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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage: The First Releases

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Volume 1
Cantatas for the Feast of St. John the Baptist

Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe, BWV 167
Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7
Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30
Cantatas for the First Sunday after Trinity

Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75
Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 239
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I BWV 20
Katharine Fuge, Malin Hartelius, Gillian Keith, Joanne Lunn (sopranos); Wilke te Brummelstroete, William Towers, Robin Tyson (altos); Paul Agnew, James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore (tenors); Julian Clarkson, Thomas Guthrie, Peter Harvey, Dietrich Henschel (basses)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. St. Giles, Cripplegate, London 23-26 June 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 101 [2 CDs 73:57 + 74:29]

 

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Monteverdi Productions

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Volume 8
Cantatas for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? BWV 138
Was Gott tut, das is wohlgetan II BWV 99
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51
Was Gott tut, das is wohlgetan III BWV 100
rec. Unser Lieben Frauen, Bremen, 28 September 2000
Cantatas for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Komm, du süsse Todessstunde, BWV 161
Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende? BWV 27
Liebster Gott, wenn wird ich sterben? BWV 8
Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95
Katharine Fuge, Malin Hartelius, Gillian Keith, Joanne Lunn (sopranos); Wilke te Brummelstroete, William Towers, Robin Tyson (altos); Paul Agnew, James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore (tenors); Julian Clarkson, Thomas Guthrie, Peter Harvey, Dietrich Henschel (basses)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Santo Domingo de Bonaval, Santiago de Compostela, 7 October 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 104 [2 CDs: 72:02 + 73:02]

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Volume 10
Cantatas for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen, BWV 48
Wo soll ich fliehen hin, BWV 5
Es reisset euch ein schrecklich Ende, BWV 90
(For the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity)
Ich will der Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56
rec. Erlöserkirche, Potsdam, 29 October 2000
Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79
Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 192
(Occasion unspecified)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
Katharine Fuge, Malin Hartelius, Gillian Keith, Joanne Lunn (sopranos); Wilke te Brummelstroete, William Towers, Robin Tyson (altos); Paul Agnew, James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore (tenors); Julian Clarkson, Thomas Guthrie, Peter Harvey, Dietrich Henschel (basses)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Schlosskirche, Wittenberg, 31 October 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 110 [2 CDs: 70:45 + 51:01]

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The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was one of the most remarkable musical odysseys ever and a most remarkable tribute to Bach in the 250th anniversary year of his death. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s project to perform all Bach’s extant church cantatas on the appropriate Sundays would have been a remarkable thing in itself. However, turning this into a peripatetic project, performing in churches the length and breadth of Europe - with a side trip to New York thrown in at the end for good measure - was a visionary idea that made the project into something very special indeed.

As is well known, when Gardiner first mooted the idea DG intended to record all the concerts and issue a complete cantata cycle on CD. Sadly, before the Pilgrimage began DG had pulled out. Instead they issued only a dozen CDs, several of which contained earlier studio recordings. That abbreviated DG series also includes some twenty cantatas in live recordings set down during the Pilgrimage itself and, so far as I know, these CDs remain available.

The inability of DG to support the project as originally planned was a great disappointment at the time. However, in July 2000 the Pilgrimage came to Gloucestershire, where I live, and I was fortunate to attend the splendid concert given in the wonderful surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey. It was noticeable that recording equipment was in use and so I had a flicker of hope that a few more recordings from the Pilgrimage might eventually see the light of day. During 2005 that started to happen with a series of CDs issued on a new label, Soli Deo Gloria, set up by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir precisely for this purpose. To date there have been five releases, the first three of which I’ll consider here. I am excluding from this mini-survey the recent CD, SDG 114, which included the studio recording of the recently rediscovered work Alles Mit Gott, BWV 1127 since, strictly, that is outside the scope of the Pilgrimage.

The first general point to make about these releases is that the packaging and documentation are excellent. Each pair of discs is contained in a stiff cardboard gatefold sleeve. The one slight quibble I have is that the holders for the discs themselves are not very user friendly and it’s difficult not to handle the discs when extracting or replacing them. Inside, as well as pictures of the churches concerned, texts and translations, each volume contains a note about both the venues and the music by Gardiner himself, These come from a journal that he kept during the pilgrimage and are elegantly written, packed with insights and of absorbing interest. With one exception all the quotations in the essay that follows are taken from Gardiner’s notes. The sound quality on all the CDs issued to date has been first rate.

