For the first of these consecutive Sundays after Trinity Sir John
Eliot Gardiner led his Cantata Pilgrims to Italy, a country not
so far visited on the journey - at least not in terms of issued
recordings. For the following Sunday they returned to London and
to the Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich. They’d
been there before (Vol. 19 - see review
and it appears that this venue was a late substitute when a planned
visit to the Baltic States was abandoned.
In the Lutheran liturgy for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
the Gospel is the parable, related in St. Matthew’s Gospel,
of the royal wedding feast and the guest who, arriving without
a wedding garment, was excluded. So wedding imagery, such as that
of Christ as the bridegroom, figures significantly in Bach’s
cantata texts for the day. BWV 162
originated in Weimar
in 1716 but Gardiner performed it in the revised version that
Bach made in 1723. He has a good team of soloists at his disposal
and the ever-reliable Peter Harvey is in action right away, giving
a confident, sturdy account of the aria with which the cantata
opens. A little later comes a soprano aria in which, in Gardiner’s
words “the refreshment of cooling wayside water is evoked”.
There’s an obbligato for flute and oboe d’amore, reconstructed
by Robert Levin, as only the original continuo survives. His work
seems entirely successful and idiomatic to me though, unless my
ears deceive me, the flute part is played on a recorder. The soloist
is Magdalena Kožená and she sings beguilingly. One
must remember that these performances were given nearly ten years
ago. Clearly Miss Kožená’s voice has deepened
since then for I see she’s to perform Mahler’s Das
Lied von der Erde
next year in Birmingham. The other significant
solo number in this cantata is the fifth movement, a duet for
alto and tenor. This contains a good deal of testing passagework
and canons, which Gardiner’s soloists negotiate successfully.
The chorus have nothing to do in that cantata except for the concluding
chorale. They’re entirely absent from BWV 49
is a dialogue between the Soul (soprano) and Christ (bass). When
I first listened to it I thought that some of the movements were
just a bit too long and when I read the booklet notes I discovered
that Sir John expresses a similar view. Excessive length is certainly
an issue in the opening sinfonia. At 6:27 this is the longest
movement in this performance. It’s a concerto-like movement
in which the obbligato organ, played by Howard Moody, takes a
leading role. Moody is also to the fore in the second movement,
a bass aria. Despite Peter Harvey’s advocacy I think Bach
stretches his material a bit too thinly in this movement also.
Both singers are involved in the next movement, which has been
described aptly as “a frank love-duet”. Harvey and,
even more so, Magdalena Kožená enter fully into that
spirit. Miss Kožená gives a delicious performance
of her aria, ‘Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schön’
and the obbligato is provided by an oboe d’amore and a violoncello
piccolo, which conspire to produce some fascinating textures.
Alfred Dürr memorably suggests that perhaps “in the
complementary figures that the obbligato instruments toss to one
another, we see the spinning and turning of the bride adorned
by her hoop-skirt, taking pleasure in her own beauty.” The
final movement in the cantata unites the two singers; the bass
singing an aria against the soprano’s chorale, while the
oboe d’amore and the busy organ provide instrumental support.
What a skilful combination of textures and musical lines by Bach!
The best-known cantata in the programme is BWV 180
which, as Dürr says, we’re at the Feast itself. The
Monteverdi Choir, too little in evidence so far, excels in the
opening chorale fantasia, which is sung over a stately orchestral
processional. The following tenor aria, ‘Ermuntre dich’
incorporates a virtuoso flute part, which strongly calls to mind
the B minor Orchestral Suite. Rachel Beckett is marvellously nimble
and her playing complements excitingly the singing of Christoph
Genz. His light, airy voice is ideally suited to the demanding,
acrobatic vocal line, which he delivers with admirable clarity.
The light, infectious performances of both singer and flautist
are a sheer delight. Gardiner suggests that Bach was rather on
autopilot when he composed the soprano aria in this cantata. This
does seem a slightly harsh judgement - or perhaps I’m just
being swayed by the lovely singing of Magdalena Kožená.
Gardiner tells us that the Italians attended the Pilgrimage concerts
- there was also one in Rome - in huge numbers and these fine
cantata performances must have delighted the audiences.
