And so, here we are. After twenty-six previous volumes, spanning
forty-nine discs, the final instalment of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s
epic Bach Cantata Pilgrimage has arrived.
This last pair of discs actually takes us back to the very beginning
of the journey, presenting Christmas and Epiphany music given
in the two cities most closely associated with Bach before we
move on to Hamburg.
As well as their performances of some Christmas cantatas, Gardiner
and his team began the pilgrimage in Weimar with splendid performances
of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which were captured on
a DVD, which has been available for some time (review).
Unsurprisingly the same quartet of fine soloists that featured
in those performances were involved in the Christmas Day festivities
that open the first disc in this present set.
It would be hard to imagine a more positive start to the proceedings
than the jubilant opening chorus of BWV 63, a cantata
that was probably first heard in this very city of Weimar. The
attack of the Monteverdi Choir is thrilling: “Christians etch
this day in metal and marble” is the opening exhortation and
these singers truly inspire the listener with their enthusiasm.
Here Bach conveys the joy of Christmas superbly and the choir
responds wholeheartedly. Bernarda Fink, who sings so beautifully
in the contemporaneous account of Christmas Oratorio,
produces a warm tone in a deeply expressive rendition of the
recitative that follows, making one regret that this disc represents
her sole contribution to the Cantata Pilgrimage. A little later
she and Christoph Genz combine to excellent effect in the duet
aria ‘Ruft und fleht den Himmel an’ and before that Claron McFadden
and Dietrich Henschel also afford much pleasure in the duet
‘Gott, du hast es wohlgefüget’. The closing chorus, festive
with trumpets, is really exciting: here Bach and the performers
pull out all the stops.
The Christmas Day programme also included BWV 191. Though
this isn’t a cantata it more than justifies its place. It’s
an adaptation of three sections from the Gloria of the B Minor
Mass, which was probably arranged by Bach for a special service
of thanksgiving in Leipzig on Christmas Day 1745. The first
movement, ‘Gloria in excelsis’ is substantially the same as
the corresponding section from the Mass. Then comes what is
more familiar in the Mass as the duet ‘Domine Deus’, followed
by the chorus ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ In these two movements Bach
adapts the music from the B Minor Mass, not entirely successfully,
to fit Latin words. The whole performance is a joy but the final
movement, ‘Sicut erat in principio’, is especially remarkable.
The music is exuberant enough but Gardiner’s singers and players
deliver it with such zest that one is just swept along on the
flood tide. The fugal section – ‘et nunc et semper’ – is exhilarating
and one can only marvel at the articulation of Bach’s writing
by the singers. What a start to the Pilgrimage!
For the Feast of Epiphany the scene shifts to Leipzig. BWV
65 is a very fine cantata and it’s done really well here.
The opening chorus is superbly sung and played. Later on the
tenor aria, ‘Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin’, is orchestrated with
great richness by Bach and James Gilchrist gives a distinguished
account of the vocal line. His tone is firm and he gives a pleasing
lift to the rhythms. This performance offers a foretaste of
the way in which he was to become a cornerstone of the whole
project along with Peter Harvey, who excels in the bass aria
‘Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht’.
Gilchrist and Harvey are also to the fore in BWV 123.
The tenor aria, ‘Auch die harte Kreuzesreise’, anticipating
the Crucifixion, strikes a mood of “almost unbearable pathos”
in Gardiner’s words. James Gilchrist’s voice is ideal for this
music, which he sings with great eloquence especially in the
high-lying passages at the top of so many of Bach’s phrases.
The bass aria, ‘Lass, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung’, is completely
different, benefiting hugely from the simple, withdrawn style
that Peter Harvey brings to it.
