The latest release
in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s continuing Bach cantata cycle brings
us two concerts recorded only days apart.
The first disc includes
three cantatas for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, recorded
in the church of the monastery founded by the Benedictine Order
in the ninth century. This abbey church, completed in the fifteenth
century, is in south-east France, in the Département de l’Ain.
The Gospel for the Sunday in question is St. Luke’s story of
Jesus healing the ten lepers. It will be remembered that only
one of the ten thought to return to say his thanks. Two of the
three cantatas are very serious in tone, using bodily sickness
as a metaphor for mankind’s sinful condition. The exception
is BWV 17, which picks up the theme of the grateful leper.
which dates from 1723, begins with a chorus that laments man’s
sinfulness. The gravity of the counterpoint is underscored by
the inclusion of a trio of sackbuts in the orchestra. Their
imposing sonority contributes substantially to the monumental
feel of the music, which is sung superbly by the Monteverdi
Choir. The comparison between corporeal and spiritual sickness
is emphasised in the very first recitative, which opens with
the melodramatic statement, ‘Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital’
(“The entire world is but a hospital”). James Gilchrist declaims
this section graphically. But then Bach and his librettist change
the mood and in the following bass aria the listener is presented
with the image of Christ as the source of healing. Peter Harvey
sings this aria most eloquently. Equal pleasure is to be found
in the joyful, dancing soprano aria, ‘Öffne meinen schlechten
Liedern’. This is beautifully sung by Malin Hartelius and the
inclusion of a trio of recorders in the accompaniment adds a
BWV 78 (1724)
also begins with an imposing chorus. This is a superb chorus
of lamentation, which, as Sir John comments in his constantly
illuminating notes, is on a par with the opening choruses of
both the St. John and the St Matthew Passions.
The delicious duet for soprano and alto that follows is in marked
contrast. Gardiner comments that Bach “never wrote more smile-inducing
music!” The voices of Malin Hartelius and Robin Tyson are very
well matched and their performance is irresistible. As in BWV
25 the tenor recitative that follows returns to the theme of
illness as a metaphor for sin and memories of the 1723 cantata
are further invoked by the tenor aria, which once more dwells
on Christ the healer. James Gilchrist really makes the words
of the recitative leap off the page and he’s excellent too in
the aria, ‘Dein Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht’ with its
balmy flute obbligato. The flowing oboe obbligato in the aria
‘Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen’ is a delight, as is Peter
Harvey’s splendid singing. My admiration for him as a Bach singer
grows with every volume in this series in which he takes part.
Here it’s the clarity with which he articulates divisions without
sacrificing the line that impresses.
BWV 17 (1726)
differs from Bach’s other cantatas for this Sunday by focussing
on the gratitude of one of the healed lepers. Thus the mood
of the music is happier. Gardiner aptly describes the opening
chorus, in which the soloists have prominent roles, as “exhilarating
and florid” and I love the way the rippling oboes in the orchestra
are brought out to just the right degree. Later Malin Hartelius’
sparkling form continues with a nimble account of the aria ‘Herr,
deine Güte reicht, so weit der Himmel ist.’ Not to be outdone
James Gilchrist excels in the aria, ‘Welch übermass der Güte’,
a piece that offers yet another example of how so much of Bach’s
music is rooted in dance. The final chorale in this cantata
calls for comment. It’s borrowed from the motet Singet dem
Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225. Gardiner decided it should
be sung quietly and unaccompanied. This approach is absolutely
right for the text of the chorale and this lovely bit of singing
brings to an end a very fine concert.
However, if the
first CD in this set is very fine then its companion is a stunner.
Gardiner tells us that right from the start of the planning
of the Pilgrimage he’d marked out September 29, Michaelmas Day,
as a red-letter day. Even by his standards the notes about this
concert make compelling reading and he makes clear what a significant
date this must have been in Bach’s Lutheran calendar for several
reasons. Certainly the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels,
with its opportunities to depict heavenly battles, inspired
Bach to write some exceptional music and that music in turn
inspired Gardiner and his team to give some thrilling performances.