I hope that in due course it will be possible for the live recordings currently issued by DG to be reissued under the SDG imprint. Partly that’s because it would be fitting for all the releases to be on one label. But in addition I have to say that the SDG packaging and documentation is superior to that provided by DG though, in fairness, the DG releases have excellent liner notes by Ruth Tatlow.

Before commenting on the CDs I think it’s pertinent to mention one other release even if, strictly speaking, it falls outside the scope of this survey. The Pilgrimage actually began in the dying days of 1999 with performances of the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 in the Herderkirche, Weimar on 23 and 27 December. This very fine performance has been released on a pair of DVDs on the TDK label (DV-BACH0). There’s a very good team of soloists and Gardiner conducts a performance that is fresh and alive. I don’t know if SDG has any plans to release an audio version of this performance but the present DVD is very recommendable indeed, especially as the set also includes two interesting documentary films.

If I have a quibble about the CDs issued so far it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a discernible pattern behind the releases. Not even the Volume numbers are consecutive and so far we’ve had a rather haphazard sequence, chiefly of cantatas for Easter and Trinity. It’s not easy to discern a strategy behind the release schedule so far. Most volumes to date contain a mix of familiar and less familiar cantatas but the quality of musical invention is amazingly high, as is the standard of performance.

Volume 1

The series starts very strongly indeed. BWV 167, an early Leipzig cantata that dates from 1723, opens with a florid tenor aria, which Paul Agnew despatches with panache. Later there’s a "euphonious and pithy" duet for soprano and alto, winningly sung by Joanne Lunn and Wilke te Brummelstroete, the latter a singer I don’t recall hearing before. The splendid playing of the oboe da caccia obbligato here is a portent of the consistently superlative standard of the instrumental contribution heard on all these discs.

BWV 7, another Leipzig cantata, from the following year, opens with a huge, imposing chorus, which is really a chorale fantasia over a French overture. Dietrich Henschel is strong and ringing in his aria, ‘Merkt und hört, ihr Menschenkinder.’ There’s another stylish contribution from Paul Agnew, who sings the demanding aria, ‘Des Vaters Stimme liess sich hören’ with lovely, fluent delivery.

BWV 30 starts with a chorus of "huge energy and fizz", which bursts in without any orchestral introduction, and which recurs at the end of the work. Henschel has two arias in this work and he’s splendidly authoritative in both. The alto aria, ‘Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder’, is an "enchanting gavotte" and both Wilke te Brummelstroete and the flautist (Marten Root?) distinguish themselves. Joanne Lunn sings her aria, ‘Eilt, ihr Stunden, kommt herbei,’ engagingly, displaying a very secure technique.

The first cantata on the second disc is BWV 75, the first performance of which took place just eight days after Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723 to take up his duties as Kantor. It’s a grandly ambitious piece in two parts, which must have made the Leipzig congregation sit up and take notice of their new Kantor at once. The weighty and purposeful opening chorus is delivered strongly. The soloists are all in good voice. This time the soprano is Gillian Keith and she’s very poised in her aria, ‘Ich nehme mein Leiden mit Freuden auf mich’. I also much admired some elevated singing from Wilke te Brummelstroete in the aria ‘Jesus macht mich geistliche reich.’ But the stand-out performance in this cantata is Henschel’s trenchant rendition of ‘Mein Herze glaubt und liebt’ where he’s partnered by a splendid, ringing trumpet obbligato.

BWV 39, which dates from 1726, begins with an extended chorus of great compositional skill and illustrative imagination. I think it’s significant that Gardiner devotes most of his note on the cantata to this one movement. When he turns from the role of commentator to that of interpreter he builds the chorus with real concentration and focus. This movement, it seems to me, shows Bach at his most innovative even though the musical means he employs are deceptively simple. In truth, though the following movements are good - and very well performed - it’s this first chorus that dominates the work. However, the aria for soprano with two recorders is enchanting.

