, nor in the audience’s attention. Jeremy Backhouse directed with sensitivity and his interpretations were colourful yet stylish. His pacing of the longer pieces had a convincing logic; his tempi were lively but allowed the singers space to articulate cleanly and make every word audible. Dynamic variations were clearly thought-out and never sounded imposed-rather they seemed to arise naturally from the structure of the music.

Lobet den Herrn started the concert. The opening arpeggio figure was bold and alive, the successive entries clearly delineated. The quality of the bass sound was particularly notable here-energetic but clear and well-focused, without any wooliness.

The longest motet, Jesu meine Freude, which is in eleven sections, was paced well from the opening chorale to the repetition of it with different words at the end. Much of the piece is in five parts and the divided sopranos managed to balance the rest of the choir convincingly. Some sections of this motet are often sung by soloists but the Vasaris sang this ‘full’ throughout with telling effect (in particular in the extraordinarily beautiful ‘Gute Nacht’, no. 8). This approach allowed the music’s changing textures to make their mark without assistance and with singing as expressive and well-controlled as we heard from the sopranos, altos and especially the tenors here, it was a good decision. If, occasionally, the sense of the words was secondary to a musical consideration (for example, the phrase ‘Elend, Not, Kreuz, Smach und Tod soll mich … nicht von Jesu scheiden’ in the lively ‘Weg mit allen’ section was broken in accord with the musical cadence after ‘Tod’ rather than with the meaning after ‘mich’), the musical logic was compelling.

Ending the first half, Der Geist hilft was sung in a gentle fashion befitting a work that was conceived as a funerary piece (for the death of J H Ernesti, the Rektor of the Thomasschule, in 1729).

Fürchte dich nicht is probably the most instrumental of the motets, with its often taxing melodic contours. It demands expert enunciation and received it, even if the tricky ü vowel in the very first word was not always convincingly Germanic in sound from all the members of the choir. The cascading entries through all eight parts (‘ich erhalte dich’) just before the appearance of the chorale were brilliant in their effect-one of those moments where Bach the master orchestrator is bold enough to leave the texture without bass, even if in this case only for a few beats.

The start of Komm, Jesu, komm often sounds awkward in performance, even on disc: there are long rests in the antiphonal first three bars and it is easy for the pulse to become wayward. This did not happen here. The pace remained fairly brisk (Bach’s own indication of lento for the opening section was taken with a pinch of salt) which ensured that the opening did not drag and that the long six-eight section which ends the motet (‘du bist der rechte Weg’) flowed. Long notes here and elsewhere were allowed to flourish rather than sit still-whilst this may be contrary to the approach of many singers in this repertoire these days, the effect was tasteful and made sure that the music never seemed static.

Singet dem Herrn rounded off proceedings in splendid style. It was a bold choice to end with, after nearly two hours’ unaccompanied singing: the running semiquavers of this motet are notoriously tricky to bring off even when the singers are fresh but the Vasaris were more than equal to the challenge. The ‘Alleluia’ section romped thrillingly to the close, with a blazing top B flat from the tutti sopranos just before the final cadence.

Jeremy Filsell gave the singers a moment of respite in each half by playing two old war-horses by Bach-even if one of them actually is not by him. The D minor Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 is now thought not to be by the master, but it remains nonetheless a marvellous concert piece. Filsell played it and the G major Prelude and Fugue BWV 541 with great imagination and humour.

Copyright © David Bray, May 2000

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