It’s not clear if
the single movement that is BWV 50, and which is probably
the only surviving movement of a larger work, was designed for
this Feast. However, the text is apposite for it chimes in perfectly
with the theme of the day. The scoring too, resplendent with
trumpets and drums, is fully in keeping with the occasion. Gardiner
leads a sizzling account of it.
The opening chorus of BWV 130 praises
God for creating Angels. Gardiner’s description of this chorus
is as memorable as is his conducting of it: “Bach begins by presenting
a tableau of the angels on parade; these are celestial military
manoeuvres, some of them even danced, rather than the battle itself.”
The battle between the rival legions of Angels led by Michael
and Lucifer is thrillingly depicted in the bass aria ‘Der alte
Drache brennt vor Neid’. This exciting battle aria includes parts
for no less than three trumpets as well as timpani. Peter Harvey
is on top form here, giving a commanding account of the piece.
Then Bach and his librettist move from the heat of battle to meditate
on the protecting power of Angels, first in a lovely recitativo
for soprano and tenor and then in the tenor aria, ‘Lass, o Fürst
der Cherubinen’. The virtuoso gambolling in the flute obbligato
suggests, perhaps, angels lightly dancing? James Gilchrist is
excellent here but, as we shall see, both he and Bach have even
greater delights in store for us later. The cantata ends with
a two-verse chorale in which the trumpets decorate the end of
each line to marvellous effect.
BWV 149 (1728/9)
picks up a different aspect of the day’s liturgy. The tone of
voice of this cantata differs from the other two Michaelmas
cantatas in being “festive rather than combative”. In fact the
opening chorus of rejoicing is recycled from the ‘Hunt’ cantata
BWV 208 (1713). Peter Harvey brings splendid authority to his
aria, ‘Kraft und Stärke sei gesungen’ and I also warmed very
much to Malin Hartelius’ way with the aria ‘Gottes Engel weichen
nie’. Also of note is the marvellous burbling bassoon obbligato
under the well-matched singing of James Gilchrist and Richard
Wyn Roberts in their duet.
Usually I comment
on these discs in order of presentation as that, I believe,
matches the way the cantatas were performed in concert. On this
occasion, however, I’ve deliberately left the best till last
for the performance of BWV 19 (1726) is of quite exceptional
quality – as is the music itself. The opening chorus is an astonishing
fugal creation depicting the battle in heaven between Michael’s
loyal angels and the rebels who had thrown in their lot with
Lucifer. Bach depicts the struggle with graphic music and I
can’t imagine it more brilliantly realised than it is here.
The virtuosity of the Monteverdi Choir is simply staggering
and the performance is breathlessly exciting.
Then things calm
down a bit and in the aria ‘Gott schickt uns Mahanaim zu’ Malin
Hartelius blends beautifully with the intertwining pair of oboes
that support her grateful vocal line. I’ve found that in many
of the preceding volumes there is one stand-out performance
that compels attention even in the midst of so much fine playing
and singing. Here I have no hesitation in saying that the palm
goes to James Gilchrist for his spellbinding rendition of the
seraphic aria ‘Bleibt, ihr engel, bleibt bei mir.' In a note
Gilchrist, whose mother is German with several family members
living near Bremen, leaves us in no doubt that this concert
was a special experience for him. Of this aria he writes, “I
felt allowed – encouraged – truly to soar.” And soar he does!
The voice is cushioned on the siciliano rhythm on the strings
while a soft solo trumpet ethereally intones the chorale melody
‘Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, O Herr’ in the background. One
notes from the booklet that the aria lasts for eight minutes
but, in truth, the performance is timeless. Gilchrist’s singing,
and his identification with the text and with Bach’s inspiration,
is beyond praise. It is the highlight of a quite magnificent
performance of a magnificent cantata.
In every respect this
set lives up to the very high standards of previous issues in
the series. The performances are superb throughout. Gardiner’s
direction is inspired and his notes eloquent and illuminating.
The recorded sound is first class. Gardiner’s cycle is already
a major event in the Bach discography and this latest instalment
adds further lustre to a distinguished series. It’s essential
listening for all lovers of Bach’s cantatas.
Cantata Pilgrimage themed page