These performances date from 1992, and are thus not part of the famous and successful 'pilgrimage' that Gardiner and his colleagues undertook in the millennium year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. The presentation of the disc leans over backwards to associate itself with that undertaking, but I suppose a certain amount of that kind of thing is legitimate and in this case, unlike another that I encountered recently, it is not carried to extent of being misleading to the point of offensiveness.
We have here three cantatas for the first Sunday of Advent, and 20 years separate the earliest from the last. Common to the words set in all three is a text of Luther proclaiming the invocation 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland' - 'come now, Saviour of the gentiles'. More fascinating than that to me is the consistency of style over that 20-year interval. Beethoven's compositional manner, to take only a very clear and famous instance, had gone from 'early' through 'middle' to 'late' in two decades, but Bach seems to have been fully equipped already at age 29. I would not like to choose a favourite among three such beautiful works, totally accomplished and instinct with Bach's radiant faith expressed through his limitless musical endowment. One of the more pleasant conundrums that I am never likely to solve is how music that is not only set to texts all expressing much the same sentiments, but itself is so unified and homogeneous in style, manages nevertheless to achieve infinite variety.
These performances strike me as admirable in every respect, whether in point of interpretation, or of sympathetic sense of the composer's idiom, or of beauty of sound and technical proficiency. Whether they come quite up to the numinous sense of inspiration that pervades the 'pilgrimage' series I'm not sure, but they are so good that it seems churlish to labour such an issue. Not only that, the recorded quality this time is excellent as well, with the voices not unduly backward and an agreeable brightness in the recorded tone to match the enthusiasm that I sense from the performers themselves.
The liner essay, by Ruth Tatlow, is rather good too, and I naturally mean no disparagement of Gardiner's own fine and often moving essays accompanying the 'pilgrimage' sets when I say that it is pleasant to get a different slant on the music and the composer. Her pert remarks on Bach's portrait amused me on a different level from the serious comments, and I was intrigued also by the comparison she makes between one of the choruses welcoming the Saviour of the Gentiles and the so-called 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' in Handel's Solomon. The interesting thing for me in this comparison is that while it was much more in Handel's manner than in Bach's to illustrate his texts via the music, in fact the sobriquet 'Arrival of the Queen' is a modern one. Handel only called the piece a 'sinfonia', which is more or less 'entr'acte', and it has no text to illustrate, so I shall reserve judgment as to whether this sort of musical expression was thought at the time to be appropriate to royal advents.
I have not checked whether these particular cantatas have yet been issued from the pilgrimage, but if not presumably they soon will be. One way or the other I shall be adding those issues to my own collection, but to be going on with this particular unbelieving gentile has had his spiritual batteries recharged very effectively.