Comparisons: Suzuki/BIS, Koopman/Challenge Classics
John Eliot Gardiner's detractors have been voicing the same reservations for almost 20 years now – he's too fast and superficial with insufficient reverence to God. The argument concerning tempo might have been valid many years ago when Gardiner took tempos faster than any other Bach conductor, but it is now moot as newer Bach conductors such as Paul McCreesh easily speed by Gardiner. Concerning insufficient reverence to God, I think it's fair to say that Gardiner prefers to celebrate God and that he does an outstanding job of it. Does Gardiner tend to be superficial? Yes, this can happen now and then in Bach's most emotionally wrenching pieces of music.
What Gardiner does offer more than any other Bach conductor are the most exuberant and celebratory readings on disc with superior choral work, perfect balance among musical lines and the most crisp and well-defined brass playing I've ever heard. So often, the brass in baroque recordings are either far louder than all other instruments combined or are blended into the orchestral fabric. But Gardiner consistently insures that they inhabit their own space without overwhelming the musical proceedings. I've been listening to his Bach recordings for many years, and they have been among the treasures of my music library.
The Gardiner and Suzuki Bach Cantata cycles are the two that I have been concentrating on most during the past few years. Although both are exceptional, there are a few differences in conception. Gardiner is the more exuberant director and offers quicker tempos, greater celebration, stronger punctuation, and a more crisp projection of brass instruments. Suzuki's approach is more measured with lyricism that can melt one's heart and greater reverence than is common from Gardiner.
BWV 172 well highlights the differences between Gardiner and Suzuki. In the rousing opening chorus, Gardiner is faster and more rhythmically buoyant than Suzuki. However, Suzuki has the edge in the beautiful soprano and alto duet "Komm, lass mich nicht langer warten". He has a deeper feeling for this music than Gardiner, and soprano Ingrid Schmithusen and alto Yoshikazu Mera make a heavenly team. Gardiner's soprano and alto are very alluring, but both sound like they are singing from about the same spot in the soundstage. This makes no sense to me, given that the effectiveness of the dialogue is significantly reduced through this piggy-backing approach. Overall, both versions of BWV 172 are excellent, but you must hear the Suzuki duet to gain a slice of heaven.
For BWV 59, let's invite Ton Koopman into the house. Started on Erato and now close to conclusion on the Challenge label, Koopman has his own Bach cycle that has reaped much praise from critics and Bach enthusiasts. BWV 59 is about love, joy, and the special bonding of the human soul with God: it's a rather short work having four movements with solo vocal roles for only the soprano and bass. Gardiner and company do a splendid job of conveying the necessary emotional content, and both Larsson and Iconomou display fine expression and tonal appeal. However, again a reservation crops up in the form of the duet. In this case, it's the opening movement of the work and a very exhilarating piece. This time there's no piggy-backing, but there is a lack of connection between Larsson and Iconomou; much of the time in the duet it seems that neither is aware that the other exists. For Koopman, Ruth Ziesak and Klaus Merten do it right. Although quite distinct from one another, there is also a transcendent blending of the two instruments. Frankly, this performance of the duet beats the Gardiner by a country mile.
Well, I could continue with the comparison game, but it wouldn't truly reflect my opinion of this Gardiner set. Although comparisons made of segments of a recording have their virtues, the process has the potential of overlooking the sweep and conception of the conductor's vision. In this case, it is the celebratory and life affirming characteristics of Bach's music that can only be fully realized when listening to the entire recording at one sitting. Whether you consider Gardiner to be celebrating God or humanity, the triumphant nature of his interpretations is so strong that I feel a total exhilaration as well as contentment with the world after listening to the two discs.
I can't say that Gardiner's vocal soloists display a tonal beauty second to none, but each is highly expressive with Lisa Larsson leading the charge of gorgeous phrasing. As usual, the Monteverdi Choir's singing displays its unique and compelling blend of power, rapt expression, and detailing of musical lines. As for Gardiner's brass contributions, they are stellar for crisp projection and perfect balance. The soundstage is ideal for the CD medium, but it can't match the expansiveness encountered by the many Suzuki SACD recordings.
Don's Conclusions: Volume 26 of the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage continues the excellence offered by the previous issues in the series (vols. 1, 8, 10, 14, 19, 21, 24). In addition, the two newest volumes have just been released. These are all at top-dollar but worth every penny. Then we have two great cycles in progress from Suzuki and Koopman as well as occasional entries from Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. Last, but not least, is a new cycle of the cantatas directed by Sigiswald Kuijken on Accent; I have not heard any of the three first recordings, but Kuijken is routinely an excellent guide for baroque works. All in all, we live in a golden age of recordings of Bach's sacred choral music. Enjoy!
Copyright © 2006, Don Satz