In the year 2000, John Eliot Gardiner set out on his
Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, with the goal of performing all of Bach’s sacred
cantatas in churches around Europe and in New York. Over a 52-week period,
his orchestra, choir and soloists achieved this unique goal, with a
fervour that was almost religious. This DVD presents one concert, recorded
in Wales, and a documentary of the entire tour.
First of all, one must laud John Eliot Gardiner for
his persistence and belief in such a wild, crazy project. Not only was
it logistically difficult - rather than taking the easy way out, and
performing all the cantatas in one city, or even one country, he wanted
to travel to different cities every week - but it was a gruelling experience
for the musicians, who had to learn three or four cantatas a week, as
well as travel to a new venue and perform them. If this DVD is any example,
this tour bordered on the miraculous. The three cantatas performed here
are excellent, with musicians, choir and soloists alike giving emotional
and profound performances.
The high point of the recording is the cantata BWV
199, for solo soprano and orchestra. Magdalena Kozená is one
of, and perhaps the finest soprano I have ever heard sing Bach’s sacred
music. Her heart-rending performance of this cantata is unforgettable.
Not only is her voice magnificent, but she puts incredible emotion into
her singing, using her entire body to express her feelings. The moving
aria Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen, with obbligato oboe (played by the
excellent Marcel Ponceele), is one of the most memorable arias I have
ever heard. If only for this cantata, this DVD is worth buying.
The hour-long documentary on the Pilgrimage is excellent,
and shows how Gardiner developed such a mad project, but also shows
how committed the musicians were to this tour. As the tour goes on -
the documentary shows the musicians in twelve cities along their route
- one can see the players become more intense, more deeply committed
to the project. While features are drawn in the final concert in New
York - and Gardiner seems to have put on a few pounds - one can imagine
the sadness of these musicians who perform their final concert together.
Unfortunately, Gardiner’s original plan to release
CDs of all of these performances was axed by Deutsche Grammofon. They
were all recorded, however, and, perhaps, one day they will be released.
They constitute an extraordinary testament to some of the finest music
ever written and a true belief in the power of that music. In any case,
this DVD is as good as it gets. Hearing and seeing Magdalena Kozená
is a great pleasure, and the rest of the music is extraordinary as well.