Bach : Six Motets
BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Peter Dijkstra
Milton Court Concert Hall, 3 March 2023
This BBC Singers’ Milton Court performance of the traditional grouping of Bach’s Six Motets (BWV 225–230) was imaginative and thoughtful, notably in two specific aspects. With one exception, they were sung in reverse order of BWV numbers, that exception being Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) which was sung in the middle of the cantata Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl. The concert will be broadcast on Wednesday 22 March on BBC Radio 3.
Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (often referred to as the Trauerode) is a secular cantata composed for Leipzig Univerity for the commemoration of the life of Christiane Eberhardine, wife of Augustus der Sterke, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Unfortunately, neither the BBC’s programme notes nor the Radio 3 presenter explained much about the relevance of the cantata to Leipzig in Bach’s day, although some information might be added for the Radio 3 broadcast. The reason Christiane was so admired in Leipzig is that when Augustus the Strong converted to Roman Catholicism to help his election as King of Poland (a requirement of the job) Christiane refused to convert and remained distant from Augustus and Poland for the rest of her life. Similarly staunchly Lutheran Leipzig treated her with the greatest respect as a result, hence this sumptuous cantata which was clearly intended for a spectacular occasion.
The cantata was first performed about a month after Christiane’s death in 1727 in the University Church in Leipzig, pictured above. It is in two parts, which would have been separated by an oration. On this occasion, the motet Komm, Jesu, komm was inserted in the place of the oration. It is the only motet of the six that is not based on a biblical text but, like the others, it seems to have been composed for a funeral. It made a very fitting companion to the cantata. The principal interest in the cantata is Bach’s imaginative use of instruments, notably two violas da gamba, here played by Reiko Ichise and Emilia Benjamin. It also includes two lutes and two oboes d’amore. of the soloists, I particularly liked the singing of also Eleanor Minney in the exquisite aria Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt!.
The overall performance was impressive, with sensitive direction from conductor Peter Dijkstra who carefully controlled the dynamics throughout, keeping a generally subdued mood which I hope is reflected in the broadcast. The full forces of the Academy of Ancient Music were only used for the cantata, but AAM organist Alistair Ross and cellist Sarah McMahon provided excellent continuo accompaniment throughout the six motets.
Just as I published this review, news came through that the BBC plans to close the BBC Singers as part of their New strategy for Classical Music.