This issue looks likely to be one of the very best in this great series. For newcomers, Gardiner and his colleagues devoted the year 2000, which was the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, to a `pilgrimage', mainly in Europe but finishing in New York, in which they performed all the master's surviving cantatas on the liturgical dates for which he had composed them. For newcomers again, this set would be as good a place to start becoming familiar with the series as I have so far encountered in the 13 issues I have collected. All the works here find Bach at his most approachable, and one in particular, Jauchzet Gott BWV 51, is rather a famous one, and it's not hard to appreciate why. For some reason the last addition to my collection, numbered 3 in their inscrutable numbering system, was not the best. However 13 has turned out to be quite the opposite of an unlucky number for me.
In other respects the processes by which numbers have been allocated defeat my understanding. In the first place the BWV numeration of the cantatas is unrelated to their sequence of composition. BWV 99 dates from 11 years earlier than BWV 100, which is to the same basic text, to take an obvious case. The series number allocated by the editors to each set is completely at variance with the date of each performance and also, so far as I can see, with the order in which the sets have been released to the public. As a bonus here, Gardiner in his introductory essay seems to speak of BWV 99 and 100 as being the first and third of Bach's settings of the text in question, whereas when we come to the actual texts we find them referred to as `II' and `III'. Which is the one that is actually missing, and where has it got to anyway?
All this may be in the spirit of the Mysteries which form a key part of Lutheran Christian belief. Easier to appreciate, I can report happily, is the quality of the work, which is absolutely admirable from every point of view. First the recorded sound is up with the best, tactful and proportionate throughout, and even having a hint of remoteness, presumably intentional, when Mark Padmore ascends the pulpit steps to perform his solos on the second disc. Secondly the performers are all on top form, instrumentalists as well as singers, and among the singers chorus as well as soloists. There are 8 solo singers, 6 of whom I can welcome back from my previous encounters with them as I have progressively collected this series, one of whom is Padmore whom I know well from elsewhere, and a spectacular newcomer to me is the Swedish soprano Malin Hartelius who has the spectacularly difficult cantata 51 to herself, plus one aria and participation in two duets in other numbers on the first disc from Bremen. The first movement of this cantata is an absolute knockout, assisted by that wonderful trumpet obbligato given here by Mme Hartelius' compatriot Niklas Eklund. In this movement, and even more in the concluding Alleluja, I had the sensation of an appearance by a guest star, and this is a voice and artistry that I want to get to know better. The `regulars' I have come to know and appreciate, and Padmore may be another `star' turn, giving in particular a very striking account of the aria Was willst du dich.
As well as singing, Padmore has been invited, or has volunteered, to append the short performer's essay at the end of the set that always complements the conductor's own lengthy and deep-browed musings. As always, I take issue with this great Bachian only to the extent that I find less in the way of representation than he does in the music. Handel thought pictorially, it seems to me, Bach not. The 8 cantatas here are Bach at his most characteristic. He always seems most comfortable to me when simply reiterating the basic serenity and trust in the Almighty that was the hallmark of his own strain of Lutheranism. He will do hell fire and scriptural drama when he has to, but it is the repetitious-seeming sentiments of the Pietist verses that draw out from him his best music, music of seemingly infinite variety and beauty without any apparent effort being made at giving individuality to the separate numbers.
I started this notice with some remarks addressed to any newcomers who may read it. I hope they will join me in admiring the format of the production, and I would add a word of caution that the discs are slightly liable to fall out if the set is handled incautiously, and that it needs care not to touch the surfaces. Otherwise - enjoy.