Having already enjoyed Bernard Haitink's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Proms 5, my personal pendulum swung a considerable distance into the past for Proms 17. This was a "late evening" Proms concert of a comparatively shorter duration due to its beginning at 10:15 PM local time. I learned about it through the high praise it received from Richard Faiman in his Financial Times review, but I probably would have been curious without having read the review. The program consisted of four motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, such by the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with instrumentalists from his English Baroque Soloists providing the continuo. The reason I probably would have been drawn to this concert regardless of any reviews is that one of the first CDs I purchased was the 1982 Erato recording of these motets with Gardiner conducting an earlier generation of these ensembles. It would be fair to say that I learned these motets from the two CDs in that set, and they remain treasured among all of my other Bach recordings.
The four motets Gardiner selected were "Komm, Jesu, Komm!" (BWV 229), "Fürchte, dich nicht" (BWV 228), "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227), and "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (BWV 225). The BBC broadcast benefitted from Gardiner's observations about these compositions. This began with the announcer leading him on by asking if he felt that the motets were inferior to the cantatas, to which Gardiner replied with a polite but emphatic negative. These are, indeed, impressive settings of sacred texts and may have enjoyed the advantage of not being churned out on a weekly basis, the way the cantatas were.
Most impressive is probably BWV 227, which was also the longest work on the program. It is one of those works that can be admired as much for its overall architecture as for the sensitivity Bach brought to setting its text. The program notes describe that architecture as follows:
‘Jesu, meine Freude’ is the most extended of Bach’s motets. The backbone of the text is provided by six verses of a hymn (1659) of the same name by Johann Franck – Bach twice incorporated verses from this hymn in his cantatas, BWV 81 and 133. Alternating with the hymn verses and their associated melody are five verses from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 8). Bach’s vocal textures range from three- to five-part writing and are organised in what one Bach writer, drawing upon a Blakean epithet has described as ‘fearful symmetry’.
In his interview with the announcer, Gardiner described that "fearful symmetry" as an isosceles triangle; and this above diagram is taken from the Erato notes to illustrate this point: