Bach’s Motets: Under-performed Masterpieces Come to Life

22/12/2017

Bach, The Six Motets BWV225-230: Los Angeles Master Chorale / Jenny Wong (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 10.12.2017. (DLD)

Who cannot be beguiled and seduced by the entreaty to ‘sing, dance, praise, play and rejoice’? When the Los Angeles Master Chorale opened their concert with Bach’s most joyous motet, ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’ (‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’), it was all I could do not to stand up and shake a leg. Music doesn’t get much more lively and exuberant, at least in the world of Bach’s vocal music, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Jenny Wong was more than up to the task.

While there is no particular performance order to these six works, few would deny that the opening of ‘Singet’, with its infectious drive and good cheer, is an ecstatically welcoming sound. In the case of this performance, it also served notice that the concert to follow would be one of near-perfect intonation, dramatic expression and a presentation that would deftly underscore the meaning and intent of the text.

There is no unanimity of opinion as to the original use of the Bach motets, except for two that fulfilled funereal demands. In Christoph Wolff’s superb Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, he writes of the educational and teaching benefits in the motets, especially in ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’. This is, of course, an asset found in much of Bach’s work – think of the Inventions and Sinfonias, the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier and even the study he was writing at time of his death, The Art of Fugue. Yet taken as a whole, these six motets certainly rank with the greatest artistic masterpieces of his vocal art.

Hearing this music in a hall like Disney is a rare experience, one to be prized and savored. The Master Chorale is an organization where technical command and interpretive finesse are taken as a given, and they did not disappoint. Jenny Wong, making her first solo appearance as conductor, brought beauty, balance, subtlety and strength when required.

Each of the motets, indeed every movement, contained passages of beauty, but the two highlights of the concert were found in the initial darkness and eventual musical redemption in ‘Komm, Jesu, komm’ (‘Come, Jesus, come’); and the decidedly more complex ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ (‘Jesus, my joy’).

The former begins in a rising gesture of longing (‘Komm, komm, komm, komm Jesu’), eventually to merge into a call-and-response passage between the two groups of singers, an opening that packs as much sadness, longing and yearning as any I know of. The Master Chorale sang it all with a kind of dignified and stoic acceptance, and Wong’s finely nuanced direction balanced the complexity of the musical texture with a clear and unfussy account of the score. From the first to the final chord, all of Bach’s ingenious polyphony was on display, yet it was surprisingly opaque in presentation.

‘Jesu, meine Freude’ belongs to a different rank of complexity, with its five-voice textures, straightforward chorales (which begin and end the motet) and an arch form that might have made Bartók envious. The harmonies and expression of the opening are as purely Bach as one could expect, but the inner sections, seven in all, are almost operatic in their text, rhythmic shifts, oddly connected musical lineage, harmonies that surprise and imitative passages that amaze. The Master Chorale brought out all of the drama in ways both subtle and direct, and though details in all of the individual parts might be cited, the ‘Gute Nacht, o Wesen’ floats in its own wispy cloud, both fulsome and evanescent. While it shares its place in this motet with its fraternal movements, it is a miracle of its own, and the Chorale played it with expression, articulation and balance that should have brought the listening audience to its knees.

Have I any criticism of the performance? There may have been portions of the presentation that bordered on the ever-so-slightly gimmicky, particularly when the full chorus brought themselves to the prow of the stage while singing. In other circumstances, I may have preferred a leaner vocal ensemble, but anyone sitting in the upper rows of the balcony would have been grateful for the added voices. Through it all, the performers and director never lost sight of their main mission: along with its inherent beauties, deliver the moral and mortal seriousness of this great music.

Douglas Dutton

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