Bach left no less than four cantatas for the Twenty-first Sunday
after Trinity. The Gospel for the day, from St. John’s Gospel,
relates the story of the healing by Christ of the son of a nobleman
who showed faith. Inspired by that, Bach’s librettist for
produced a text that Dürr describes as a kind
of dialogue between Doubt and Belief.
The opening movement is quite remarkable. Gardiner likens it to
a concerto grosso in which the soloists and chorus feature “as
”. The expressive,
plangent solo phrases intertwine with the chorus parts to powerful
effect and, in passing, I wondered how this cantata fits with
the one voice to a part theory: I can’t see how this music
could be effectively performed without the contrast between soloists
and chorus. Incidentally, it’s a tribute to Bach’s
invention that he can construct a movement that lasts here for
8:43, effectively one-third of the whole cantata, and using just
one line of text. And unlike BWV 49 there’s no suspicion
that the movement is over-long. This present performance is superb.
So too is the account by Paul Agnew of the tenor aria, ‘Wie
zweifelhaltig ist mein Hoffen’. It’s a turbulent piece,
which Gardiner suggests could have been an early draft of ‘Ach,
mein Sinn’ from the St John Passion
. Agnew, no stranger
to that Passion aria, is ideal at conveying the aching anxiety
in this aria. William Towers, the alto soloist, is not really
a match for Agnew when it comes to vocal expressiveness but he
still gives a good account of his aria and of the recitative that
precedes it. Though the mood of much of the cantata has been anxious
the tone changes at the alto solo and becomes more positive and
the concluding chorale fantasia takes this further; both the text
and the music are much more confident and forthright.
is a chorale cantata, based on a hymn by Luther.
Gardiner describes the opening chorus as “a powerful evocation
of … Lutheran crying-from-the-depths and the clamour of
imploring voices.” The dark power of the Monteverdi Choir’s
singing is sonorously reinforced by no less than a quartet of
sackbuts, singers and instrumentalists combining to create an
extraordinary texture. Once again Paul Agnew has a demanding tenor
aria. His music is emotive and ardent and he’s accompanied
by a pair of ceaselessly intertwining oboes. Agnew’s singing
is compelling but the instrumentalists are no less impressive.
The sackbuts return to underpin the final forthright chorale.
Here Bach’s music - and scoring -epitomises the forthright,
robust side of Lutheranism.
The next cantata that we hear, BWV 98
, is a good foil to
the powerful BWV 38. It’s much more modest in scale though
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Gardiner that it “seems
exceptionally genial.” To be sure, the spirit of the opening
chorus is fairly light but the tenor recitative that follows is
bitingly dramatic, at least in Paul Agnew’s hands. The more
relaxed mood returns in the soprano aria, ‘Hört, ihr
Augen, auf zu weinen’, which benefits from some lovely singing
by Joanne Lunn. The cantata also includes a jaunty bass aria accompanied
by perky unison violins and Gotthold Schwarz displays fine vocal
Finally we hear BWV 188
. Like BWV 49 this opens with a
substantial sinfonia, which derives from the third movement of
the harpsichord concerto in D minor, BWV 1052. Only the last 45
bars of the movement have come down to us in autograph score and
the rest of the music - 248 bars - has been reconstructed by Robert
Levin. The prominent organ part is played with great dexterity
by Silas John Standage, whose playing is most entertaining. The
highlight among the vocal movements is the lovely pastoral aria,
‘Ich habe meine Zuversicht’. Unusually for one of
Bach’s tenor arias the tessitura is quite low. Paul Agnew
is splendid throughout this aria, which is based on a memorable
principal melody. As you may have gathered from the foregoing,
I think Agnew’s is the outstanding solo contribution to
this concert but his three colleagues, none of which has quite
as much to do, all acquit themselves very well.
The production values of this set are up to SDG’s usual
high standards. The recorded sound is good and clear and Gardiner’s
notes are as perceptive and interesting as ever. The performance
standards too are consistently high, with both the English Baroque
Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir making polished and committed
contributions. Those who are collecting this excellent series
should add this pair of discs to their shelves as soon as possible.
Cantata Pilgrimage Themed review page