Of the total of 27 sets of CDs in the entire cycle, this bears the number 18 in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage undertaken in 1999/2000 by John Eliot Gardiner with vocal soloists, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists. During that extended year they performed all of Bach's extant church cantatas (from his various cycles) on the corresponding Sundays for which they were written. The series is an unmitigated triumph; it contains music-making of the highest order, presented in attractive and accessible ways. One other cycle is complete (Koopman's on Challenge) and one still in production (Suzuki's on BIS). Each has their strengths. The advantages of the SDG cycle are well in evidence in this final pair of CDs, for the Christmas and Epiphany season. They were recorded in December 1999 and January 2000 so represent the start of the cycle. The music here recorded proves that the cycle started well and maintained the same high standards throughout. There are vivacity, sensitivity, great care and hugely impressive interpretative depths in all the music on these CDs.
The first CD contains four cantatas, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63; Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191; Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65 and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, BWV 123. These were recorded right in the heart of the areas where Bach lived and worked… in the Herdenkirche, Weimar (BWV 63 and 191) and the "other" Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche (BWVs 65, 123). The singing is full of expression, subdued (which is not the same as suppressed) emotion, purpose and a wonderful balance of drive and moderation that infuses the simpler strains of each work with interest, and the high points with immediacy.
Christen, ätzet diesen Tag is an appropriate opener for the last set in the series… "etch this day in metal and marble"! It's a large scale work for Christmas, yet without the usual references to the season, or any of the festive chorales. But Gardiner and his forces do the richly-scored work proud. The three movement Gloria in excelsis Deo is from nearly 30 years later, towards the end of Bach's time in Leipzig. Highly contrapuntal, it receives an ebullient and energetically joyful account to which it's hardly possible not to respond with equal enthusiasm. It's material otherwise used in, for example, the B Minor Mass. BWV 65, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, is almost just as outgoing and celebratory. Majestic and redolent of cultures further east than Saxony, the cantata uses reeds to suggest the origins of the Magi. Making use of ornate and highly original motifs, BWV 123, Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen is every bit as sedate. Like BWV 65, it's almost a "showcase" for the variety of formats (recitative, aria, chorus and instrumental interlude) which invariably enrich Bach's cantatas. As with the rest of the series here, the solo singing is outstanding. The tenors of Genz and Gilchrist are particularly inspiring. And mention must be made of the steady, measured and gentle bass of Peter Harvey – the aria "Lass, O Welt" [CD.1. tr.22] is a delight. Dietrich Henschel, too, sings with command and warmth. Though the restrained and almost "homely" chorale singing of the Monteverdi Choir is highly personal and communicative. The high voices also shine as well.
The second CD was all recorded in the Hauptkirche St. Jacobi, Hamburg. It consists of four cantatas for the First Sunday after Epiphany. Again, the splendid tenor and bass of Gilchrist and Harvey are complemented by Michael Chance's; as well as Claron McFadden (soprano), who sang so well on the first CD – as did both Bernada Fink and Sally Bruce-Payne (altos), Magdalena Kožená (soprano) is notable. Each brings an individual mode of negotiating music that, for all its universal appeal, requires a specific style of preparation and delivery to sound at all consistent with Bach's conceptions of it. Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren, BWV 154, is a thoughtful, gentler and generally reflective cantata. What's more, emotional depths are greater here too. Both instrumentalists and singers fully enter into the spirit of the work; its impact is considerable.
Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht, BWV 124, comes from the second Leipzig cycle. It exhibits a characteristic all too easy to miss in this deeply religious genre – understated drama in the service of emotions (humility, fear, even terror) which would otherwise surface in opera. Yet, in superb combinations of instrument and voice – both solo and ensemble – Bach expresses a whole world of feeling. To this Gardiner and his performers come fresh yet with a wealth of experience. The result is highly satisfying. There is some remarkable accompanying oboe work in the piece as well… in the chorale, "Meinem Jesum lass ich nicht" [CD.2. tr.13], too. Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, is also from Leipzig (1726) and takes the form of a "Concerto in Dialogo", which is also (more quietly) dramatic; this, too, draws us further into the empathetic world of Bach. The performers are as involved in the music as they can be. Yet perform it outwardly – in ways to which we can easily relate. Significantly, their delivery empathizes with the devotional desires, trauma almost, which Bach experiences as a soul in constant search. Astute and compelling performances.
The different acoustics of these recordings "on location" ought to have presented the engineers with some real challenges. Indeed, the Hauptkirche St. Jacobi in Hamburg has an unduly long reverberation, which is audible; but not intrusive. The same hurdles applied to the shortage of rehearsal time (although the group had three days in Leipzig). Not to mention the changing personnel – albeit from a regular pool of soloists. If these represented difficulties, these two CDs – in common with all those of the entire cycle – were overcome transparently and with great sophistication. The recordings are consistently communicative without ever being uncharacterful. Gardiner's journal which is reproduced in part in the by now familiar white-on-black liner notes continues to make interesting reading; although it is a little disorienting to be settling in at the beginning of the year with the project's final release. No matter. This is a praiseworthy enterprise which indeed has received much approval. One of recording history's more significant achievements.
If you're already collecting the SDG cycle, there's no need at all to think about adding this one to your set. If you're new to it, curious, and/or have been working with Suzuki or Koopman, there's much to recommend Gardiner's superb and profound readings. His is not a HIP performance. But there are many other aspects (the series' brilliance, array of highly polished soloists, thoroughly-researched tempi and articulations, sheer musical commitment to this, one of the cornerstones of western music, and the many ways in which so much is said, interpretatively, with so little) to make it as desirable as either of the others.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.