A New Song: Bach and the German Baroque

A New Song: Bach and the German Baroque
Oxford Baroque
Kings Place, 11 February 2016

JS Bach: Singet dem Herrn ein nein neues Lied (BWV 225), Lobet den Herrn (BWV 230), Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227); J Ludwig Bach: Das ist meine Freude; Schütz Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied (SWV 35), and pieces by Gabrieli, Calvisius, Johann Walther, Hassler, Erbach, Roth, Handl.

The Kings Place ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ series continued with a fascinating concert by Oxford Baroque exploring the rich history of the German motet, generally focussing on the late Renaissance, but with three of Bach’s motets and one by his second cousin and near contemporary, Johann Ludwig Bach. As is so often the case with programmes like this, the sheer power and musical conviction of JS Bach’s motets put all the other composers into the shade, but I guess the audience would have been smaller if JS Bach wasn’t represented.

As David Lee pointed out in his programme note, writers often assume that Bach’s motets are an essay in an outdated form, rather like Purcell’s Fantasias for the viols. But they are in fact a continuation of an important Lutheran tradition. Described (by JG Walther, in 1732) as a “composition on a biblical text, to be sung with only continuo instruments, richly ornamented with fugues and imitations”, they reflect Luther’s insistence on the importance of music as “the greatest treasure in the world”.

WP_20160211_21_22_46_Pro.jpgA simple chorale-like setting of Ein neues Lied wir heben an by Johann Walther (1496-1570) was segued into Schütz’s sumptuous 8-part setting of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, the voices swinging from left to right in the Italian polychoral tradition. It was noticeable how Schütz used longer melismas for the passage referring to the joyful noise of the harp, trumpets and cornets. The one non-German composer was Giovanni Gabrieli, with his gentle double-choir O Domine Jesu Christe, here using high-low and well as left-right contrasts. Christian Erbach is a composer that deserves far more exposure than he usually gets. He was represented here by his Domine, Dominus noster, the rhythmic complexity and complex inner movement marking out a composer of distinction. The slightly later Martin Roth also impressed with his Allein zu dir, with its contrasting chorale-like sections and bouncy left-right altercations. However I found the lengthy organ introduction that preceded it rather curious; not least because of the harpsichord-like rapidly spread chords.

Johann Ludwig Bach’s Das ist meine Freude was an attractive piece in a later idiom, the repeated opening phrase being a notable feature throughout. Jacob Handl’s a capella Ecce Quomodo moritur Justus was a gentle introduction to the second half, and was followed by the equally early motet by Sethus Calvisius, a composer unknown to me, and I suspect many others. He was a predecessor of Bach’s as Cantor of the Leipzig Thomasschule, and Bach purchased copies of his music when he was in Leipzig.  Unser leben währet siezig Jahr slipped in and out of triple rhythms and also contrasted faster and slower sections.

After a further two JS Bach motets, Oxford Baroque finished with a gentle Gute Nacht encore. The eight singers occasionally revealed what was possibly limited rehearsal time, and I found the vibrato of the two otherwise impressive sopranos, although mild by some standards, a little too prominent for my tastes. But otherwise they all sang with a commendable sense of style, conviction and occasional gusto. It was refreshing to see a choir singing without an obvious director, any needed coordination coming from within the group. They were accompanied by a viola da gamba, violone, and organ. It was good to be able to actually hear the organ during the Bach motets.

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