Conductor John Eliot Gardiner's superb and detailed notes for this release (on his choir's own label) open with this bold statement: "Bach's motets constitute the most perfect, and in some ways the most hypnotic, set amongst his works." They were not even remotely conceived of as a "set," however -- unlike, for example, the sonatas and partitas for violin, or the cello suites, or the Well-Tempered Clavier, the motets were created independently, over the course of many years, probably (and in some cases, certainly) for specific occasions. However, in a way that actually helps make Gardiner's case, because their resulting variety of style and structure is attractive.
The Monteverdi Choir's blend is impeccable, its dynamics dramatic without slipping into melodrama, and it’s all captured in impressively natural sound. They are also willing to do more than just sing beautifully; the vehement attacks in the "Unter deinem Schirmen" and "Trotz dem alten Drachen" sections of Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, and in the first section of "Fürchte dich nicht," BWV 228, are downright thrilling. Collectors who already have Gardiner's old Erato set will find its performances surpassed here, but should hang onto that 1982 release for its inclusion of BWV 118, not included here because of the larger instrumental forces required. For the canonical motets, this set will immediately become the top choice when it is released on Tuesday (6/26). - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His recent song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.