Bach Cantatas, Vol 8
John Eliot Gardiner commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death with the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, a year-long tour in 2000 of Europe and the UK by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir that presented all of Bach’s extant cantatas on the appropriate liturgical feast days. Initially, there was talk of DG Archiv recording the entire series, but in the end the label released what amounted to a sampler, 12 CDs in all, including several discs made in the studio prior to the tour.
Now, though, with the establishment of Soli Deo Gloria, a Gardiner in-house label representing his various ensembles, it seems that the cycle will at last be released in its entirety. Here are the first two instalments. Setting the music aside for a moment, SDG’s presentation is first class. Indeed, these releases are considerably more attractive than DG’s edition. Some may gripe that the CDs are offered only in pairs, but they’re cased in a handsomely designed hardbound book, complete with texts, translations and Gardiner’s extensive, informative notes (based on a journal he kept during the pilgrimage). Generous playing time is another advantage.
As for the interpretations, they are consistently fine – often superb, in fact – with surprisingly few wrong steps or disappoint- ments, especially given the unusually gruelling performance schedule that produced them.
When I received my copies, I bounced from disc to disc, sampling favourite movements – and there are a great many mind-blowing, beautiful ones here. The deliciously syncopated contralto aria from No 30, sung with poise by Wilke te Brummelstroete and graced by playing of magical delicacy from the EBS, had me reaching for the repeat button. The extraordinary opening chorus of No 8, with its seemingly endless melodic tendrils, chiming flute part and plucked strings, is given an unusual and charming lilt, making it sound like a celestial dance. Special mention must be made of tenor Mark Padmore’s artistry. He maintains his sweet, ringingly clear tone even in the demanding leaps and roulades of his aria in No 95; I’ve never heard this ravishing music sung with such understanding.
Listening to each of the cantatas in their entirety provides another reason for admiration, for there is a sense of unity to each; the movements flow together to form dramatic wholes. Such coherence is easily discerned in a relatively brief work, such as No 167, though it’s also perceptible in a larger one like No 75, where the structure unfolds with certainty as well as lucidity. Not that there’s much skimping on detail. Gardiner’s careful balance between choir and orchestra in the final chorale of No 167, for example, proved a small revelation: the instruments creating an intricately woven yet airy cushion for the voices.
It’s in music that’s delicate or intimate that Gardiner shines most luminously, in fact, and some may find that he unduly emphasises the contemplative. In his hands, for example, the crux of No 51 is its lyrical centre, and the brilliance of the outer movements, with their virtuoso writing for soprano and trumpet, sounds curiously muted (in the booklet-note Gardiner admits to his preference for the ‘heavenly’ central aria). The opening chorus of No 7 is also strangely subdued – the drama downplayed and the sharp, French Overture-type rhythms softened. Yet there are moments, too, when Gardiner seizes the dramatic situation, as in the volatile, quasi-operatic bass aria in No 30, aided by Dietrich Henschel’s warm, powerfully projected singing.
Those enjoying Suzuki’s cycle on BIS, as I am, will find Gardiner’s thoughtful, refined approach strikingly similar. Gardiner’s versions sound just a bit warmer to my ears, though, and although his interpretations offer the finest attributes of period practice – trans- parency and litheness – there is a long-breathed musicality here that I find lacking in, say, Koopman’s series on Challenge. So, as I await the next instalments from SDG, I’m making room on my shelves.