The Hilliard Ensemble & Christoph Poppen
Morimur: JS Bach
ECM New Series 1765 (

cd cover Morimur ("We Die") is a baroque experiment for quintet that attempts and probably succeeds to expose a facet of the composing process of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), advancing an exploded view revelation of parallels between sacred vocal and solo instrumental works. The 80-page German-English-French booklet contains numerous essays that reveal the basis for presenting the Partita in D Minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin, including the Ciaconna section twice (first without, later climactically with, voices), and eight chorales for a capella quartet, in an interfingered array encompassing 22 tracks and 62 minutes. For the Bach intellectual there is plenty of "secret language" and "hidden details" to feast on, but for the rest of us equipped only with ears and hearts, it is a soothing and occasionally rapturous hour of meditation. The case that the latter is actually true is supported by the performance itself, which is accomplished not with prodigal expertise,! but with unremitting reverence and restraint. Violinist Christoph Poppen all but steals the hour with his two lucid takes on the 14-minute Ciaconna, displaying feathery air on a warm and unusually sweet baroque instrument; like pollen dancing gratefully on the wind. In superb contrast, the chorales are penitential in the spirit of Protestant hymns they sometimes echo. Any holy concert jointly featuring polyphonic voices and the nearest instrument correlate, violin, is bound not to fail; and Morimur is just such a treat and more.

Yet, the fact of this recording's theoretical basis nearly overshadows the real gift waiting patiently in pure sound and sacred verse. The scholarly attention given the discovery of inaudible motives, where Bach essentially under-painted violin solos with chorales then obscured these grounds, is understandable from the academic perspective, being tantamount to revealing a great artist's trade secret. The analysis has been given such significance here that pondering it might threaten to obscure the true benefit of the experience for some listeners, while of course possibly providing a cerebro-spiritual Bachian orgasm of unsurpassed dimensions for a few.

Though the highly credentialed musicians, luscious monastery acoustics and artful set structure are important too, the point of all this beautiful noise is to focus a receptive audience on the merciful fact of death. Bach must have taken death to be the sharpest kindness of Creation and ECM has accordingly selected a Jean Luc Godard movie still for the cover to illustrate the gentle/grim dualism of Death's face. In sum, Morimur is a gorgeously listenable and useful spiritual tool. But, though it honors the labels' great tradition of innovative art, let it be noted that better promotional/explicatory substance emanates directly from the human truth mirrored in Bach's music, rather than from the exposed composing secrets and biography particulars. - Steve Taylor

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