John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage during the anniversary year of 2000 was in a sense leisurely—a year-long feast of cantatas—and yet also quick-paced, with each week requiring the performance of several new works in different venues. As if to underscore the characteristic slowness of pilgrimages, however, the pace of the release of the live recordings from the Pilgrimage has been unhurried—the complete run of twenty-seven volumes has taken a decade, only completed in 2010. Thus, years after the event, we still have the pleasant discovery of new offerings, as in the 2010 release of the cantatas for the Twentieth and Twenty-first Sundays after Trinity (vol. 11).
With a decade’s worth of recordings at hand, by this time it comes as no surprise that there is little to surprise, except perhaps that the ensemble was able to maintain such high quality throughout the run. In this present volume, the characteristic touches are amply present: an often high-energy exuberance, remarkable stylistic fluency, an impressive command of 18th century performance idioms, and a rich sound palette. Whatever languages they may have encountered on their geographical pilgrimage, it is clear that the language of Bach is one they speak with the natural ease of a mother tongue.
The two liturgical days represented here focus on two themes: the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22), harnessed as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet in BWV 162, 49, and 180, and Jesus’s healing of the son of a nobleman (John 4), the prompt for musical essays on faith, doubt, and trust in BWV 109, 38, 98, and 188. Some of the cantatas remind of the degree to which the language and the form were conventionalized. “Ach, ich sehe,” BWV 162, for instance, features the kind of musical-word association that was standard, with fluid melodic and rhythmic motion to suggest the “fountain of all mercy” in the soprano aria, “Jesu, Brunnquell aller Gnaden,” or a rollicking bass line and melismatic prolixity to underscore the rejoicing in the alto-tenor duet, “In meinem Gott bin ich erfreut,” sung with admirable tidiness by Sara Mingardo and Christoph Genz. Yet, there is a significant amount of material that also underscores the range of variety and special touches that Bach brought to his sometimes weekly fare. For example, “Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen,” BWV 49, offers love duets between Jesus and the Christian Soul—more familiarly explored in BWV 21—enriched by the orchestrational additions of obligato organ and violoncello piccolo. “Ich glaube, lieber Herr,” BWV 109, offers a stunningly psychological monologue in the tenor recitative “Des Herren Hand,” in which the inner voices of faith and doubt spar one with the other, sung with expressive depth by Paul Agnew. Not all the variety is innovative, of course. The first chorus of “Aus tiefer Not,” BWV 38 is an old-styled motet, though with modern harmony intact.
Most notable among the solo singers are soprano Joanne Lunn, whose clarity and purity of sound is an unalloyed delight, and countertenor William Towers, whose ease in the high range is remarkable, as is the elegance of his contoured phrasing. The ensemble is uniformly in fine form, but perhaps most memorably so in the opening chorus of “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan,” BWV 98, where the instrumental playing is particularly refined and the choral sound at its best—admirably clear and free of constraint. Ten years is a long time from recording to release, but, as in the pilgrimage experience, good things are often well worth the wait.