Bach Cantatas, Vol 22
Easter 2000 had strong historical resonances for Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s cantata pilgrims, as these outstanding works were performed in St George’s, Eisenach, where Bach was baptised, and only a stone’s throw from Wartburg Castle where Luther completed his New Testament translations.
One can only guess what inspired an unusually visceral reading of Christ lag in Todesbanden (arguably Bach’s first great creation), with a plethora of extremes from the Monteverdi Choir. One might quibble with moments where orchestral gestures are a little exaggerated but this is a performance where the sinuous lines and the momentum of liturgical ritual allow Luther’s great hymn to take us tantalisingly to the brink of Christ’s victory.
The Easter cantatas receive some ebullient readings. Erfreut euch boasts one of Bach’s longest choral movements and the composer (and Gardiner) demands vigilance from his virtuoso ensemble, whose roulades of quicksilver scales shed all the fear of the preceding weeks. Despite a few uncertainties in the chromatic solos of the middle section, this is a powerful account whose spiritual core is found in the central recitative-duet between the allegorical characters Hope and Fear.
The presence of James Gilchrist in any Bach recording raises the stakes and his singing in the little-known pearl Ein Herz is an infectious display of the new believer’s ecstatic joy, expressed disarmingly in his first aria and reinforced in the duet with alto “Wir danken and preisen”.
This latest volume continues to present the riches of the Pilgrimage with admirable consistency; rough edges aside, there is a unique sense of exploration and devotion to the music which comes from the palpable adrenalin of live performance in an oeuvre which has, historically, been studio-bound. Bleib’ bei uns, with its strong St John Passion undertones, is an embodiment of the best in the millennial journey and receives one of the most concentrated and telling performances on disc.