Fanfare Review

HANDEL: Dixit Dominus BACH & SCHÜTZ: Motets

It seems to have become fairly common nowadays for choruses, some new, some long-established, to issue discs that either show off a particular program or ensemble. Never mind that downloads and sites such as YouTube may be more accessible to the public at large, but the compact disc is not yet on the same path as the dinosaurs in terms of relevancy. These serve an important purpose, in my opinion, as a means of introducing an ensemble to the world at large, as well as providing archival documentation of their talents. The repertory chosen is, for the most part, based upon known works, but occasionally there can be included odds and ends that are not always readily available as repertory pieces. This brings us to this recording of the Ottawa Bach Choir, which has put together a program of sacred works for which it is eminently suited. Handel’s large Dixit Dominus (HWV 232) is the centerpiece, but here we also find a series of four Passion motets by his German predecessor Heinrich Schütz, drawn from the Cantiones sacræ collection of 1625, and concluding with a filler work, Johann Sebastian Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229). The term used to describe this grouping in the notes is “German roots,” but in reality it seems as if they were chosen as a documentation of works taken on tour. The opening picture of the Bach Choir in Beijing seems to support this, particularly since all of them are readily available individually in the recording repertory; here I am reminded of John Eliot Gardiner’s fine rendition of the Handel as far back as 1992 on Erato, René Jacobs’s recent recording of all of Bach’s motets in 2017 on Harmonia Mundi, and the complete Cantiones sacræ on Carus by the Dresdener Kammerchor about six years ago. Thus there is no lack of fine exemplars of these works, but here, again, it is the choir and its interpretation that is the key to the disc.

The Dixit dates from 1707 as one of Handel’s earliest large-scale works. The accompaniment is limited to strings, albeit with a rather thicker texture, and it consists of various choruses with a few solos and two arias thrown in for good measure. I’ve always liked the first chorus of this work, since it has the restless energy one finds occasionally in Purcell with a steadily marching bass, machine-like strings, and a forceful declamatory statement by the chorus. It is a rousing way of starting off the piece and serves as a nice foil to the more lyrical aria (Virgam virtutis) that follows. This is texturally more sparse, allowing for the alto solo, here capably performed by countertenor Daniel Taylor, to create flowing lines. Elsewhere, the De torrente, which ought to be vivacious and joyous, is a thoughtful and somewhat mysterious duet for two sopranos that requires absolute control of pitch. Happily, soloists Kayla Ruiz and Kathleen Radke accomplish this with serene beauty, beneath which a ghostly chorus enters with occasional commentary. The suspensions are spine-tingling at times. The doxology replicates the opening chorus, with some of the impressive vocal lines for which Handel is famous. They wander and tumble over each other, and the strings and organ follow suit, especially when the harmonically stable cantus firmus enters in the tenors.

The pieces chosen from about a century earlier are quite different, showing that Schütz owed a great deal to the late Renaissance madrigal. For example, the cascading opening lines of Ego sum seem as blatant a statement of “egotistical” madrigalism as one might wish for in their bright and unmistakable effect. As this motet progresses, the harmonies shift fluidly, and there are moments of imitation but no strict polyphony. This seems reserved for Calicem salutaris, where the vocal entrances are scaffolded and the lines weave about each other until coming to a homophonic cadence. These are well-formed works that require close attention to detail in order to be understood.

As ensembles go, the Bach Choir, from which the soloists were drawn, has a nicely transparent sound that reflects this sort of music well. The diction is clear and the intonation is accurate. Conductor Lisette Canton has a fine ensemble to work with, and the period instrument group Caprice functions well as an accompaniment in the Handel without disturbing the vocal dominance. The clarity of the voices alone will give this performance a place in among the other renditions of this repertory. This is one disc that seems to transcend the mundane needs of public exposure, for it shows a disciplined group that is fully at home in the style of music and equal as a competitor for other ensembles. I, for one, am looking forward to their next disc. 

Bertil van Boer

© September/October 2019 Fanfare

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