This is the release in the series for which I’ve been waiting
most keenly. That’s because it includes a concert which I was
lucky enough to attend. In July 2000, as part of the Cheltenham
Music Festival, Sir John led his pilgrims into the magnificent
medieval surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey for a late Sunday afternoon
concert. I was among the capacity audience, accompanied by two
Bach-loving friends, both of whom have since died. I’m sure they
would have shared my pleasure at reliving the event through the
medium of CD. I had completely forgotten that the previous evening
Gardiner and the Pilgrims had been at London’s Royal Albert Hall
when they’d performed two of these cantatas as part of a Henry
Wood Promenade Concert. Sir John comments how pleased they all
were to get back to the more intimate feel of a Pilgrimage concert.
Tewkesbury began with BWV 24. The cantata opens with
the words “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte von deutscher Treu und Güte
macht uns vor Gott und Menschen schön.” (“An unstained mind
of German truth and goodness makes us beloved of God and men.”)
There’s a calm assurance and confidence about the music to
which Bach sets this very Lutheran sentiment. The stately
aria that results is sung with great poise by Nathalie Stutzmann.
Later there’s a vigorous chorus, which is far from easy to
pull off – and which gave even Gardiner’s forces a little
trouble in rehearsal, we are told. In performance, however,
it’s completely successful. The other especially persuasive
feature of this cantata is the plangent tone that Paul Agnew
brings to the tenor aria, ‘Treu und Wahrheit sei der Grund’.
His approach is ideally suited to the music.
Alfred Dürr states
that when Bach first performed BWV 24 in Leipzig he had, on
the preceding three Sundays, given the Leipzig congregations
much longer and more elaborate bi-partite cantatas, BWV 75,
76 and 21. In order to keep his offering for the Fourth Sunday
after Trinity in similar scale he performed two cantatas that
day, one either side of the sermon, and the second cantata
was BWV 185. This is a much earlier piece but one that
contains a good deal of admirable music. It opens with a lovely
soprano/tenor duet and here we find the voices of Magdalena
Kožená and Paul Agnew intertwining languorously. Miss Kožená’s
tone is particularly melting. Added interest comes from Bach’s
use of a clarion, which, as Gardiner puts it, we hear “hovering
above the two amorous vocal lines.” Further into the cantata
there’s another treat in the form of the alto aria ‘Sei bemüht
in dieser Zeit’. It’s an enchanting aria and, as Gardiner
says, Nathalie Stutzmann’s “sumptuous yet transparent contralto
seemed just right for this aria, especially in the glowing
afternoon light of Tewkesbury Abbey.” Later comes a bass aria
but I’m afraid I don’t find Bach’s music all that appealing
on this occasion, nor is the timbre of Nicholas Teste’s voice
as ingratiating as I’d like.
The final Tewkesbury
offering is BWV 177. This cantata is based on a hymn
and Bach, setting five verses, eschews recitative. There’s
a substantial and elaborate opening chorus in which the Monteverdi
Choir excels. In the alto aria Nathalie Stutzmann once again
produces beautifully communicative singing. Her aria is sparsely
accompanied by continuo only. The soprano aria is a more elaborate
affair with a very decorated vocal line. Magdalena Kožená
gives it a fine, fluent reading. The remaining aria is for
tenor and it’s mainly jaunty in tone. Agnew sings excellently.
Of special note in this aria is the chattering double obbligato,
provided by a violin and a bucolic, soft-grained bassoon.
The next stop on the journey was a city
with very direct Bachian links. Mühlhausen was the city where
Bach worked for just a year (1708-08) before moving on to
Weimar, though he appears to have maintained cordial links
with Mühlhausen after his departure.
Only two cantatas
for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity have come down to us. This
relative paucity gave Gardiner the chance to perform at Mühlhausen
two highly appropriate cantatas, written for the city but
for other occasions. BWV 71 was composed for the inauguration
of the town council in February 1708. The splendour of this
civic occasion prompted Bach to write for pretty extravagant
forces. Four solo voices (SATB) are augmented by an optional
ripieno choir (also SATB) and no less than four separate instrumental
choirs are specified: three trumpets and drums; two recorders
and cello; two oboes and bassoon; two violins, viola, and
violone. However, Gardiner points out that the cantata has
its weaknesses and he says that it is “somewhat disjointed
and short-winded”, a verdict from which it is hard to dissent.
