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Pygmalion’s Superb Bach Motets

Jens F. Laurson

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Bach’s motets are difficult as the dickens but among the most beautiful, uplifting, and refined works of a composer’s output that is positively stacked with beautiful, uplifting, and refined works. If you’ve ever sung them yourself, you know how demanding they are; everyone else can get a glimpse thereof by tracing a cross-section of recordings over the years.

When Bach’s own, the Leipzig Thomaner Chorus, recorded these in 1953, one of the best boys’ choirs just about managed them at what would today be considered a crawl. The beauty of Bach shines through, but it ain’t actually pretty. On the other hand, all the skill in the world doesn’t help if the inner, divine pulse is missing, as the BR Chorus’ recent recording has shown.

Now Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion, one of the brightest period choirs and bands of the last few years, have thrown their hat into the ring. Naturally, expectations run high–and they are met. Pichon leads his chorus abetted by a generous-sounding, six-piece continuo band that provides extraordinarily pleasing support. There exist excellent recordings with no or far more minimal instrumental backing (Dijkstra, for example), but this approach (also Kuijken’s on Accent) is my favorite way to listen to them.

The quick tempos in Lobet den Herrn suggest that we’re in for breezy treats more concerned with new records than musical expression. But neither is six-plus minutes objectively fast (even the rather aged Eric Ericson recording can keep up with that), nor do subsequent impressions support this. Pygmalion does, however, articulate carefully (as do Suzuki’s Bach Collegium), which can make the motets sound subjectively faster. The performances are full of neat phrasing and excellent singing. In BWV 225, Singet dem Herrn, the vocal attack has such a pliable crispness to it, it sounds like a theorbo’s strings being plucked. The voices are well balanced and the individual sections of the motets are neatly delineated, with distinct yet organic tempo differentiation.

Fürchte dich nicht BWV 228 is a motet that does show the trend to ever faster tempos and quickly exposes the faultlines between sluggish, supple and dance-like, and rushed. By today’s standards, Rilling and Gardiner I (Virgin/Erato) sound lugubrious, because they can’t make their tempos sound alive. René Jacobs, slow on paper, is light enough to pull it off. Herreweghe I (Harmonia Mundi), Matthias Jung (Tacet), and Kuijken I (Accent) get it just right with speeds right between the extremes. So does Pichon, despite being on the fast side with 7:35–and he attains a natural, gently swaying quality that lets this motet shine. Bernius (Carus), Suzuki (BIS), and Bo Holten (Glossa) sound rushed. Gardiner II (SDG) achieves buoyancy by (deliciously?) exaggerated means.

A note on completeness: Pichon includes the currently canonical six Bach motets, including BWV 230, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, which can’t be proven to be Bach but sure sounds like him. Pichon does not include the (no longer apocryphal) BWV Anh. 159 Ich lasse dich nicht (which Suzuki, Creed, Gardiner II, Bernius, Katschner, et al. include) or Anh. 160, the pasticcio motet Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt, which is two-thirds genuine Bach and darts in and out of the official canon.

As a set of the “standard six”, Pichon is a great choice for modern ears and he scores additional points for including little aural juxtapositions in the form of short, beautifully austere pieces by Renaissance composers Gabrieli, Bertolusi, and Gallus. The set competes most directly with Suzuki and Creed for your favor; if you want the motets just a little more relaxed (I do), you should consider Kuijken I.

If you want to supplement the core six motets with the beautiful Anh. 159 and 160, you find them on Wolfgang Hebich’s CPO recording of apocryphal Bach motets, Rilling’s contribution to the Hänssler Bach Edition, and the Thomaner Chorus’ 1997 recording under Biller, replete with motets of Bach’s Thomaskantor successors. Gardiner I and Lewis J. Reilly (on Pro Organo) include at least BWV 231 aka BWV 28/2a, which is the central second “definitively-by-Bach” movement of Anh. 160.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Sizeable continuo: Kuijken I (Accent); Jung (Tacet); Creed (Harmonia Mundi); Suzuki (BIS), Minimal continuo: Dijkstra (Channel Classics); Koopman (Philips)

    Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

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