BWV 20 is a mighty cantata with a mighty title. It opens with a dramatic chorus of great power, which is meat and drink to the Monteverdi Choir, who realise it superbly. Paul Agnew is splendid in the intense, highly strung aria, ‘Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange.’ Gardiner’s note is one of his most insightful and he’s particularly good on the bass aria, ‘Gott ist gerecht in seinen Werken’, which is masterfully delivered by Henschel. But this fine singer is even more commanding in his second aria, ‘Wacht auf, wacht auf, verloren Schafe’, which Gardiner very aptly compares to ‘The trumpet shall sound’ from Messiah. In summary, this superb cantata receives a performance that is entirely worthy of the quality of the music.

Volume 8

The first cantata we hear is BWV 138, another cantata from the first Leipzig cycle and a "highly original experimental work." It opens with a deeply poignant chorus that mixes chorale and recitative. Hard on its heels, separated only by a recitative, comes another chorus that combines chorale and recitative, but this is very different in style from its predecessor. Eventually the mood of the cantata becomes more optimistic and Gardiner and his forces convey this change well.

BWV 51 is a cantata that Gardiner has recorded before, a studio recording from 1983 for Philips. Then his soloists were Emma Kirkby and trumpeter Christian Steele Perkins. His tempi for the outer movements were decidedly on the fast side in 1983 and are pretty similar on this occasion – indeed, his view of the whole cantata seems very consistent. The first movement goes off like a rocket. Malin Hartelius, another singer new to me, is equal to all the demands placed on her by Bach and Gardiner jointly and she’s partnered brilliantly by trumpeter Mike Harrison. In fact, though I’ve always liked the 1983 recording I find I prefer Miss Hartelius’s reading to Emma Kirkby’s as she sounds to me to have a slightly fuller voice. She’s beautifully expressive in the recitative and then gives us some exquisitely poised singing in the aria, ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte’. The concluding Alleluia aria is marvellously lively. Overall, this is a first rate account of a hugely taxing solo cantata.

BWV 99 and 100 share the same title and are based on the same Lutheran hymn but BWV 99 (1724) only sets two verses of the hymn itself whereas every one of the six movements of the later cantata (1734/5) sets a verse. Some may find Gardiner’s tempo for the chorus with which BWV 99 opens too brisk. Personally I think it’s refreshingly bright and well suited to the words. There’s only one solo aria in the piece, a demandingly chromatic tenor aria with a busy flute obbligato. James Gilchrist sings it with his usual intelligence and light, ringing tone. Later we hear a duetto in which a pair of voices and a pair of obbligato instruments interweave contrapuntally. The performers here articulate and inter-relate their individual lines moist skilfully.

BWV 100 requires a larger orchestra. The opening chorus, which is musically similar to its counterpart in BWV 99, is once again taken briskly. There are no recitatives in this cantata but the soloists are all challenged. The demanding alto/tenor duet, which is placed second is well done by Gilchrist and William Towers. The following aria, for soprano, is nicely sung but the ear is drawn irresistibly to the hugely testing, rippling flute obbligato. Peter Harvey projects his bass aria strongly. The penultimate movement is an alto aria and it features a gorgeous oboe d’amore obbligato. William Towers projects the vocal line positively but I’m not quite sure that he achieves the description "lyrical and soothing" that Gardiner applies to the music. However, he still gives a very good account of the piece. The exuberant closing chorale is the same one that we encountered at the end of BWV 75 (Vol. 1) albeit with some slight augmentations to the orchestral scoring.

The cantatas for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity reveal Bach at his expressive best and the performances here are fully worthy of the music. In BWV 161 we hear the ghostly zephyrs of a pair of recorders. The evocative sound world is highly reminiscent of the early cantata Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106. Robin Tyson is suitably otherworldly in his singing of the heavenly opening aria, ‘Komm, du süsse Todessstunde’, from which the cantata takes its name. Mark Padmore reveals in a booklet note that he’d never sung this cantata before, which enabled him to impart freshness to the music. How I agree. To him falls the heartfelt aria ‘Mein Verlangen’, which he sings with superb ringing tone and great expressiveness. On the day, his performance must have been given added visual impetus for he was positioned on a ledge at the top of a stone stairway where the pulpit should have been. For me, despite the beauties of the opening aria, Padmore makes ‘Mein Verlangen’ the heart of the cantata on this occasion. Sample the marvellous open-throated ring in his voice every time he sings the words "verlangen" or "bald." There’s some nicely delicate singing by the choir in the penultimate movement and then the recorders weave an enchanting counter-melody round the concluding chorale. This is a masterly cantata which here receives a performance to savour.

