This 2-disc set contains the cantatas for the 22nd and 23rd Sundays after Trinity, and this review constitutes my 24th in the series, leaving three more to go. The great and visionary `pilgrimage' that Gardiner and his associates undertook in the year 2000 had them performing all Bach's extant cantatas on the liturgical dates for which he had created them, or as near as might be. Easter was late in 2000, there was no 27th Sunday after Trinity and a cantata for that occasion has therefore been added to the second disc here. This cantata is none other than the great Wachet auf (`Sleepers awake'), no. 140, so this particular issue comes to a particularly splendiferous conclusion.
For anyone joining the train at this station, the year 2000 was not just the so-called millennium year (there was no year zero, 1 BC was immediately followed by 1 AD and the millennium year is therefore 2001), it was also the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, aged 65. Behind the marvellous music-making there must have been hardly less marvellous planning, management and leadership on Gardiner's part. We know because various participants tell us that very often they were learning the piece they were to perform the next Sunday from scratch during the previous week, and to top that they were travelling around Europe, and even as far as America towards the end, between their weekly concerts. I now own 25 out of the 27 sets, and I can report with complete candour that I detect no sense of fatigue or loss of motivation at any point. Credit of course goes to the various performers (and the technical recording staff who seem totally unfazed by the constant changes of acoustic), Bach himself inscribed `SDG' (= soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone) on each masterpiece, but the rest of us will surely award a lot of that to Bach himself.
The recording venues were respectively All Saints Tooting and Winchester Cathedral. If Tooting is thought by anyone to lack stateliness, the reason for recording there was simply that the majestic acoustics of Eton Chapel, where the performance had actually taken place, were at the mercy of the flight-path to Heathrow airport, and the ensemble recreated the sense of a live performance by means of long recording takes. In any case, what's wrong with Tooting? Chaucer's more famous pilgrimage went to Southwark, after all. We can read all about it from the `blog' contributed by Gardiner himself in the usual way.
Also as normally, there is a shorter contribution from one of the performers, this time the viola player Annette Isserlis. This short essay seems to me exceptionally interesting, because in addition to the standard gasps of admiration there are thought-provoking comments on the role of the instrumentalists generally. I shall quote Mme Isserlis verbatim `As instrumentalists we are therefore embedded in the substance of each cantata, as portrayers and symbolists as well as accompanists'. Myself, I would almost go further. In Bach it is instruments, and not really the voices, that take the lead. Bach was an `absolute' musician, and it seems to me that his infinite musical faculty found its natural outlet through the wordless medium of instruments. He did not, I venture to think, react to texts as Handel did, or as Schubert did, the texts simply served as the occasions for music. In any case the religious fervour and conviction that breathes through everything Bach ever composed was something that possessed his entire mind and soul. Much of the pietistic verse he set was thin poor stuff, but set against music like this who cares what it amounts to?
It is very rarely indeed that I have expressed any real reservations about the quality of what I have been privileged to listen to, and I have no reason or wish to do so here. The singers seem to combine the insight of veterans with the freshness of newcomers, and the all-important instrumental parts are superbly done on their period instruments. It is surely superfluous to utter platitudes about the stylistic insight and command shown by such a director and such executants. I ended, as the set itself ends, in dulci jubilo, even if I might qualify (hopefully without impiety) the usual SDG.