The next stop on the Pilgrimage was Hamburg where a trio of
cantatas for the First Sunday after Epiphany was heard. Alfred
Dürr draws attention to the “striking directness” of Bach’s
writing in BWV 154. James Gilchrist was on duty again
and he’s commanding and impassioned in the opening aria, though
here and there I thought I detected that the playing of the
EBS string players wasn’t quite unanimous. The cantata is slightly
unusual in that, though it’s not in two parts, there’s a chorale
in the middle, forming the third movement; this is in addition
to the usual concluding chorale. Michael Chance, who made surprisingly
few appearances during the project, is on hand for the alto
aria, ‘Jesu, lass dich finden’, which he sings well. He then
joins with Gilchrist in the penultimate movement, the optimistic
duet aria, ‘Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden.’
There are two particularly noteworthy features in BWV 124.
One is the extraordinarily ornate oboe d’amore part that courses
through the opening chorus. The other is the tenor aria, ‘Und
wenn der harte Todesschlag’. Here, as Sir John puts it, Bach
“opens his locker to unleash a torrent of dramatic effects to
portray the ‘fear and terror’ that accompanies ‘the cruel stroke
of death’.” The result is a theatrical, wide ranging aria of
which James Gilchrist is fully the master. He receives magnificent
support from the oboe d’amore player (Marcel Ponseele?).
The final offering in the programme is BWV 32, which
is another of Bach’s dialogues between the Soul (soprano) and
Jesus (bass). It begins with a beseeching soprano aria, enriched
by a deeply felt oboe obbligato. Claron McFadden sings it most
impressively. In the bass aria, ‘Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte’,
Peter Harvey is completely convincing as Vox Christi while
in the dialogue recitative that follows both singers offer some
really characterful singing – sample Miss McFadden’s delivery
of the passage beginning ‘Wie lieblich ist doch deine Wohnung’.
Before the choir sings the chorale the dialogue culminates in
a duet in which the Soul and Jesus are joyfully reunited. Here,
as Gardiner says, Bach “seems to throw caution to the winds”.
The music is life-enhancing and both singers communicate it
vividly. Sir John tells us that this number had to be repeated
as an encore and I’m not surprised. It’s good that there’s a
concluding chorale to end what is the final disc in this series
to be released, as it enables The Monteverdi Choir and the English
Baroque Soloists to have the last word at the end of yet another
excellent set of cantata performances.
It’s with very mixed feelings that I contemplate the end of
this series of Bach cantata discs. I’m sorry that the conclusion
has been reached and I shall miss the arrival of another pair
of discs in their distinctive and stylish packaging. But, putting
that aside, the response must be one of celebration and admiration.
There are several other good Bach cantata cycles available,
not least those by Koopman and Suzuki and it’s clear from what
I’ve read of those two cycles – and the limited sampling I’ve
done of Suzuki’s - that both are considerable achievements in
their own right. But this Gardiner series is unique, being the
product of a year-long journey around Europe and featuring live
performances, albeit with some editing. I’m lost in admiration
for the commitment and sheer physical stamina of the musicians,
to say nothing of the prodigious musicianship that produced,
often under demanding conditions and tight time constraints,
such consistently expert and convincing performances. And it’s
important to remember that, even for seasoned performers such
as these, much of the music will have been completely new to
them. Each one of these releases has included in the booklet
a short essay by one of the performers describing their reactions
to the Pilgrimage and it’s abundantly clear that the venture
made a profound impression on them and enriched them, not just
musically but spiritually as well.
While on the subject of the booklets it’s right to mention that
the documentation has been exceptional, especially the notes.
Actually, the word “notes” is almost demeaning. The essays by
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, taken from the contemporaneous journal
that he compiled during the pilgrimage, have been consistently
illuminating and stimulating. More than that, time and again
he’s proved himself adept at finding just the right phrase to
describe the music. I’d say he’s done for the Bach cantatas,
albeit at a shorter length, what Graham Johnson did for Schubert
lieder with his notes accompanying the Hyperion Schubert
song CDs. I hope Sir John’s journal will be published in book
form one day.