BWV 27 is another fine work. The opening chorus is a moving lament, punctuated by brief solo passages. The flowing, irresistibly chirpy alto aria, ‘Willkommen! Will ich sagen’ is a delight, enhanced by a marvellous cornetto part. The concluding chorale, rather unusually, is not by Bach but is his slight adaptation of one by a sixteenth century composer, Johann Rosenmüller. It’s a most happy borrowing.

The opening chorus of BWV 8 features some marvellously original wind sonorities. Both the orchestral players and the chorus are on top form. In his notes Gardiner draws an intriguing parallel with Berlioz’s wind scoring in L’Enfance du Christ. Mark Padmore, the pick of a fine bunch of soloists at this concert, sings the aria ‘Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen’ with exemplary technique. At several points his precise placing of each in a series of high, staccato quaver is most skilful. The bass aria ‘Doch weichet, ihr tollen, Vergeblichen Sorgen!’ is a life-enhancing dance. Here there’s a fine spring in the step of the superb flautist (Rachel Beckett?) and Thomas Guthrie sings it well. We’ve heard little of soprano Katharine Fuge up to now but she’s meltingly lovely at the start of her recitative. A strongly affirmative chorale puts the seal on a splendid performance.

At the beginning of BWV 95 Bach once again demonstrates an original approach to chorales. The short interjections by the solo tenor (Mark Padmore) add another different dimension. Gardiner obtains a sprightly performance and especially relishes the section of the movement, which he describes as having "something of a jam session feel." Mark Padmore delights in the "mesmerising" aria, ‘Ach, Schlage doch bald, sel’ge Stunde’, where we are also treated to some superb wind playing.

Volume 10

BWV 48 opens with a deeply moving chorus, which gives the cantata its title. It’s sung with fine feeling by the Monteverdi Choir. William Towers is highly persuasive in his aria. James Gilchrist has the aria ‘Vergibt mir Jesus meine Sünden’, which has a relatively low-lying tessitura – for once! It’s preceded by a recitative, which he delivers most characterfully.

Gardiner’s note for BWV 5 is, even by his standards, especially perceptive and interesting. He directs a sturdy account of the opening chorus. Then Gilchrist, in fine voice, has what Gardiner rightly describes as the "entrancing" aria, ‘Ergiesse dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle’. This aria, when I first heard it years ago, sung raptly by Kurt Equiluz for Harnoncourt in the groundbreaking Telefunken cycle, was, for me, an early awakening to the beauties of Bach’s vocal music. Not only is the vocal line wonderfully mellifluous but also the aria is graced by a viola obbligato, felicitously described by Gardiner as one of "tumbling liquid gestures." What a superb description! Happily, this outstandingly lyrical aria is splendidly achieved here. Peter Harvey is authoritative in the bass aria, ‘Verstumme, Höllenheer’ and he’s supported by a superb solo trumpet.

BWV 90 is included here because the timing of Easter in 2000 meant an insufficient supply of Sundays after Trinity. It opens with a biting, fiery tenor aria. James Gilchrist is just as good in this as he was in the lyrical effusions of BWV 5. Peter Harvey is once again in alliance with the trumpeter for the aria, ‘So löschet im Eifer der rächender Richter’ and once again both musicians rise splendidly to the occasion.

Harvey carries virtually the entire burden of BWV 56, except for the concluding chorale, for this, of course, is one of Bach’s celebrated solo cantatas. The extended first aria, ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen’, finds him producing some fine and sensitive singing. He spins a long legato line. Then, in the succeeding recitative he is eloquent and dignified. The mood changes for the second aria, ‘Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch’. This is almost perky music. Harvey gives a buoyant performance and the solo oboe partners him delightfully. This is a fine performance of the cantata.

