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Bach & MacMillan: Motets & Sacred Songs

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2023
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Alex Sermon
Release date: October 2023
Total duration: 79 minutes 27 seconds

This recital presents the three best known of Bach's six monumental motets alongside sympathetic new works—one of them a premiere recording—by Sir James MacMillan.

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J S Bach and Sir James MacMillan may stand three centuries apart, but they are connected through a love of writing for choirs and a devotion to writing music for their respective liturgies, the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic. ‘Music and spirituality are very closely entwined,’ MacMillan has said. ‘Some of the great music of our civilisation has been written for divine worship.’ Like Bach, too, MacMillan has returned often to the themes of Jesus Christ’s Passion and death—what he calls ‘those violent days of human history’. We hear his dedication to that story in his Tenebrae Responsories. We also hear—though refracted in a very different musical world—the purpose with which he follows in Bach’s footsteps. For MacMillan, Bach ‘opened up a window on the divine love affair with humanity. The greatest calling for any artist—is to do the same.’

Tenebrae’s programme opens with the warmest and most intimate of Bach’s six surviving motets, and the only one whose text isn’t drawn from the Bible. Komm, Jesu, komm (‘Come, Jesus, come’) is a setting for double four-part choir of the first and last stanzas of a hymn by Paul Thymich (1656-94) written for the funeral of the then Rector of St Thomas’s School in Leipzig, whose students Bach had taught since becoming Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in 1723.

Thymich’s hymn is a plea for the Lord to bring the peace that comes at the end of our existence, and quickly sets up an impassioned dialogue between the two choirs. In the first stanza, each line is given its own musical treatment, leading to a rich variety of textures and moods. As examples, the falling path of the line ‘Die Kraft verschwindt je mehr und mehr’ (‘My strength deserts me more and more’) suggests a declining of energy; and the anguish of ‘Der saure Weg wird zu schwer’ (‘Life’s bitter path is too much for me’) is expressed by a falling interval of a diminished seventh. Most remarkably, the final line of the first stanza—borrowed from St John’s gospel, ‘Thou art the Way, the Truth and the Life’, has an elaborate, swinging dance-like spirit.

The second stanza is treated much more economically and directly, in the manner of a chorale (hymn).

Just as the end of Komm, Jesu, komm talks of entrusting our spirit to Jesus, the first of Sir James MacMillan’s three Tenebrae Responsories concerns Jesus himself at his Crucifixion commending himself to God after asking ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’.

'Tenebrae factae sunt' is the Fifth Responsory for Good Friday. As befits Tenebrae, a service relating to darkness (traditionally, a series of 15 lit candles would be extinguished one by one), it begins in the depths with tenors and basses. From this MacMillan builds a rich choral texture in eight voices, out of which emerges a downward-creeping figure (surely darkness falling) and abrupt, declamatory interjections of ‘crucifixissent’ (‘was crucified’) and ‘voce magna’ (‘great voice’). Christ’s own words, starting in the tenors, are delivered in highly decorated, almost psalm-like strands, their ornamentation reflecting MacMillan’s interest in and admiration for the traditional music of Scotland and Ireland, as well as of the Middle East.

Two further masterstrokes show MacMillan’s ability to blend the drama of the text with imaginative choral writing. While the lower voices excitedly announce Christ’s second exclamation, in which he finally gives himself up to his Father, a heavenly aura (upper voices) prefigures his words and that exclamation is given an enveloping rising sweep. The end fades to in nothingness, as the choir reflects again on Christ giving up his spirit.

Running to around 20 minutes, Jesu, meine Freude is the longest of Bach’s six motets. The text is based around six verses of a hymn tune by Johann Franck. The first five verses of Franck’s hymn are alternated with verses from Chapter 8 of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, before the motet is capped off with the hymn’s sixth verse. The resulting 11-part structure contains many points of symmetry—such as a straight four-part hymn setting in the first and eleventh sections and the similarity of music between the second and tenth sections (‘Es ist nun nichts’ and ‘So nun der Geist’). The central (sixth) section carries the key message—of tending to the spirit over the flesh—in the form of a fugue (where the musical lines enter in close succession); in fact, this is a double fugue (with two subjects or themes)—a testament to Bach’s technical mastery.

MacMillan composed Miserere—an extensive setting of Psalm 50, the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms (or Psalms of Confession)—to a commission from the Flanders Festival, where it was premiered in 2009. There are well-known choral settings of this Psalm by Josquin, Palestrina, Gesualdo and Lassus. Perhaps the best known of all is Allegri’s, which the 14-year-old Mozart supposedly copied out after hearing it at a Holy Wednesday service at the Sistine Chapel.

MacMillan references Allegri’s setting in the use of plainchant. But, he says, ‘My version of the chant is harmonised, once in a relatively traditional manner, and then later, ethereally and with floating drones’. Across Miserere’s span is a journey from sin and guilt to forgiveness and hope, the opening melody, in the minor, returning at the end in the major.

