Johann Sebastian Bach: Motetten

The Hilliard Ensemble

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Bach’s choral oeuvre has marked an obvious gap in the huge repertoire of the Hilliard Ensemble which ranges from Perotinus Magnus to contemporary composition. Now the four singers – enhanced by four additional voices to form a soloist double choir – present their a-cappella-readings of Johann Sebastian Bach’s wonderful motets, fascinating us once again with their seamless blend of sound and unique intonation.

Featured Artists Recorded

November 2003, Propstei St. Gerold

Original Release Date

30.03.2007

  • Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 1Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied05:11
  • 2Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet / Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an05:02
  • 3Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten / Alles, was Odem hat03:49
  • Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf BWV 226
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 4Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf04:28
  • 5Der aber die Herzen forschet03:05
  • 6Du heilige Brunst, süßer Trost01:40
  • Jesu, meine Freude BWV 227
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 7Jesu, meine Freude01:07
  • 8Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches03:07
  • 9Unter deinem Schirmen01:13
  • 10Denn das Gesetz des Geistes01:03
  • 11Trotz dem alten Drachen02:25
  • 12Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich03:08
  • 13Weg mit allen Schätzen01:17
  • 14So aber Christus in euch ist02:05
  • 15Gute Nacht, o Wesen03:35
  • 16So nun der Geist01:41
  • 17Weicht, ihr Trauergeister01:13
  • Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir BWV 228
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 18Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir01:51
  • 19Ich stärke dich, ich helfe dir auch03:06
  • 20Denn ich habe dich erlöset / Herr, mein Hirt, Brunn aller Freuden04:55
  • Komm, Jesu, komm BWV 229
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 21Komm, Jesu, komm, mein Leib ist müde01:49
  • 22Der saure Weg ist mir zu schwer01:39
  • 23Du bist der rechte Weg04:23
  • 24Drum schließ ich mich in deine Hände01:27
  • Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden BWV 230
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 25Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden02:52
  • 26Denn seine Gnade02:34
  • 27Alleluja01:29
  • Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn BWV Anh. 159
    (Johann Sebastian Bach, Traditional)
  • 28Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn02:29
  • 29Ich lasse dich nicht / Weil du mein Gott und Vater bist02:10
Working with an incredibly rich harmonic palette, the incisive articulation and collegial homogeneity which the ensemble achieves is remarkable. As one listens to the first section of “Singet dem Herrn” … the combination of terpsichorean grace with contrapuntal fluidity takes the breath away. Even by The Hilliard Ensemble’s elevated standards this is singing of quite extraordinary power. …
Captured in the glorious acoustic of the Propstei St Gerold … the kaleidoscopic luminosity of these sui generis works brings the listener irrevocably closer to Bach’s genius.
Peter Quinn, International Record Review
 
The case for one-to-a-part Bach is well established nowadays. It works particularly well for the rich textures of the eight-part motets, and the expanded Hilliard Ensemble sings them superbly. Rhythms spring lightly, lines are transparent and structures are well work-out. … And, as one may expect from the Hilliard Ensemble, the intonation here is exemplary throughout.
George Pratt, BBC Music Magazine
 
With just one singer assigned to each part, the Hilliard Ensemble take a minimalist approach to these extraordinary works. … Every member of this remarkable group knows exactly how they fit into the musical scheme – it is likely, too, that the performances of Bach’s own time were on this scale. So this disc is a natural successor to the Hilliard’s previous excursions into pre-baroque music, supremely musical and overflowing with food for thought.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
 
Bach’s motets are among the most thrilling choral music in existence, and this recording … is a magnificent achievement by the Hilliards. … Komm, Jesu, komm with its soprano-soaring third section, and the symmetrically conceived Jesu, meine Freude are utterly compelling.
Paul Driver, Sunday Times
 
Si la clarté est une vertu, alors ces gens sont des saints.
J.Dr., Nouvel Observateur
 
Schöner hat lange keine Neuaufnahme der famosen sechs Lichtwerke geklungen. Bisweilen scheint es, als hätten die Hilliards eine einzige weiche, endlos beatmete und unglaublich flüssig geführte Stimme in die Vielstimmigkeit multipliziert. … Da singt ein Chor, der weiß, was er singt, und der seine Gottesanrufung mit höchster Zartheit vorbringt.
Wolfram Goertz, Die Zeit
 
Ein magisch-kristallines Leuchten setzen die Hilliards Bachs doppelchörigen Motetten auf. Am liebsten möchte man mit einstimmen: „Der Geist hilft unserer Schwachheit auf“!
Christine Lemke-Matwey, Der Tagesspiegel
 
Die neue Hilliard-Aufnahme ist ein starkes Plädoyer für solistische Besetzungen. Die Vorteile in der Virtuosität und Durchsichtigkeit der kontrapunktischen Linien sind riesig. Besonders schön gelingen die langsamen, Choral-artigen Sätze, in denen Bachs kunstvolle harmonische Wendungen von der Intonationssicherheit der Profi-a-cappella-Sänger profitieren.
Reinmar Wagner, Musik & Theater
 
 
 

An interview with Gordon Jones on the ensemble’s Bach record

Your repertoire ranges from Perotin, who was active around 1200, to the composers of the present day. Baroque music however seems to play a minor role. What is the historic position of Bach’s motets in that wide array?