The choices of some venues on the pilgrimage were especially apposite and surely none more so than that of the Schlosskirche, Wittenberg, where our pilgrims marked the Feast of Reformation. This was the very church on whose door in 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his famous 95 Theses, the signal for what became the Reformation. Not surprisingly, this major date in the Lutheran calendar inspired Bach. Cantata BWV 79 opens with a splendid, majestic chorus, to the textures of which horns and timpani add richness. It’s fervently performed here. Straight afterwards, in a stroke of genius, Bach provides a great contrast through the intimacy of the scale of the alto aria ‘Gott ist unser Sonn und Schild’ but immediately after this the fireworks start again with the ebullient fanfares of a horn-enriched chorale. The whole performance of this cantata is exciting and committed.

Next we hear a very short cantata, BWV 192. It consists of just three movements: two choruses framing a duet for soprano for soprano and bass. It’s not, perhaps, one of the most memorable of the cantatas but its placement here is shrewd and satisfying for it acts almost as a musical sorbet between the much more substantial fayre of the other two cantatas on this disc.

BWV 80 is, of course, one of Bach’s most famous cantatas. Here proceedings are enlivened greatly, for practical reasons explained in the notes, by the addition to the orchestra of a bass sackbut. This imparts a "Breughel-like swagger to the music", producing some wonderfully thunderous low notes. The Monteverdi Choir is in full cry in the opening chorus, no doubt spurred on by the presence of the bass sackbut as well as by the occasion itself. Joanne Lunn is gorgeously delicate in the plaintive sections of the aria, ‘Komm in mein Herzenshaus’. The choir is involved twice more. They display splendid energy in the central chorale and the affirmative strength they bring to the concluding chorale is most involving. By a piece of serendipity (or adroit planning) the Pilgrimage moved straight from Wittenberg, the cradle of the Reformation, to Rome for its next concert. Gardiner recounts that in a little concluding speech the pastor of the Schlosskirche sent them on their way, mischievously enjoining them to "Carry the good work on to Rome."

Actually, at the time of writing the Rome concert has yet to be released on CD. In fact the next release finds the Pilgrims spending Christmas in New York, as we shall see in due course.

The first releases in this series have garnered a good deal of critical praise. It is to be hoped that this is mirrored in sales for, presumably, that is the factor that will determine whether or not SDG can issue a complete cycle of the cantatas. I hope very much that they will be able to do this. For one thing, if the standard of the initial releases is maintained then the full cycle will be a very significant addition to the discography of Bach’s cantatas. But more than that, this is more than a studio-made series of discs. It’s the aural record of a major musical undertaking and an act of homage. As such it not only deserves but, in my opinion, demands to be preserved for posterity. As I write this the omens are good with two further sets, Volumes 19 and 21 just announced for release. I’ll hope to report again after visiting, as it were, a few more stops on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.

I mentioned earlier that the performances come across as much more than just concerts. Already in these early releases I detect a palpable atmosphere, a rather special commitment and a sense of something extraordinary unfolding. Perhaps this will be only fully apparent when, one hopes, the complete cycle has appeared on CD. However, I’ve heard enough already to make me believe that these recordings document a very special achievement. In support of this view let the last word, for now, be from one of the performers. During the Pilgrimage some musicians, soloists especially, took part in some concerts and then left the venture to return later. One such was baritone, Dietrich Henschel. He sang in the performances of Christmas Oratorio in December 1999 and then rejoined the Pilgrimage for the concerts in June 2000 (Volume 1.) Here is part of what he says in a note accompanying those CDs.

"I had already found a different quality in the inaugural concert of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar at Christmas 1999, one which gave me a special excitement…….[In June 2000] I joined forces with them again. Their pilgrimage had progressed, their way of performing had evolved – they had become spiritually familiar with one another. Their obvious understanding of the substance of the music had gained a unique quality as a result of continuous exposure and experimentation during rehearsals…..Never before had I been so overwhelmed by the power and strength of an entire ensemble of professional musicians forged into a community united by a common spiritual goal."

A remarkable testimony, the accuracy of which, I suggest, is readily apparent when listening to these discs. I am impatient for further instalments and recommend these initial CDs enthusiastically.

John Quinn

Visit the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage webpage for reviews of other releases in this series

 



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