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International Record Review - (12/2012)
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Soli Deo Gratia

Code-barres / Barcode: 0843183071623 (ID226)

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Appréciation d'ensemble/ Evaluation : Highly recommended. 
Reviewer:  Michael Jameson

Devotees of J. S. Bach’s sublime choral motets will probably welcome this fine new issue unreservedly, for it would be difficult to envisage this music being performed with greater conviction, gravitas and scholarly insight than is the case here. John Eliot Gardiner bas lived with the motets throughout most of his life; ‘I count myself lucky’, he writes in his eloquently compelling booklet note, ‘that by the time I was eleven or twelve, I knew the treble parts of all of them more or less by heart, and they have been my constant companions ever since.’

With his Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner originally recorded the Motets, BWV22S-30, for Erato in 1980. That he has now elected to revisit these peerless masterworks for the in-house label serving the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists suggests perhaps that some fundamental re-thinking might have taken place in the interim. To a degree, that is certainly the case, at least insomuch as evolving Bach scholarship has continued to cast perspectives upon these and other works, and some elements of recent discoveries inform these impressive new accounts. It should be pointed out that for this remake, Gardiner has purposely omitted BWV 118, explaining that ‘for this recording we have confined ourselves to those of Bach’s motet like works without independent instruments’.

The interloper amongst the six more familiar motets is the eight-voice setting Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWVAnh.159. A word or two of explanation is probably called for. Though its provenance has been doubted by some Bach scholars, this work was authenticated as Bach’s own when Christoph Wolff relocated the famous Altbachisches Archiv in Kiev in 1999. Still, as Gardiner adds, the likelihood is that this was indeed J. S. Bach’s work all along, and as such, it would be the earliest of his motets (1712-13), and its presence here could hardly seem more apposite in the general scheme of things.

Elsewhere, this programme is just what you’d expect. These works have been surveyed not infrequently on CD over the years, though seldom if ever have they been sung as ravishingly and intelligently as they are here on this live recording, made at St John’s, Smith Square in October 2011. Were packaging and presentation ever in contention for their own sakes, this newcomer would certainly win hands down: in every regard, this is an extremely classy offering, as visually enticing as the performances themselves are musically and spiritually uplifting.

The principal rival for this new disc comes in the shape of Philippe Herreweghe‘s recent traversal of the motets (also his second) with various soloists, Collegium Vocale Gent and associated instrumentalists. In Singet dem Herrn eim neues Lied, BWV225 strings and woodwind double the vocal lines, and trombones and cornetti are heard supporting Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV228, and it would seem that Herreweghe has deployed instrumental forces more purposefully than has Gardiner, using them to match the tonal colour and textual nuances of the motets concerned. Gardiner, however, takes the vocal settings as being paramount, and adds occasional continuo as appropriate, comprising cello, double bass, bassoon and organ alone, with no brass included.

Both conductors have at their command exemplary vocal teams, and while there is probably little to choose between these recordings in terms of their faultless delivery of the music, Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir does have the clear advantage of an ideal acoustic space in which to bring these motets fully to life with arresting clarity and vocal precision. Highly recommended. 
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