For any newcomers, this is from Gardiner's great 'pilgrimage' series in which he and his colleagues performed all the surviving Bach cantatas during the year 2000 on the liturgical dates for which they were created. 2000 was not just the millennium year, it was the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. What I have yet to understand is the series numbering. This is not chronological in the order of performance, because that was determined by the church calendar. It is not the order in which the sets have been issued either, so what is it? No matter, I suppose. This is #2, and a welcome new addition to my collection.
I own, and have reviewed, coming on for 20 of the series now. With the rarest exceptions the reviews all say much the same things. You will find musicianship of the highest order here, and music of this order requires no less. There is also a sense of commitment and dedication. This is no mere collection of separate performances, you can sense the prevailing spirit of the pilgrimage through them. It all says much for Gardiner's leadership as well as for his overall command of the transcendental corpus of masterpieces that he is re-creating for us. One thing that he tells us in his accompanying essay is that the performances on these two discs (from Paris and Zurich) came at roughly the mid-point of the tour, and there was an anxious period before they had confirmation of the funds to continue. People of faith may find their faith confirmed by the outcome: for the rest of us there is a simple sense of relief, and my own admiration for the sheer spirit of it all is redoubled on finding, as I had expected, that the quality is as high as ever.
Also as usual, the recorded sound is excellent and expertly judged for the style of the works. I am getting to know a lot of the names involved, instrumentalists as well as vocalists, and I know from companion volumes that in many cases they were all literally picking up the works as they went along, but I don't know what sort of expert anyone would have to be who could guess that. As well as Gardiner's own long essays accompanying each disc, there is always a shorter contribution, one per set, by one of the performers. This time we hear from the trumpeter Michael Harrison, whose statement I found exceptionally interesting. Inter alia he tells us that Bach wrote better for the trumpet than anyone else did, and that the trumpet parts in the cantatas stretch the technique of the instrument to its limits. What does all this say about the local musicians who had to bone up on new works of such difficulty during the week prior to the service? It can only have helped stiffen the professionalism of our performers in 2000.
There are a couple of unusual features in this release. One is the inclusion of a short motet by Schuetz to the text (in German of course) 'The Heavens are telling the glory of God'. This precedes Bach's own cantata starting to the same effect, but Gardiner does not know of or try to suggest any link. The Schuetz work is there because he likes it, and if I may say so I like it too. What gluttons for work, or at least for good music, they all must have been, and it is a special bonus to have two new settings to place in the parade of honour alongside Haydn's. There is also space on the second disc, as only two cantatas survive for the third Sunday after Trinity, and the opportunity is taken to include an out-of-the-way concerto, adapted from sundry chamber works in Bach's familiar way, that may, in the conductor's view, represent an attempt by the composer during the 1740's to dabble with the new musical idiom that was, in the hands of CPE Bach, displacing his own in fashionable favour.
I don't think we yet had blogs in 2000, but Gardiner's essays are more or less blogs. They are detailed, learned and loving commentaries on the great works that he has undertaken the duty and claimed the privilege of bringing to us in their remaining entirety. I respectfully part company from his thinking in one way, namely that he finds minute correspondences at times between the texts and the music. Myself, I don't think this was any part of the deal with Bach, although it certainly is with Handel. All Bach's music reflects his unquestioning and overarching faith, and his musical idiom in turn embodies the purest spirit of music, what we sometimes call 'absolute' music. None of this, it seems to me, is concerned with minutiae of references to the words, especially when so many of those are very generalised Sunday stuff. Certainly when Bach sings 'Erfreue dich' he writes joyful music and when he intones 'Sighing weeping, sorrow... etc' his music is grave and sombre. He will even suggest lapping waves for a text about running streams, and he will become livelier when the text becomes livelier, but all in the traditional and established German way. