As in other volumes, the forces of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner offer renditions that are technically, stylistically, and interpretatively benchmark performances.
That said, there are issues here and there about which one might quibble. Chief among them is a tendency in highly energetic sections to allow zeal and fervor too free a hand. As a result, articulations can seem, on occasion, exaggeratedly aggressive, even pecky, as in the opening chorus to “Ach wie flüchtig,” BWV 26 or the penultimate verse of “Jesu meine Freude.” Rhythmic verve is a signature trait of Gardiner’s interpretations and is often thrilling—the extraordinary storm aria of “Jesus schläft,” BWV 81 is a splendidly red-blooded example—but the line separating thrilling and “over-the-top” is not always easily judged.
Sometimes, too, the attempt to heighten the text with rhetorical delivery can seem exaggerated and mannered, especially in chorales. Satan’s storming and the raging of the foe in “Jesus meine Freude” (mvt. III) finds the choir arguably too dramatic for this straight-forward context. Sometimes it seems well to let a chorale be “only a chorale.”
However, how much remains that is superb! Soprano Joanne Lunn’s singing in “Mein Gott, wie lang?” BWV 155 is exquisite, with wonderfully clear timbres in the high register. Bass Gerald Finley is outstanding in “Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein” from “Ach Gott wie manches Herzeleid,” BWV 3. His sound is rich, though well focused, and its forward placement and leanness allows his voice to move with clarity and flexibility. The text of the aria contrasts fear and pain with heavenly joy—challenging melodic contours for the former, decorative melisma for the latter—and Finley negotiates the whole affective range with ease.
In the liner notes to the recording Gardiner observes that in “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” “Bach reserves his most winning music” for the duet, “Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen.” We would have immediately reached this conclusion with or without the tip! The buoyant uplift of the rising intervals is memorable, especially when teamed with elegant articulation and expressive decay on long notes, a characteristic care in the details. This is particularly evident in the bass aria “Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen” from “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” BWV 13. The aria is devoted to groaning and weeping, and Gardiner responds with a mannered degree of slowness in his tempo. The extreme slowness is something of an interpretative gamble, as it raises the risk of tedium, and challenges the performers’ control. However, the degree of nuance by soloist, violin, and recorder keeps the ear closely attuned, and the result is an unusually textured essay on sorrow.
The attention to detail marks these performances as singular, and that attention to detail seems all the more impressive in the circumstances of the Cantata Pilgrimage—a year of new cantatas every week in different venues. This volume, like its companions, thus documents not only the wealth of Bach’s output, but also the rich resources of seasoned historical performers and their inspired leader.