Cantemus Take on Bach’s Motets with Mixed Success

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J. S. Bach: Tabitha Rodway (soprano), Cantemus Chamber Choir / Huw Williams (director),  John Cheer (organ), Claudine Cassidy (cello), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 10.10.15 (LJ).

J.S. Bach:
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227
Allemande and Courante from Cello Suite 1
Allemande and Courante from Cello Suite 3
Bist du bei mir.


Cantemus Chamber Choir with soprano Tabitha Rodway, directed by Huw Williams was accompanied by Baroque cellist Claudine Cassidy and organist John Cheer for their Bach recital on October 10th at Cardiff’s RWCMD. Performing J. S. Bach’s motets, Cantemus, despite being inconsistent, were, on the whole, very pleasing.

Musicologist Margaret Bent defines a motet as “a piece of music in several parts with words”. This succinct definition holds true for motets ranging from medieval times to the Renaissance and beyond. Though their exact purpose is uncertain, Bach’s motets tend to suggest a funeral or memorial. What is irrefutable is that his motets are complex and intricate works that demand great vocal skill and strength. As a result, they are rarely performed. However, as Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe states, they should not be neglected for Bach’s mote; though ‘fearsomely difficult to perform’ they are ‘consummate’ pieces. This sentiment was shared by none other than Mozart. Upon hearing Bach’s motet (BWV 225) in 1789 Friedrich Rochlitz reported: “Hardly had the choir sung a few bars when [Mozart] sat up, startled. A few measures more and he called out: ‘What is this?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: ‘Now there is something one can learn from!’” Beginning their recital with this very motet entitled Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, Cantemus eventually warmed up by the second chorale to evoke the joyous, enriched spirit of the music and text which reads: “As a father is merciful to his little children, / so is the Lord to us all, as long as we are obedient and pure.”

Unfortunately in Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228), Cantemus were occasionally less precise than is required for a work with such carefully interwoven layers. Singers would occasionally drift past the end of their beat and into the next phrase and the unity of the whole was lost. This had a detrimental effect to the overall clarity and transparency of the work. However, the tenors beautifully echoed the refrain ‘Fürchte dich nicht’. Additionally, John Cheer and Claudine Cassidy remained on time and offered supportive accompaniment to the choir. Huw Williams’ conducting remained sprightly and attentive as he imploringly coaxed his choir to exude more feeling and passion.

The best moments were the joyous fugue on Alleluja in triple time from Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230); and the opening of Bach’s most ambitious motet Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227). This latter piece is an amalgamation of biblical quotation with verses of a chorale from the Lutheran tradition. Its form, divided into eleven parts, resembles an architectural arch.  Tenor Richard Pugsley deserves praise for his sonority and intent when singing Gute Nacht, o Wesen from the ninth section of this magnificent work.

Claudine Cassidy’s accompaniment was much better than her solo recitals of excerpts from Bach’s cello suites. At two intervals she played the Allemande and Courante from Bach’s first the third cello suite. Though these pieces are spirited dances, the pace which Cassidy took them was far too fast and as a result her accuracy both in terms of clarity and pitch was compromised. Her expression was lively and her momentum well intentioned, but this was hampered by a few squeaks and squawks. With the bow so far from the bridge of the cello, Cassidy’s evident prioritisation of speed over precision was audible in error rather than flare. It also seemed unfortunate that Cassidy seemed to have tuning issues with her G string for, I reiterate, her accompaniment was consummate.   

Tabitha Rodway’s performance of the aria Bist du bei mir (BWV 508) was ephemeral and pure. Her voice possesses a magical, eternal quality. As she sang the words: “If you are with me, I go with joy / To death and to my rest” a thoughtful nostalgia descended upon the audience.

Cantemus finished with a performance of Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV appendix 159) which Huw Williams dedicated to John Scott. This was a heartfelt performance and rounded off the evening well. Cantemus are a choir of many assets and can produce a spirited, vivacious sound.

Lucy Jeffery

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