J. S. Bach: Motetten – The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series 1875)

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Hilliard Ensemble
Joanne Lunn soprano
Rebecca Outram soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, organ
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Robert Macdonald bass
Recorded November 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was during a concert given by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the fall of 1995 that a Bach motet’s masterful weaves of light and sound first nourished these ears. With infinitely branching listening paths before me, however, I never explored the motets further—that is, until the ECM connection came full circle with this wondrous recording from the Hilliard Ensemble. Or should I say, the Hilliard Ensemble in duplicate, for here the quartet is joined by sopranos Joanne Lunn and Rebecca Outram, countertenor David Gould, and bass Robert Macdonald for a special session in the familiar acoustics of Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold.

Very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of these motets, but as Martin Geck’s liner notes remind us, their significance in Bach’s oeuvre is on par with The Well-Tempered Clavier, equally monumental as examples of counterpoint and absolute harmony. They are, one might say, extra-musical insofar as they express themselves far beyond the words at their core, beyond the note values ascribed to those words, and beyond the constraints that pigeonhole them into meters and divisions. Rather, they lose themselves blissfully in the finer details of their flowering.

From the first threads of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied one can feel the utter control these singers possess. Listening to them is like feeling the music being born from Bach’s mind, fresh and free from the pitfalls of excessive scrutiny. Lunn and Outram stand out especially, ringing out over the others like carillon overtones in a music overcome by a melismatic spirituality (listen also for their striking high that ends this opening motet). The shimmering space therein gives us some of the more intimate moments on the disc, nesting in mind and body with all the gentility of an autumn breeze. These motets all end on resolved chords, offering a sign of hope and tranquility in the wake of their roiling seas. On that note one can hardly praise this recording without highlighting the crisp diction throughout. This attention to linguistic color is perhaps what most separates it from those rendered in larger forces. Moments like the “Gute Nacht, O Wesen” portion of Jesu, Meine Freude are as tactile as our own bodies. Others of sheer transcendence abound, as in the final chorale of Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir and the Alleluia of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. Yet it is in the last, Ich lasse Dich nicht, du sengnest mich denn (often elided from Bach motet recordings, due to its contested authorship), that we find ourselves bathed in deepest calm, for here is the breath turned sacred, that it might begin a life of its own.

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