Glorious Bach From Graden and Proprius

Review by: John Greene


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

If you prefer your Bach choral works performed on a grand scale as opposed to a more intimate (not necessarily more “authentic”) one with typically one or few voices to a part, you’d do well to consider this recent recording of Bach’s magnificent motets by the Stockholm-based St. Jacobs Chamber Choir, accompanied by the instrumental ensemble REbaroque and directed by Gary Graden. A comparison of this with my similarly grand, longstanding reference recording by René Jacobs with members of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the RIAS Chamber Choir (Harmonia Mundi), shows similarities in size–each choir numbers nearly 40 members–and approach–both instrumental ensembles use period instruments; but that’s about it.

Jacobs’ tempos are often noticeably slower (for example, his performance of the opening BWV 225 clocks in at 17:38 to Graden’s 12:38), though more importantly, Proprius’ superior sound engineering gives Graden’s choir and instrumental ensemble a considerable advantage. It’s an interesting perspective. Not only is each instrument clearly defined, but the way they’re integrated with the choir allows listeners to hear both balance and detail better than they would in most live performances.

Included here are performances of the rediscovered/reattributed motets BWV 118b and Anh. 159. As good as Graden and his forces are, Georg Biller’s 1997 renditions with the boys and young men of the Thomanerchor Leipzig (Philips) remain the ones to beat. There’s an incomparable alacrity, an uncanny sense of committed urgency that supercedes the effort by the otherwise gorgeous St. Jacobs Choir. The Thomanerchor was Bach’s choir after all, and I can’t recall any of its recorded performances of Bach or his contemporaries where the Cantors or pupils ever allow you to forget it.

It’s unlikely that Bach ever heard his motets performed on such a massive scale (especially the designated funeral ones–which according to the Leipzig school regulations at the time were to be performed in front of the house of the deceased precisely 15 minutes before the commencement of the memorial service); but given how interpretively versatile, polyphonically rich, and profoundly inspired they are, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have approved. As full, mixed-choral versions go, this is one of the best. Recommended.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Biller (Philips); Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi); Suzuki (BIS); Schneidt (DG Archiv)

    St. Jacobs Kammerkor, REbaroque, Gary Graden

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