RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 18
Cantatas for Christmas Day
Christen ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63* (1714) [26:28]
Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV191* (?1745) [13:42]
Cantatas for Epiphany
Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65 (1724) [15:21]
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, BWV 123 (1725) [23:22]
*Claron McFadden (soprano); Magdalena Kožená (soprano); *Bernarda Fink (alto); Sally Bruce-Payne (alto);*Christoph Genz (tenor); James Gilchrist (tenor);* Dietrich Henschel (bass); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec.*Herderkirche, Weimar, 25 December 1999; Nikolaikirche, Leipzig, 6 January 2000
Cantatas for the First Sunday after Epiphany
Mein Liebster Jesus ist verloren, BWV 154 (1724) [16.01]
Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht, BWV 124 (1725) [13:19]
Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32 (1726) [22:55]
Claron McFadden (soprano); Michael Chance (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Hauptkirche St. Jacobi, Hamburg, 9 January 2000
German texts and English translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 174 [78:53 + 52:16]
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)*
The final, excellent instalment of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s epic Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.