John Eliot Gardiner finds reason to believe that Bach attached exceptional significance to Advent Sunday, sc the first Sunday of the liturgical season leading up to Christmas. Without risking rash guesswork I infer that this exceptional significance must come from its being Advent rather than just from its being first in a cycle, so the second disc of this 2-part set, devoted to the 4th Sunday of Advent, must be more or less equally important. It certainly is as far as I am concerned, but only because the music is equally good. The maestro has stopped talking about exceptional significance by the time we reach the second disc, and I have not managed to be clear in my own mind why the first was so exceptional. Gardiner rightly points out how good the music on it is, but you could say as much about any of the 27 volumes of this great `pilgrimage' series. Sublime music is the norm in the Bach cantatas, not something exceptional. Further intellectual effort is required if one wishes to disentangle the 4th Sunday of Advent from the 26th Sunday after Trinity and the feast of the Visitation, so I have decided to assign the solution of that riddle to the category of revealed truths that are above reason and turn instead to what interests me, namely the music and its performance and recording.
Now that all the 27 parts of the pilgrimage have been issued, the format is probably fairly familiar. Over the year 2000 Gardiner and his associates traversed Europe, and even reached America at the end, performing the extant Bach cantatas on the liturgical dates (with variations due to different dates of Easter) for which they had been written. The scale of the undertaking hardly needs emphasising, and although the magnitude of the achievement is downright amazing it is only what the stature of the music demands. We know from contributions to the `diary' of the pilgrimage from the performers that they were often learning the music from scratch before they had to perform and record it less than a week later, and I can only suppose that they were kept inspired by the thought that Bach had had just as little time to compose and rehearse the works in the first place.
Whatever the truth of that, there has hardly been a weakness throughout as much of the undertaking as my collection now contains, and that is 25 sets of the 27. As I keep having to say in reviewing the successive issues, everyone's work is admirable, be it the solo or choral singers, the instrumentalists, the director himself or the recording technicians who have had to keep adapting to a bewildering succession of new acoustical conditions as the caravan moves on from place to place. Now knowing 25 volumes I ought to be able to generalise and say that what distinguishes each volume is not just its individual excellence but the sense that each is part of a greater unity. This speaks to the artistic vision of the director of course, but also to the personal leadership and sheer managerial competence that he must have been required to exercise.
The detailed layout of each issue is always the same. The format is attractive and original, resembling a book but making it a little tricky to handle the physical discs safely. Period instruments are of course used, and there is a wealth of scholarly and personal comment from Gardiner over and above the full sung texts in German with English translation. The supplementary essay, this time from the violinist Hildburg Williams, is exceptionally interesting also. Commenting on the way Gardiner shaped the vocal expression, and applying the same philosophy to the instrumental work, Williams talks of the `deeper meaning' and `follow[ing] the inflections of the text'. If I understand this rightly, it surely means that the aim was to penetrate to the core of total and unswerving belief that possessed this great composer and drew the music out of him, the often mediocre verses significant only because of the suggestion they held for Bach. In passing, who what or where is `Musica', invoked in one of the chorales in BWV 36? She or it is a new one not only on me but also on my Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon, and may owe her existence only to the divine afflatus of Herr Philipp Nicolai.
Better known is the famous chorale usually referred to in English as `Jesu Joy' from BWV 147. This occurs, with less familiar texts, twice in that cantata, ending each of its two sections in a lovely rendering that is inward without being introverted. All in all, a joy of a set indeed.