This is one of two final sets of double CDs in the ambitious and highly successful Bach Cantata Pilgrimage which vocal soloists, The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists and John Eliot Gardiner undertook from December 1999 to December 2000. They performed all of Bach's sacred cantatas on the Sundays for which they were written in multiple (appropriate) locations. Earlier reviews on Classical Net of the series and some of its individual releases have been very positive. Volume 12 (the numbering is not sequential: there are 27 volumes in total) contains three cantatas each for the twenty-second and twenty-third Sundays after Trinity and one each for the twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh.
It has to be said at the outset that the standard of performance is as high at this point in the project as it has been all through. The articulation by James Gilchrist in Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55 (the only extant cantata for solo tenor alone), for example, is superb; as is the solo instrumental playing. Listen to the winds (especially flute and oboe) in Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, BWV 115, for instance. There is a precision and penetration that strips away everything except the musical import intended by Bach. In the following work, Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?, BWV 89, Peter Harvey's bass and Joanne Lunn's soprano in particular combine the same directness of approach to the text with an ease of delivery that make the music very immediate. Indeed, the aria. "Gerechter Gott" [CD.1 tr.10] typifies one aspect of the whole project: although Gardiner employs larger forces than one school of current thinking and research advocates, the scale on which the words and instruments are presented is intimate and present without losing any of Bach's gentle generosity of vision and execution.
The choral singing is restrained without giving the impression that anyone is holding back. There are moments when the need to endorse Bach's almost transcendental uplift in the worship of his divinity calls for emphasis (the soaring and ostinato strings towards the end of the opening chorus of the same Mache dich in BWV 115 [CD.1 tr.12], for example). Yet this is never accompanied by abandon. The other musical approach that has characterized this set throughout is an unforced yet striking brilliance. When the multiple acoustics in which these 50+ sets were recorded (each volume typically reflects work in two locations) are considered, the consistency is all the more remarkable. But this serves only to underpin and assist the almost crystalline attack of the performances themselves. Add to this the fact that the line-up of soloists is almost always different from cantata to cantata and it's clear that Gardiner's conception of this area of Bach's œuvre is to thank for this clarity. This heightened sharpness is perhaps the single most striking characteristic that distinguishes the SDG set from those by Suzuki on Bis and Koopman on Challenge.
This is not to imply any kind of superiority: indeed, each of the three cycles has their advantages… decisive advantages in some ways. But if you've decided to pursue the cycle of one conductor alone, then it may fairly be said that Gardiner emphasizes the sonic highs and lows more than does either Koopman or Suzuki. But never excessively. The aria "Ach schläfrige Seele" from Mache dich again [CD.1 tr.13] is a case in point. Gardiner quite legitimately points up its almost dramatic qualities. And always, always, in consonance with the text. The ensuing soprano aria, "Bete aber auch dabei" [CD.1 tr.15] is as plangent and tentative as if from one of the Passions. Since it's a simple and uncompromising exhortation that the sinner pray (on waking) in order to receive forgiveness, the understated scoring, which is here performed with equally understated tempi and dynamics, makes the force of such "advice" all the greater: rhetoric is unnecessary; indeed would be counterproductive.
The final cantata on CD1 is BWV 60, the second O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. This dialog between hope and fear, on the other hand, has ample scope for rhetoric; and for drama. Yet, although the singing in particular (Gilchrist, again, and Robin Tyson respectively) is based on the duet, there's a dignity and detachment which prevent music of the early eighteenth century (it dates from 1723) from acquiring an erroneous tinge of "personification". We're still in no doubt as to Bach's intention, though.
The four cantatas on the second CD were all recorded in Winchester cathedral, second only to Canterbury as a site of pilgrimage in the United Kingdom. They include what is often regarded as Bach's finest cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. This concludes the CD and is splendidly performed with all the vigor and authority that one would expect. Before that, though, are BWVs 139, Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, 163 Nur jedem das Seine! and 52 Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!, which are as varied and compelling – and brightly and compellingly played – as any in the series. William Kendall's tenor and Gillian Keith's soprano deserve special praise – as they have done throughout the cycle. Their singing exhibits as much patience as perception. Yet is never either fussy, precious or indulgent.
Mention must also be made of the continuo in these performances: the strings are both sweet and trenchant – listen to their accompaniment of both Kendall in the aria, "Gott ist mein Freund", and the equally inspiring bass of Peter Harvey in "Das Unglü schlägt" from Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott BWV 139 [CD.2 trs.2,4 respectively], for example. They propel the movement forward nicely without ever hurrying. Significantly, the impression you're left with is of a certain inevitability to the way the melodic lines unfold. Ideal. And, frankly, something of a miracle when you consider how little rehearsal time the schedule which this Pilgrimage followed allowed. A corresponding reticence and gentleness is exhibited in the opening movements of Nur jedem das Seine! BWV 163; these convey a subtle, intimate yet earnest sense, the lower strings adding color and richness which is likely to stop the listener in their tracks at the versatility and variety of Bach's compositional technique.
As has been the case in all other of these CDs, the bound in booklet contains the usual introduction to the project and extensive journal (Gardiner is currently completing a book on Bach due out next winter) of the personal as well as musical journey represented by the succession of these performances. It also has all the texts in German and English, although artists' biographies seem to have made way for a mosaic of covers from other volumes in the series. If you're already collecting CDs from this cycle, there is every reason to add this one. If you haven't yet sampled its delights and merits, there is everything in volume 12 to convince you to do so.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.