For us they are very unusual, sitting there in the 18th century. We don’t have much music from the time between Monteverdi and the late twentieth century, mostly because of the vocal ranges involved and also because very often you need accompanying instruments, so that’s not an area we get into very much. But these are pieces we’ve all been singing since we were young, we are all very fond of them and they suit us well.

Does your experience with older music affect your view on Bach’s motets which obviously are very late contributions to the genre?

We always try to respect the style of the music we sing and what we most talk about is how we want to phrase things. Phrasing Bach is very different from phrasing a Machaut motet, because the phrases have a different length and the words are set differently. That’s why we tend to give special attention to the words and their rhythm. Surprisingly if you see how much we perform in Germany we sing very little German music, actually just a few pieces, some Leonhard Lechner (born 1553), but hardly any Schütz or Buxtehude, simply because their music doesn’t suit our voices.

Which role have Bach’s motets played in your career so far?

We recorded them in the mid eighties before my time as a regular member of the group. Back then we were collaborating with the boys of the Hannover Knabenchor, and while we were quite enjoying ourselves, the boys depended on being told what to do by the director, and we’ve always wanted to sing and to record this music as we do it with our other repertoire. During some years we’ve been performing “Jesu meine Freude” just occasionally in mixed programmes that’s why we felt we should revisit the Bach and see what we could make of it with a maximum of eight singers and no director.

What exactly was it that you wanted to do differently?

If you really all make your own decisions, listening to one another as you go along, it’s a completely different approach, you can’t really expect young boys to do that.

Have you ever thought about including instruments for the motets as it was done at least with some of them in Bach’s times?

We all dislike to be doubled by instruments; it is a very unpleasant effect as you’re no longer in control of the shape of the line and of the dynamics especially in the bass. It is always governed by compromise between you and the other person. There may be a historic reason for doing it but we wouldn’t enjoy it. Independent of how good the players are the problem remains that vocal articulation is so different from instrumental articulation. We have words to sing and the musical line is broken up by consonants, vowels have a particular shape to them. Instruments cannot replicate that, so you always feel uncomfortable because the balance never seems quite right. Our decision for soloistic singing enables us to keep our freedom in changing things as we go along. It’s always been the case with this ensemble that performances can vary enormously from one to another just by somebody deciding to phrase something slightly differently, so we follow that phrasing.

You tend to make spontaneous decisions just out of the initiative of one of the singers?

Absolutely – it may be a singer’s decision or it may be governed by the acoustic we find ourselves in. So we follow that, we listen very hard. In rehearsals we don’t discuss very much. We tend to learn our way round the piece and then put it together in performance where things can depend very much on individual decisions which are always followed by everybody else.

The new recording followed a series of concerts with the same repertoire.

That’s right, you learn much more about music in performance than you do in rehearsal, so we always try to get lots of performances before we go into the studio. It’s very easy to get bogged down in detail in a recording rather than being concerned with the overall shape of the piece, so I think performances are much more important. Obviously they are concerned with details as well but you are always performing the piece as a whole which gives you a much clearer idea how the sections relate with one another and how you need to adjust the energy of a piece as it goes through.

You really notice the overall dramaturgy of the piece getting more logical after performances?

Yes, that’s always the same. With pieces like Gesualdo madrigals you can rehearse as much as you want, until you sing it in performance where you have actually have to convey the drama to the audience you haven’t really got to grips with the music.

Is there a difference in the way you work if you have some guest singers with you like in the double choir motets here?

No, we always try not to tell them what to do but rather encourage them to work the way we do and we hope they’ll come up with some ideas themselves. That’s why it’s fun to work with different musicians because they have different ideas. Otherwise there would be no reason for doing it.

Which means that there is no such thing as a pre-determined interpretation but rather a process of interplay between the musicians in performance.
If you see the number of performances we do every year, which can be between 90 and 110, given the number of different programmes we have, it implies that some of the pieces we are going to sing dozens of times every year. I think it wouldn’t interest us very much if we were trying to repeat the same interpretation. That would seem rather strange and artificial.

Can you explain why you wanted to include the little known motet “Ich lasse Dich nicht, Du segnest mich denn”?

When I contacted the musicologist Simon Heighes and told him we were going to record the motets I asked if there was something we should know – as we are just performing musicians, not musicologists and not necessarily up to date with the latest research – he told me that it was now considered to be more likely that this “Ich lasse Dich nicht” is an earlier piece by Bach than it was previously because it was always thought to be dubious. Then we recorded it and we found, even if it shouldn’t be by Bach it is remarkably good. I think it’s a beautiful piece, for me it’s even my favourite performance on that CD. Even though it is in a slightly simpler style than the other motets, the way the words are set and phrased seems to be on such a high level, the whole architecture of the initial phrases is just so perfect and expresses the meaning of the words so beautifully.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski