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Monteverdi Productions

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Pilgrim’s Progress. The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage: A Second Report

Volume 14
Cantatas for Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 91
Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110
Dazu ist erscheinen der Sohn Gottes, BWV 40
Christum wir sollen loben schön, BWV 121
Katharine Fuge, Joanne Lunn (sopranos); William Towers, Robin Tyson (altos); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. St. Bartholomew’s, New York, 25 December 2000

Volume 24
Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter (Jubilate)
Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12
Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103
Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen, BWV 146
Brigitte Geller (soprano); William Towers (alto); Mark Padmore (tenor); Julian Clarkson (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Schlosskirche, Altenburg, 14 May 2000
Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Easter (Cantate)
Wo gehest du hin? BWV 166
Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe, BWV 108
Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, BWV 117
(Occasion unspecified)
Robin Tyson (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. St. Mary’s, Warwick, 21 May 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 107 [76:53 + 51:48]


Recently, I reviewed the first three volumes of discs in this series (see review), all of which were released during 2005. Also released in 2005 were Volumes 14 and 24. I refer readers to my earlier survey, in which I made some general introductory comments about the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.

These next two volumes in the evolving cycle maintain the high artistic and presentational standards set by the first releases. In particular, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s notes are a delight and, unless otherwise stated, quotations in this review are taken from his commentaries. Each release also carries a note penned by one of the performers, reflecting on the concerts in question. I particularly commend the note in Volume 24 by organist Silas John Standage in which he relates how last-minute technical problems with the organ in the Schlosskirche, Altenburg nearly jeopardised the concert.

Volume 14

The performances included here come from the very end of the Pilgrimage, when the pilgrims celebrated Christmas 2000 in New York, fittingly uniting the Old World and the New in the festive season, a time of year that often seems to have brought out the best in Bach. Christmas Day found the pilgrims in St. Bartholomew’s church, the church where Leopold Stokowski was organist between 1905 and 1909, when he first came to the USA, during which period he conducted his church choir in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

The cantata, BWV 91 opens with an exuberant chorus, here given with all the festive spirit imaginable. The tenor aria, ‘Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein’, is splendidly sung by James Gilchrist. I love Gardiner’s comment about the accompaniment of “three oboes swinging along like prototype saxophones: baroque big band music in the city of the Village Vanguard!” Katharine Fuge and Robin Tyson combine  most effectively in the duet, ‘Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt’, with the syncopated accompaniment of violins driving the music forward purposefully.

Then Gardiner breaks up the liturgical chronology slightly to give us two cantatas for the Second Day of Christmas. In BWV 121 the orchestra is strengthened by no less than three sackbuts, which underpin and enrich the textures in the opening chorus. James Gilchrist is in fine, easy voice for his aria, ‘O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur.’ William Towers excels in the recitative. ‘Der Gnade unermesslich’s Wesen’ and this is a good time to correct an omission from my comments to date on this whole series of CDs. I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned many of the aria performances but have neglected to say much about the recitatives. Let me hasten to correct this now. Towers’ sensitive singing in this particular recitative seems to me to be symptomatic of the carefully considered and committed approach to the recits, which I find is a consistent feature of this series, no matter who the singer is. It’s very evident that considerable thought has been given by one and all to the meaning of the text and how best to put it across. Returning to this particular cantata, I enjoyed very much Peter Harvey’s account of the joyful and positive bass aria, ‘Johannis freudenvolles Springen’. The final chorale is superbly colourful, with those marvellous sackbuts once again adding a special sonority.

BWV 40 is also for the Second Day of Christmas. It opens with a strong, positive-sounding chorus to which a pair of horns makes an important contribution and in which the singing of the Monteverdi Choir is very incisive. However, Gardiner draws our attention to the fact that, despite the positive tone on the surface, the chorus is actually in a minor key. Bach, one presumes, is drilling down into the deeper meaning of Christmas, namely that it is the prelude to the redemptive work of Christ. The words of this chorus translate as ‘For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.’ Later there’s a “feisty, rumbustious” bass aria, which finds in Peter Harvey an excellent proponent. The cantata also contains a taxing aria for the tenor soloist, which James Gilchrist performs splendidly and in which he receives exciting support from pairs of oboes and horns.

