Gardiner's `pilgrimage' series performing all the Bach cantatas consists of 27 volumes. I now have all 27, this is my 26th review, so I shall soon echo the master in saying `es ist vollbracht' - it is finished. There is no way of knowing at what point any other listener may join the programme, so in case this review finds any readers I had better summarise for the 26th time the general features of the series. It has been a monumental project in more than one sense. Gardiner planned and carried out a `pilgrimage' throughout Europe and latterly even the USA in which he and a dedicated retinue of singers, instrumentalists and recording technicians gave all the Bach cantatas on the liturgical dates for which JSB had created them, subject to such minor divergences as were to be found between the years of composition and the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. This set, like most of the series, contains two discs, the first having four cantatas for Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Lent; the other finding space for a cantata each for three separate feasts, first the Annunciation and then two dates close to that.
No variation or divergence that I can recall is to be found in the recorded quality: from eastern Germany to New York City the recording personnel have adapted seamlessly (to use the cliché) to non-stop changes of acoustic. The `volumes' are to a standard and attractive format - a kind of book with only a small warning needed to the user to be careful in handling the discs, which can sometimes fall out rather easily and at other times be recalcitrant. There is always a long, learned and affectionate essay by Gardiner himself, plus a shorter effort from one of the performers, this time from the alto Nathalie Stutzmann, herself the recipient of a special commendation from the maestro. As for the actual music, it has to be one of the wonders of all artistic creation. Week in, week out, Bach turned out masterpieces that were difficult into the bargain, making his talent as a musical trainer second only to what he amounted to as a composer. This time round there is a fairly high incidence of numbers that come into my own category of knockouts. One is the chorale ending BWV22 on the first disc, with the kind of flowing instrumental counterpoint to the voices that is most famous from `Jesu Joy' and is, if possible, even more heavenly than that. My other favourites are towards the end of the second disc, one the solemn aria `es ist vollbracht', one the grand chorus with horns that starts BWV1, and my third winner (in sequence, not in ranking) the glorious soprano aria with obbligato oboe d'amore, sung by the glorious soprano Malin Hartelius.
Over 26 sets I have naturally got used to a good many of the names of the performers, or at least of the vocal soloists. Some were known to me already, but mostly they were new acquaintances. Nathalie Stutzmann is complimented here by no less than Gardiner himself, but my own biggest `find' has been Malin Hartelius. The perfection of her technique and the fresh clear beauty of her voice are as wonderful here as anywhere else. As for special `names', it would be invidious to single any others out, so I suppose there is nothing for it in that case but just to be invidious. I would not want to end without making special mention of the tenor James Gilchrist, whose original career, I have just learned, was in medicine. So was Michelangeli's (supposedly), so we seem to have two cases where medicine's loss has been music's gain. Gilchrist is 45ish, so there are plenty of good years left in his voice, and I am pleased to find that he has been less niggardly than Michelangeli was in sharing his talents with the rest of us. Only one more volume to go now, and in case you might want a bit of a preview, it's going to be another good one unless my confirmatory playing of it gives me any surprises.