BACH Motets. Collegium Vocale/La Chapelle Royale/Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) The Motets

BWVs 225-230 Collegium Vocale Orchestra and Choir of La Chapelle Royale conducted by Philippe Herreweghe performing on period instruments

HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901231 [66:46] full-price

Includes vocal texts in German with English and French translations.

Extensive notes are provided.

by Ng Yeuk Fan

This version, an example of how scholarship can help in the performances of Early Music, utilises choral strengths sparingly but the results speak admirably for themselves. The choral sound is full without sounding excessive. The intrinsic problems of engineering sound for a large choir is cleverly avoided by resorting to a smaller, but more “correct” assortment of singers, as Bach would have had available to him in his days. In addition, the sacrifice made here, of size for clarity is certainly suited to the modern reprise of authentic sound. Further, the complex score benefits enormously from the resulting transparency.

Herreweghe’s understanding of choral music is as usual, impeccable. The Collegium Vocale artists are exceptional and lines are clear, well punctuated and technique secure beyond doubt. Intonation problems are few, minor and unobtrusive despite the demanding nature of the music. One wishes that execution could be clearer in Frchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228 – where vocal insecurity of individual vocal parts becomes evident.

The choir sound has a slight edge which mars an otherwise indulgent experience. Individual voices seem to stick out where the texture thins down to alternating lines. It is my opinion that no choir has yet been able to achieve a “perfect” rendition of these motets purely because of the enormous requirements on choral competence, vocal virtuosity and stamina.

In Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230, Herreweghe comes close to this ideal with a very energetic and dazzling display of choral greatness. Vocal shading and line phrasing are sustained with perfection.

Throughout Herreweghe’s reading, musical imagination abound with good vocal colouring of important lines. Though some parts may appear too straight forward and one may hope for a more emotional reading, I am left wondering if a better performance of the complete motets are at all possible.

Soloists are employed only for Jesu meine Freude, BWV 227 and they cooperate seamlessly in that number. Harmonic parts are well-balanced in volume, while phrasing and vocal shading of individual voice parts could not be bettered. Again, Herreweghe has chosen his soloists with due attention to tone quality and their voices blend well. Sopranos sound almost like trebles. One feels also that the chosen tempos must be exactly right.

The only drawback of the set is that sopranos are used in place of trebles. Though the use of trebles are associated with problems of their own, one is left wondering who better to deal with them than Herreweghe himself. La Chappelle Royale of Paris doubles with the Collegium Vocale in double choir works. The Orchestra de la Chappelle Royale provides decent support throughout. Herreweghe directs these motets with authority.

NG YEUK FAN believes that listening to Bach will get you closer to God.

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