The second of MacMillan’s three Tenebrae Responsories, 'Tradiderunt me' is the Seventh Responsory of Good Friday, and MacMillan’s setting opens with three outbursts of the initial words (‘They delivered me [into the hands of the impious]’). There are musical connections with the previous Responsory: a downward motion at ‘et non pepercerunt animae meae’ (‘and spared not my soul’) as a counterpart to the upward sweep at ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ at Christ’s second exclamation; and immediately following this a decorative treatment for ‘congregati sunt adversum’ (‘the powerful gathered together against me’). There may here be a distant shadow of the choral works of Poulenc, also a dedicated Catholic, who set three of the 'Tenebrae Responsories' in his Quatre motets de pénitence.

'Jesum tradidit', the Ninth Good Friday Responsory and the third of MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories, likewise opens dramatically with three outbursts of ‘Jesum’ (marked ‘anguished’), immediately followed by the most decorative and exotic-sounding of all passages in the three responsories, now accompanied by a drone in the basses. The writing here is highly soloistic, one of the many challenges in these pieces, even for the most accomplished choirs.

A four-part chorus of upper voices tell of how Peter followed the Crucifixion procession from afar ‘to see the end’. Later, MacMillan creates a dramatically mysterious effect: as the sopranos relate how Jesus was led to the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, the lower voices become a tangle of chatter—‘a mixture of chanting and babbling’ is the direction in the score—the murmuring of the assembled scribes and Pharisees. A swooping soprano solo brings an atmospheric close, a soulful, almost birdlike song, that eventually recedes into the distance.

Written to the first stanza of a poem by Henry Vaughan and commissioned by the London Bach Society for its 75th anniversary, I saw Eternity the other night was given its world premiere by Tenebrae in November 2021.

It’s easy to see why MacMillan would have been attracted to Vaughan’s description and separation of two worlds, one representing the vastness of eternity, relating to our souls, the other below, alluding to our everyday mortal lives. MacMillan especially responds to Vaughan’s vision of eternity as ‘Like a great Ring of pure, endless light’. There is wonder, but there is calm too. Ultimately there is a contrast here of light and dark.

Tenebrae has ended many of its concerts with MacMillan’s Miserere, but this programme concludes with Bach’s joyous motet Singet dem Herrn. It draws its text from the first three verses of Psalm 149, a stanza each from two different hymns and two verses from Psalm 150. Cast in three movements (in the fast–slow–fast pattern of a concerto), the exuberant first movement (Psalm 149) brings writing of astonishing virtuosity in an expression of praise to God that calls for ‘Pauken und Harfen’ (‘drums and harps’).

In the serene second movement the two choirs alternate, Choir 2 singing part of a hymn by Johann Gramann (1487-1541), and Choir 1 answering with a freer setting of an anonymous hymn. Both hymns centre on God as the protector of his people. The two choirs come together for the final movement, another jubilant expression of praise, ending with ‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’.

Edward Bhesania © 2023

Singing the music of J S Bach as a 7-year-old chorister is one of my earliest musical memories, and even then I was aware that it is something very special. Later in life, as a countertenor, there was nothing I enjoyed more than singing choruses and arias from major works such as the B minor Mass, the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio. I took an unplanned break of several years from Baroque repertoire during my time with The King’s Singers, but when I came back to it, the music of Bach hit me like a train; its ingenuity, the craftsmanship, the energy and staggering beauty of it all. I became committed to recording some of it with Tenebrae at some point in the future. It’s taken a long time, though, to really get the music under our skin. There are so many levels of detail and so many different ways of approaching the music, and I realised over time that every performance we gave was different and yet had something special and unique about it. It simply wouldn’t be possible to try and recreate every magic moment in the setting of a single studio recording. One lasting impression the pandemic has had on me is how profound the effect is on performers and listeners alike when we’re in a venue together, totally focused on the music and nothing else. The advances in audio technology that helped to keep everyone connected during the pandemic were wonderful, but it is obvious that it will never be able to replace or match the visceral impact enjoyed when the music is living and breathing only a few feet away from you. For these reasons I made the decision to record the programme live in concert. It also meant those audience members present could represent the public who made this project possible by so kindly supporting our crowdfunding campaign for the recording. To all of those people, I and all the members of Tenebrae would like to say a huge thank you.

Having more than 15 albums of all Bach’s motets on my shelves at home, for Tenebrae’s recording I’ve decided to programme them alongside some of the greatest choral works of modern times by composer Sir James MacMillan. I am sure James will be as revered in 400 years’ time as Bach is today. On so many different levels, the contrast between the music of these two great composers could not be more dramatic. What both composers have in abundance, though, is an utter devotion to their religious faiths. This total conviction displays itself in their music, leaving the listener in no doubt as to their commitment to creating music imbued with every ounce of passion and precision. I hope listeners will enjoy and feel the sense of excitement and energy we as performers always feed off in concert, and that this performance in the beautiful venue of Snape Maltings will stand the test of time and be heard by music-lovers for centuries to come.

Nigel Short ©

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