It’s back to Christmas Day itself for the final item in the programme, BWV 110, shrewdly chosen by Gardiner as the perfect end to a celebratory concert. The opening chorus is, in fact, the Overture to the Fourth Orchestral Suite, BWV 1069, with the addition of a pair of flutes in the orchestra and, of course, a choir. It’s superbly celebratory music and Gardiner’s forces deliver it with tremendous panache, making it into a real feast for the ears. The flutes also appear in the tenor aria ‘Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen’, providing an exquisite accompaniment to James Gilchrist’s eloquent singing. Then the listener’s ear is ravished further by the sinuous combination of alto (William Towers) and oboe in the aria, ‘Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind’.  Gilchrist and Joanne Lunn are then irrepressibly joyful in their duet. The final aria, ‘Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder’, falls to the bass soloist (Peter Harvey). As Gardiner points out, this aria, complete with trumpets, is a precursor of ‘Grosser Herr’ in the first cantata of Christmas Oratorio. He describes it as “assertive, festive and brilliant” and so it is in this performance. What a Christmas treat this whole concert must have been for those New Yorkers lucky enough to experience it. Thankfully it’s now preserved on disc for us all to enjoy.

Volume 24

This set consists of cantatas for the Easter season. The superb BWV 12 is a Weimar cantata, dating from 1714 but heard here in its 1724, Leipzig, revision. Bach opens with a sinfonia, which is a profound meditation led by a keening oboe. Then he plumbs even greater depths in the succeeding extended chorus, which later became the Crucifixus of the B Minor Mass. The opening music of this chorus is performed with great feeling and exemplary control. The tempo picks up in a faster, contrapuntal central section, which puts one in mind of passages in the Motets. William Towers is in fine form for his recitative and aria, the latter being a particularly inspired invention. Julian Clarkson appears for the first time in the series to give a spirited reading of the short aria, ‘Ich folge Christo nach.’  Mark Padmore, on the other hand, is no stranger to the series. He’s a joy to hear in the musically and emotionally taxing aria, ‘Sei getreu, alle Pein’, which is decorated by a gentle trumpet chorale, marvellously voiced and placed here. Rounded off by a stirring chorale, this is a splendid performance of this profound cantata.

BWV 103 (1725) starts deceptively. As Gardiner points out perceptively in his note, the vigorous fugal opening chorus sounds joyful on the surface. However, that’s deliberately somewhat at odds with the sentiments of the text. He leads his forces in a robust account of this music. It’s an astonishingly inventive movement, both in terms of the music itself and also in respect of the scoring, in which an important soprano recorder part is prominent. This chorus seems to present most effectively to the listener the antithesis between sorrow and joy. Happiness is finally attained in the splendid tenor aria, ‘Erholet euch, betrübte Sinnen’. Both Mark Padmore and trumpeter Niklas Eklund make this hugely demanding aria sound almost easy in a performance of exuberant conviction.

BWV 146 is on a huge scale, lasting some 38 minutes in this performance. Bach adapted the first two movements of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052a for the first two movements of this cantata. First comes a sinfonia for which, for once, the organ of the venue itself was used rather than the portable organ that was generally used throughout the Pilgrimage. As soon as we hear the mighty organ of the Schlosskirche, Altenburg it’s obvious why that choice was made. The instrument produces some wonderful sounds, especially in its lower reaches and though its action must have taxed the skills of organist Silas John Standage the results amply justify the pains he took. The sinfonia emerges here as an ambitious, grand canvass and it’s marvellously exciting – and entertaining – to hear it done like this. Bach himself is known to have played this instrument in 1739, shortly after its installation, so its use here is doubly justified. Gardiner’s marvellously apt description of it as a “Baroque ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’” is just another example of his ability to find the mot juste in his notes.

