Gardiner's series of the Bach cantatas is a sort of pilgrimage. The performers are following JSB around the modest circuit of his own life and career and performing in his honour the masterpieces that he had churned out without fail for the successive Sundays of the Lutheran calendar. Nothing in the entire history of music that I know quite matches this astounding output. Sunday after Sunday he had composed and rehearsed works that would have made other composers illustrious if they had taken years to produce them, works radiant with his unquenchable faith in salvation, works of unmatchable professionalism and finish, and works evincing an infinite musical talent that does more than all his scriptures do for me to suggest the presence of something beyond what the rational mind can comprehend.
There are seven cantatas in this 2-disc set, one (the earliest of all the cantatas) for an unknown feast, three for `Low Sunday' as the Catholic communion knows the Sunday after Easter, and the balance for the following Sunday. In my own experience, they are not among the best-known of the cantatas. Nothing in them has the wide popularity of Jesu Joy or Sheep May Safely Graze; and I suspect that nothing in them enjoys the celebrity among connoisseurs of, say, Schlummert ein from cantata 82 or Wir eilen from cantata 78. I would say to that simply -- just hear this collection a couple of times and you will find yourself enjoying inspiration of an order equal to any of those more celebrated pieces. Gardiner and his colleagues understand fully what they are taking on here - for this composer and these compositions anything less than the very best they can do would be an affront. I have no real fault to find with anything they do here. The direction is insightful and deeply sympathetic, and I like the four vocal soloists without exception. In particular the counter-tenor Daniel Taylor has a pure and unaffected tone that comes as a great relief after one has endured certain other singers of this type. The choir and the instrumentalists are established and accomplished experts, and after I started by regretting that the solo violin at one point did not have the gorgeous tone of his or her counterpart at Erbarme dich in my beloved old Muenchinger set of the St Matthew Passion I came round to the view that in the context of the more severe style adopted here such a tone would have been a concession to my own sentimentality and decadence.
The recordings are from the millennium year 2000, which was also the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. Like their artistic counterparts the technical personnel have demanded the highest standards of themselves, and I found the sound at all points both easy on the ear and suitable to the style and scale of the music. Gardiner himself contributes a lengthy and highly personal essay with a strong emphasis on the reactions that this great music evokes from him as an individual, as well as providing insights into the issues of interpretation that he had to resolve. Such were the circumstances of this musical journey that he was under constant pressure of time. He says modestly that he has not aimed at any definitive set of renderings, and I hope he thinks better of us his music-loving public than to expect us to look for that from him or from anyone in music like this.
The set is attractively packaged as a kind of book, and I would only counsel care in extracting the discs, as this is tricky to do without touching the surfaces. Be careful about that: this is sacred music in more senses than one.