If this recording, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Howard Arman in charge, had come out half a century ago, it would have shot to the top of the list of Bach’s motet recordings. As a performance of a then normal-sized choir at unheard-of tempos with never-bettered accuracy, it would have turned heads. But as a contemporary release—and coming from one of the world’s best professional choirs at that—it’s an unmitigated disaster. Yes, if you listen in a certain way, focusing on this or that detail, you may come away with the impression that everything is somehow proper and clean and clear. And yet, if you sit back a little, taking in the full picture, you realize that what seemed so well-controlled actually manages to be constantly on the precipice of peril.
As a result, the lines of Bach’s masterpieces sound as though they are—or might any second become—a jumble. The opening movements of the various motets are particularly bad. Where the tempos are not rushed, the rhythms are haphazard, giving this great music an air of lamentable pointlessness. (“Rushed”, by the way, as judged by the ability of these singers to keep it clean, in contrast to some other performances in which the singers more capably manage these or even faster tempos.) Bach’s divine beat, that “dance into eternity”, is entirely absent. The accompaniment by the minimalist continuo of positif organ with a hint of violin furthers the impression that the vocal ensemble is bathed in a harsh, cold light.
Yes, there are positive exceptions, such as most of the chorales of Jesu, meine Freude, which are taken at a tempo the choir can handle while still achieving a semblance of clarity. But these moments don’t last long, being immediately overtaken either by rushed passages or sheer tediousness. Or by simply unpleasant choral work: In the admittedly treacherous lines of BWV 226, you’ll encounter hissing like from a pit of freshly disturbed snakes (“WaS deS GeiSteS Sinn Sei”). I wouldn’t suggest that listening to the boys of the Thomaner Chorus in their 1953 recording is actually more pleasant (much less better), but at least they had an excuse.
If you want a similarly minimalist read with a reasonably-sized choir, turn instead to Arman’s predecessor at the BR Chorus, Peter Dijkstra, who recorded the motets with his subsequent choir, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, for Channel Classics (see reviews). For an added bummer (and further disqualifier), Arman also does not bother with BWV 230, “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden”—which Dijkstra and most others rightfully include—much less the no longer apocryphal BWV Anh. 159 “Ich lasse dich nicht”, found on the even more “complete” sets by Suzuki (BIS), Rilling (Hänssler), Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria), and Creed (Harmonia Mundi).