Sir John has been well served by his soloists throughout the
enterprise. In what is a very much a personal and subjective
choice, my favourite soprano soloists have been Katharine Fuge,
Magdalena Kožená and Joanne Lunn. The alto soloists have been
a little more variable but the highly contrasted voices of Nathalie
Stutzmann and Robin Tyson have offered great pleasure. Several
very fine tenor soloists have graced the proceedings, including
Paul Agnew and Mark Padmore, though James Gilchrist has made
the strongest impression of all. Among the basses Peter Harvey
has been the stand-out performer, though I was glad to encounter
Gotthold Schwarz, a singer I’d not heard before.
The soloists tended to come and go throughout the Pilgrimage
but The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists have
been ever-present, albeit there have been some changes to personnel
in their ranks from time to time. To them fell the task of mastering
fresh material – much of it previously unknown to them – nearly
every week for a full year. Given the technical difficulty of
much of the music it is a colossal achievement, both individual
and collective, that the standard of performance has remained
so consistently high, especially when one factors in the issues
of travelling and the problems inherent in rehearsing and performing
in so many different venues, many of which were scarcely designed
for concert-giving, even by relatively small forces.
Despite the avalanche of music and the criss-cross travelling
throughout Europe – and to New York at the very end – there’s
never been any feeling of undue haste or superficiality about
these performances. You never get the feeling “Today’s Sunday,
it must be Belgium – and such-and-such a cantata”. As I said,
each of the volumes has included a short essay by one of the
performers, all of which have been interesting and enlightening.
A sense of camaraderie has come out time and again and, even
more so, a sense of their humility before Bach’s genius. It
was particularly instructive, however, to read the comments
by Katharine Fuge (Vol. 9) in which she related that each week
the performers received not only their music for the forthcoming
week’s concerts but also photocopies of the scriptural readings
prescribed for that Sunday’s liturgy and “notes giving us the
context of Bach’s life at the time each cantata was written.
Perhaps we would learn that a particularly fine trumpeter had
been in town or, more poignantly, that one of his children had
recently died.” That attention to detail and the determination
that these were to be much more than a series of concerts goes
a long way to explaining why this series of recorded performances
seems so often to penetrate to the heart of what this wonderful
music is about.
This isn’t quite a complete cantata cycle. Some cantatas were
issued, either in live or studio performances by DG Archiv and
those have been omitted from the SDG series, presumably for
contractual reasons. I append a list of the cantatas concerned.
There aren’t that many and I believe that the recordings can
still be bought as DG Archiv issues. However, I hope that in
due course it will be possible for SDG to release them under
their own imprint.
It’s been not just a great pleasure but also a privilege to
review all these recordings. As the series comes to an end we
must applaud heartily the achievement of all the performers
and the vision and drive of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who conceived
and led this remarkable journey. But above all we must salute
the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose wonderful, inventive
and very moving music has been brought thrillingly to life in
this marvellous collection of discs.
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page
Cantatas not included in this series and issued by DG Archiv (*denote live performance recorded during the Cantata Pilgrimage.)
BWV 11 Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (‘Ascension Oratorio’)
BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Ascension)
BWV 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (Ascension)
BWV 72 Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (Third Sunday after Epiphany)*
BWV 73 Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir (Third Sunday after Epiphany)*
BWV 82 Ich habe genung (Feast of the Purification)*
BWV 83 Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde (Feast of the Purification)*
BWV 94 Was frag ich nach der Welt (Ninth Sunday after Trinity)*
BWV 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht (Ninth Sunday after Trinity)*
BWV 111 Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit (Third Sunday after Epiphany)*
BWV 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchsten Gott (Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)*
BWV 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (Feast of the Purification)*
BWV 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein (Ascension)
BWV 156 Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe (Third Sunday after Epiphany)*
BWV 168 Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort (Ninth Sunday after Trinity)*
BWV 179 Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)*
BWV 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (Eleventh Sunday after Trinity)*