This 2-disc set is a member of a 27-part series containing all of Bach's extant cantatas. Present this time are the 3 cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity plus, on disc 1, one of the motets, this time uniquely with instrumental doubling indicated by the composer (although Tovey states that it should be provided in all the `unaccompanied' motets). Disc 2 was recorded in the church where Bach is buried, and so concludes with the chorale that he dictated from his own deathbed. Earlier on the disc are the 2 cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity together with another from the 25th after Trinity, presumably because the year 2000, when the entire series was performed and committed to record, had no 25th Sunday after Trinity.
This is now the 21st of this great series in my own collection, and I can report as usual that it is distinguished not just for quality but for consistent quality. Occasional reservations in my 20 earlier reviews have been very exceptional, and I have none this time. This makes the reviews very repetitious of course, but I can never assume that any reader of one has read any of the others, so I have to flog through the basic points of note now for the twenty-first time. First, the whole project was simply breathtaking. The year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, was dedicated to a `pilgrimage' in which Gardiner and his associates performed all the cantatas on the liturgical dates for which they were composed, so far as that was possible given the church calendar in 2000. Recording was only a by-product of the great overall aim to bring Bach's masterpieces to as wide a concert public in Europe and America as could be organised, but one of the most striking successes is precisely the high standard of the technical work. I have not attempted to count the number of recording venues with widely varying acoustics that the experts had to deal with, but if any of it involved problems I would never have known.
As well as musical insight and scholarship, Gardiner has to get a high rating for interpersonal skills and leadership. The whole enterprise may of course have flowed as smoothly as Bach's polyphony, but to say the least I would be astonished if so. However the sheer heavensent inspiration that confronted them all week in and week out must have gone a long way towards calming more earthly upsets. Together with the texts (German and English) there are always two essays by the maestro himself, the shorter describing the overall project, the longer his reflections on the actual music in the set in question. In addition there is a brief contribution from one of the performers, this time the soprano Katharine Fuge, and the word she repeats is eloquent. Right at the beginning she speaks about `this extraordinary journey', and she concludes with her assessment of Bach as `this extraordinary man'. Extraordinary indeed, all of it.
The style is `period' style with instruments to match, and if I have one particular plum to pull out of this set it is the recorder work from Rachel Beckett in the first cantata on the second disc. That may be a little unfair on the rest of the performers, so let me just say lamely that they all distinguish themselves. It keeps being said in the notes accompanying each issue that they were often learning the music as they went along. If there is any way in which you could tell that they had not known it all their lives it is just the freshness of the singing and playing. It all says a lot for them individually, but what does it say for the musical leadership they were given?
The format is attractive, a kind of simulated book. It has a minor drawback, namely that the discs sometimes stick as stubbornly as a dog in its kennel and sometimes, as on my set this time, are liable to fall out if we are not careful. Happily, modern discs are not all that easy to damage, but these deserve to be treated as sacred things.