After the thrills of the sinfonia Bach grafts a four-part chorus onto the music of the slow movement of the concerto to transform it into a superb, sustained and intense choral meditation. The recording captures well the fine distancing effect that was achieved by placing the choir at the rear of the church for this movement. There follows a substantial alto aria, which is well sung by William Towers and graced by what is rightly described as a “radiant” violin obbligato. Brigitte Geller, a singer new to me, has had little to do in the concert up to now but she is heard to good effect in this cantata in a dramatic recitative and an aria that is more emotionally relaxed. I enjoyed very much the vigorous performance of the arresting and joyful tenor and bass duet,  ‘wie will ich mich freuen’.

The following week the show moved on to Warwick, a late change of plan in the face of complications in Warsaw, which had been the intended destination for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. BWV 166, which was the first item on the programme, opens with a bass arioso. I thought that I detected a suggestion or two that Stephen Varcoe was not quite at his best here, the voice sounding just a little thin. But he’s a highly experienced singer and he still puts across words and music convincingly – and I have to say that I enjoyed his subsequent singing very much. James Gilchrist is in fine voice for the “serene meditation” of the aria ‘Ich will an den Himmel denken’. The alto aria, ‘Man nehme sich in Acht’ is an extrovert, virtuoso piece, which seems to test Robin Tyson, accomplished singer though he is. The cantata ends with a chorale, which begins most effectively, the choir hushed and a cappella. This provides a telling contrast to the outgoing alto aria that precedes it.

BWV 108, which dates from 1725, has some structural similarities with BWV 166, which had been composed in the previous year. Gilchrist has another demanding aria, this time a much more spirited one than that which fell to him in BWV 166. Once again he rises fully to the occasion. There have already been several opportunities in this series for him to demonstrate his prowess as a Bach tenor and this is another. In passing it should be said that on the evidence of the discs so far issued Gardiner has chosen his tenor soloists for this whole project particularly well. Besides Gilchrist the excellence of both Paul Agnew and Mark Padmore has already been noted. At the centre of BWV 108 lies a vigorous polyphonic chorus, which the Monteverdi Choir sings with tremendous assurance and spirit, after which Robin Tyson sings the important alto aria well.

Finally we hear BWV 117. The date of composition of this cantata is uncertain; it dates from between 1728 and 1731 and the occasion for which it was penned is not certain. However, it fits in well with the two companion works in this programme, not least in terms of its subject matter. Gardiner is surely right to suggest in his notes that whatever the occasion was it was a significant one. It opens with a celebratory and positive chorus, which later reappears to close the work. Though Bach eschews the use of trumpets here the music is still very festive in tone. There’s another fine tenor aria to enjoy and an equally imposing, more reflective one for the bass. Both are stylishly sung by Messrs. Gilchrist and Varcoe respectively. There’s also an engagingly perky alto aria and I found this piece, and Robin Tyson’s singing of it a delight.  

These two volumes in this evolving series continue in every respect the extremely high standards set in the previous issues. There are currently two other significant Bach cantata cycles in progress. These are the surveys by Ton Koopman and by Masaaki Suzuki. Both series have attracted much praise and though I haven’t heard any of the Koopman discs, other than on the radio, those from the Suzuki cycle that have come my way have impressed me very much. I am not really in a position to make any detailed comparisons between these rival cycles. What I will say, however, is that this Gardiner series is so far very fine indeed and is promising much. The fact that his performances stem from live performances does give them a certain ambience and immediacy, I think. Of course, one doesn’t know how much editing has taken place (I understand that the dress rehearsals were also taped as a precaution). However, my guess would be that editing has been kept to a minimum; these performances consistently have the feel of a genuine performance and, indeed, convey a palpable sense of occasion.

If you’re already collecting either the Koopman or Suzuki cycles then economic realities will probably prevent you from collecting the Gardiner discs as well. Even so I’d recommend sampling this intriguing and stimulating series. If pressed to choose from the sets that have been released to date I think I’d plump for Volume 1, which was discussed in my previous survey, and Volume 14. However, all the five sets I’ve heard to date are excellent and will give much pleasure.

This is shaping up to be a series of considerable importance and, of course, if it can be completed, it will have the distinction of being the first Bach cantata cycle to be composed entirely of live performances. I recommend these two latest additions to the series with great enthusiasm             

John Quinn


Volume 14:

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Volume 24:

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