However, he very rightly singles out for praise the penultimate
movement, the chorus ‘Du wollest dem Feinde” The gentle, expressive
music in this movement is a cut above the rest of the score.
As Dürr comments, it’s “the most original and captivating
movement in the whole cantata.” It’s splendidly done here.
Gardiner fields a strong team of soloists,
who blend together most effectively in the third movement,
a quartet. This concert introduces us to a soloist not previously
encountered on the Pilgrimage, the South African tenor Kobie
van Rensburg. His voice was completely new to me but he makes
a most favourable impression with a strong, ringing tone and
clear articulation and diction. This is heard to good advantage
almost immediately in the aria ‘Ich bin nun achtzig Jahr’.
The next cantata,
BWV 131 is a much stronger and more rounded composition.
Perhaps it helps that Bach had a much more unified text to
set in the shape of verses from Psalm 130. The opening chorus
is quite superb. The keenly felt slow music with which it
opens is most eloquently performed and no less impressive
is the account of the lighter, more rapid music that follows.
Gardiner dovetails the contrasting textures of solo quartet
and main choir most effectively. The fugal chorus, ‘Ich harre
des Herrn’, is marvellously balanced, both in musical and
emotional terms. I enjoyed van Rensburg’s shaping of the long
expressive lines in the following aria, ‘Meine Seele wartet
auf den Herrn von einer’ and the impressive chorus with which
the cantata ends is splendidly articulated by all concerned.
This whole performance is a tremendous success.
Then we hear two
later cantatas, specifically written for the Fifth Sunday,
where the Gospel for the day tells the story of Peter fishing
all night without success yet, letting out his net one more
time at the command of Jesus, he then hauls in a munificent
catch (Luke, chapter 5 vv1-11). First comes BWV 93.
The libretto avoids a specific reference to the gospel story
until the tenor recitative (movement V). The extended opening
chorus incorporates important contributions from the quartet
of soloists. Kobie van Rensburg again attracts favourable
attention in his aria ‘Man halte nur ein wenig stille’ (‘Remain
silent for a while’). This aria is well described by Gardiner
as an “elegant passepied” and I appreciate the touch
of steel at the heart of van Rensburg’s plangent voice. Later,
he has an important recitative and it’s good to find that
he can bring a sense of drama and some effective word painting
to a passage such as this. I also liked very much the alert,
bright singing of Joanne Lunn in her aria ‘Ich will auf den
Herren schaun’, where the oboe obbligato is an equal source
BWV 88. This opens with a pretty unusual bass aria.
At the start the libretto refers to God sending fishermen
(“Behold, I will send out many fishermen, says the Lord”)
and Bach responds with a wonderfully easeful, lilting barcarolle
in 6/8 time. The grateful, elevated vocal line is meat and
drink to Peter Harvey, who delivers it quite beautifully.
Abruptly the mood changes (“And thereafter I will send out
many hunters”), the pace quickens appreciably and Bach deploys,
in Gardiner’s words, “a rampaging pair of high horns” in the
orchestra. Harvey is impressive throughout.
chance to enjoy van Rensburg’s singing in this cantata. He
makes a very good job of the aria ‘Nein, Gott ist allezeit
geflissen’ (No, God is always eager that we be on the right
path’) Later Joanne Lunn and William Towers blend most effectively
in their duet. Gardiner tells us that the audience for this
concert was “attentive and rapturous even by the standards
of this pilgrimage” and no wonder, for on the evidence of
these recordings the good people of Mühlhausen were treated
to a splendid and most stimulating concert.
Yet again the standard
of performance in these recordings is extremely high and the music
is wonderful. Bach’s stream of invention and inspiration is a
never-ending source of wonder. I’m also filled with renewed admiration
for Sir John, who seems to have an inexhaustible capacity to say
something fresh about this marvellous music each time he picks
up either his pen to write the notes or his baton to direct the
performances. This indispensable series goes from strength to
Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page