In this present volume Gardiner presents seven
cantatas, all for Pentecost Sunday and Monday, with a chronological span of 1714 to 1746/7.
Thus we hear not only the development and refinement of Bach’s own abilities, but also his
development of specific material. For instance, the opening duet of Wer mich liebet, BWV 59 is
amply fleshed out later as the opening chorus of Wer mich liebet, BWV 74, an expansion in both
vocal and instrumental scoring, rather like Bach discovering a newly rich palette of hues and
returning to re-color an earlier image. (Three of the cantatas, BWV 173, 68, and 174, adapt
material, as well, including a splendid reworking of part of the third Brandenburg, although the
models are not recorded here.)
The variety within the cantatas of the collection can be impressive. Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV
172, for example, presents a festive chorus, appealingly brilliant and exuberant, an aria with
some of Bach’s most virtuosic trumpeting, a duet in the form of a love scene between the Soul
and the Spirit, akin to the sensuous duets of Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, BWV 21 from the
previous year or Johann Christoph Bach’s wonderful Meine Freundin, du bist schön, and also a
richly adorned chorale, a setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern with violin descant. An
early work dating from 1714, it shows Bach in full control of varied resources and having no
shortage of ideas in response to an imageful text.
Performed and recorded in June, 2000, this installment of the Cantata Pilgrimage falls midway
through the year’s tour of (primarily) European churches. And though personnel will vary
throughout the year, it is significant that here at the midpoint the ensemble’s “house style” is well
established and the performances show no sign of fatigue with the project nor staleness in the
rendition. Among the solo singers, tenor Christoph Genz, a former chorister at St. Thomas
Church in Leipzig, is particularly memorable for his brilliant sound and nimble execution, as
well as his lyrical sensitivity. Soprano Lisa Larsson draws the task of singing one of Bach’s
best-known arias, the chestnut “Mein gläubiges Herze” from Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt,
BWV 68. Her performance sparkles and smiles, especially in collaboration with David Watkin’s
spry violoncello piccolo accompaniment. Also notable is countertenor Derek Lee Ragin’s
dramatic rendition of the highly theatrical aria “ Nichts kann mich erretten” from cantata 74.
Ragin has a flair for the dramatic propensities here and the deft technique to “laugh at Hell’s
anger.” The dynamic variation with his register shifts may detract on occasion, but this
extraordinarily gestural aria is well-served by his commanding interpretation.
The choir is seasoned and fluent in its singing—Bach seems to be for them a “native tongue.”
Gardiner has a wonderful capacity for investing his performances with rhythmic excitement,
especially evident in the choruses. However the line between this rhythmic excitement and a
harsh articulative exaggeration is not always well gauged, as in the final chorus of cantata 68.
All in all, however, the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage remains a most impressive undertaking. Its
legacy of recordings document music-making of high distinction, indeed.