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J. S. Bach: Cantatas, vol. 10
31 May 2006

BACH: Cantatas, vol. 10

Few works seem more seminal to our understanding of J. S. Bach than the church cantatas, written over a wide chronological swath of his career, sometimes as part of occasional duties, other times in what was clearly a frenzy of steady prolificity.

J. S. Bach: Cantatas, vol. 10

The Monteverdi Choir; the English Baroque Soloists; Joanne Lunn, soprano, William Harvey, alto, James Gilchrist, tenor, Peter Harvey, bass; John Eliot Gardiner, Director

Soli Deo Gloria SDG 110 [2CDs]

$38.99  Click to buy

Several complete recording series offer important renditions of these works with “period” forces under the direction of directors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. The Cantata Pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir undertakes the complete corpus, as well, but within a new and decidedly ambitious context: recordings made from live concerts and dress rehearsals given weekly throughout the year 2000, each in a different ecclesiastical venue, and each devoted to the cantatas for a particular liturgical day. The context is one that certainly invites a resonance with the “frenzy of steady prolificity” that would have characterized Bach’s early years in Leipzig, a period in which he essentially wrote, rehearsed, and performed a new cantata every week. Gardiner’s performances are polished, often elegant, often dramatic readings that do not seem to betray the frenzy and vagaries that must have accompanied the production. However, from the standpoint of reception, our knowledge that these recordings are documents of this extraordinary undertaking shapes and forms the way we hear them; it alerts us at some level to the sense of these works as dynamic and fluid, and this is an important stamp for these recordings to bear. Additionally, given the works’ importance to our understanding of Bach, there is an appealing convenience to having them arranged by liturgical occasion: namely, we can savor Bach’s engagement of a common theological theme in juxtaposed styles that give us a rich sense of his development as a composer.

The recording aspect of the project was initially to be undertaken by Deutsche Gramophone. Their abandoning of the Pilgrimage recordings at an early stage prompted Gardiner to launch his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, and from the lavish look of the early volumes in the series, that independence has allowed the discs to be presented in distinctively engaging ways. Liner notes draw on Gardiner’s journal from the pilgrimage, thus allowing a congenial degree of anecdote as well as comment to emerge; jewel cases and program books are replaced with a hardbound volume and glossy page style; most striking are the cover photographs: highly compelling portraits of people from Afghanistan, Tibet, India, etc. by photographer Steve McCurry. The playing against expectation here is striking. Are the images ones that invite us to consider Bach as a somehow universal voice? Are the images ones that, in their geographic dispersion, invite us to linger with the idea of pilgrimage? One way or another, they prove dynamic and mark the volumes with distinction.

Volume 10 focuses on two liturgical dates, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (BWV 48, BWV 5, BWV 56) and Reformation Sunday (BWV 79, BWV 192, BWV 80) with an additional cantata for Trinity XXV (BWV 90) added for good measure. Much here is a study of contrasts. The lessons for Trinity XIX underscore a Pauline division between body and soul, a contrast that itself is held in tension with the Gospel account of the healing of the body. The sin and sickness themes of these lessons are in turn strongly contrasted by the jubilant, celebrative tone of Reformation Sunday.

The Trinity XIX cantatas are richly affective—the lithe, incisive lines of the opening chorus of “Ich elender Mensch,” BWV 48, for instance, are hauntingly lamentative. And much in these cantatas plays on vivid imagery. The tenor aria in “Wo soll ich fliehen hin,” BWV 5 is based on the washing of sins in the blood of Jesus’ wounds, an image that Bach develops in richly melismatic, fluid writing for solo viola, played with notable fluency by Jane Rogers. Similarly, a bass recitative in “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen,” BWV 56 is also “liquid”—“My life on earth is like a voyage at sea,” imagery to which Bach familiarly responds with solo cello arpeggios: the waves of the sea. Particularly impressive is the aria for trumpet and bass in “Wo soll ich fliehen hin.” Both the instrumentation and the choice of voice embody a show of strength, elicited here by the text’s facing the “horde of hell.” And as is often the case with Bach’s trumpet and bass arias, the demands on both singer and player create a tour de force. In this case, bass Peter Harvey’s commanding execution and dramatic use of articulation combine splendidly with trumpeter Neil Brough’s difficult florid passage work, executed with unwaning confidence. (These two also perform a similar aria in “Es reisset euch, BWV 90, triggered by apocalyptic imagery, and equally impressive in the rendition.)

There is much to celebrate in the celebrative Reformation Day works. The general jubilance of the cantatas inspires brisk tempos, often full of dance-like buoyancy, and the ensemble’s ability to maintain an athletic agility is striking. This becomes especially significant with regard to the size of the ensemble itself. Gardiner has resisted here the trend to perform Bach’s choral works with a “choir” of one-to-a part, opting instead for seventeen singers. And while the argument for a solo choir does not rest on questions of agility—it is rooted primarily in historical documentation—one of the conspicuous by-products of one-to-a part singing is often greater ease with fast passage work. Gardiner’s ensemble belies that notion, however, giving ample proof of remarkable agility.

It is not difficult to imagine that Gardiner and his forces faced many practical challenges along the pilgrim way. As the liner notes recall, balance in the wonderful canon that opens “Ein Feste Burg,” BWV 80, proved unexpectedly difficult to achieve in the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg: the instrumental bass was overwhelmed by its treble counterpart. Accordingly, at the last minute a sackbut player from Leipzig was recruited to “even up the sides.” The trombone’s entry in this most rousing of canons is thrilling, and one of the most memorable moments in the volume. One can but look forward to all of the surprise challenges of the Pilgrimage having equally felicitous outcomes.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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