There are three cycles of the complete Bach cantatas currently available in the catalog. That by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir with soloists under Ton Koopman on Challenge is complete. The first ten volumes were favorably reviewed on ClassicalNet in 2007. The ongoing cycle with Bach Collegium of Japan under Masaaki Suzuki on BIS has fewer cantatas per CD issue; BIS has so far released about 30 CDs, or just over half way.
Then there is the majestic cycle, a series of recordings originally sponsored by DG and now on his own label (SDG – Soli Deo Gloria), from John Eliot Gardiner with soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Their famous Cantata Pilgrimage throughout 2000 forms the basis for the almost two dozen CD issues so far. Most of these contain twice as many works as do those on Suzuki's cycle. Koopman's sets typically consist of three CDs per issue.
Volume 13 (SDG162) illustrates many of the characteristics of Gardiner's approach. Such numbers as the alto aria from BWV 132, "Christi Glieder, Ach Bedenket" [CD.2 tr.16], for instance, expertly emphasize the musical line and impetus in such a way that the beauty and devotion of Bach's conception are not unduly thrust forward. Yet unequivocally advocated. And immediately familiar. As we might hear a simple, wise, comment uttered in passing by someone we do not know. Evidence of that wisdom has always been available. The Lutheran in Bach is a somewhat unaspiring wisdom, perhaps. Yet something so special that it only takes a small action (in this case its sensitive and committed – not to say totally informed – performance) to reveal it for what it is. And convince us of the truth of that comment.
At the same time, there are justifiably rhetorical moments… the bass recitative of BWV 147, "Verstockung Kann Gewaltige Verblenden" [CD.2 tr.21] for example. But as soon as the moment has had its time, so the need for emphasis has imperceptibly passed; then the next musical development is presented with as much love and detail as any other. No lingering, no distortion, no indulgence. Yet an unassuming yet assured attention to the very essence of the relationship between the faithful and the event (Christ's birth) that is about to bring such hope. At the same time, Gardiner never loses sight of the structures of each cantata. These are interpretations, not reproductions.
Volume 13 is a collection of six cantatas (BWVs 36, 61, 62, 70, 132 and 147) for Advent from Bach's Weimar and Leipzig periods. Inevitably there's joy and celebration – in the delightfully springy tempi, which Gardiner's forces take, for example. But also a real sense of expectation and, one can say it, a "positive" attitude. Although none of Bach's (extant) cantata cycles begins at Advent (the start of the liturgical year), it was obviously a very special time for Bach. The prominence of the Lutheran chorale, "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland", means that its appearance in BWVs 36, 61 and 62 is no surprise. That he should superimpose an ultra-modern French overture on what was already a transformation of the Ambrosian Advent hymn, "veni redemptor gentium" perhaps is. To convey the sobriety and somberness of the nevertheless integral result is an achievement for both Bach and Gardiner alike. The idiom needed – focusing more than anything else on humble energy in expectation rather than piety – is achieved here without a hint of self-consciousness. Yet with true command and depth in these interpretations. BWVs 70, 132 and 147 reflect the livelier traditions of Weimar than those to which Bach was to become used in Leipzig when all figural music was suspended at that time of year. Like so many of Bach's cantatas – and what adds to the appeal of the concept of these three cantata cycles – they are bursting with musical invention. The challenge for Gardiner and his musicians in this respect was in part to peg this exuberance to Bach's devotional intent. Firmly and without appealing to the romantic. Nor stifling the momentum of the relationship between text and music in particular. Yet this is just what Gardiner does. The result is that we enjoy and respond to the music on its own terms.
One has the impression, perhaps, that some of the soloists were "trying" very hard. Not that they do anything other than succeed on all counts throughout. But articulation at times is a little self-conscious. Though the overall effect is of singing (and playing) of great beauty. Brigitte Geller is particularly lucid and clean. And the energy of Dietrich Henschel's bass also stands out. Not that anyone overstates, pushes where not welcome, or allows their evident enthusiasm to obscure the collective enterprise. These are, to put it another way, far from "impressionistic" interpretations. Very closely and carefully conceived and defined. And with great expressiveness and a wonderful sense of the whole. But with emphasis on how individual musical and textual exposition can and should contribute to our understanding of the whole. Koopman, in contrast, seems more concerned with the cantatas' architecture. Suzuki with their sheer sound.
Mention should be made of the high quality of the recording, even under the circumstances of a mobile series of performances. These are live recordings from December 2000 – at St. Maria im Kapitol, Cologne; and the Michaelskirche, Lüneburg. The acoustic is perfect for both solo and choral passages… neither too roomy nor lacking in resonance. Every syllable is clearly audible. The by now familiar presentation of the CDs with their bound-in white type on black booklet consisting of distillations of Gardiner's notes taken at the time, a few telling photographs, detailed track listings and the complete texts in German and English, all add to our appreciation of just how significant a series this is.
Lastly, a website calling itself an unofficial "tool for navigating in the Soli Deo Gloria series", The Cantatafinder, may prove useful in a variety of ways to lovers of this very special repertoire. We hope to continue coverage of this landmark enterprise on ClassicalNet in the near future. In summary, no-one should be in doubt that it has as much to offer as either of the other two and each issue makes an unequivocally treasured addition to your collection.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.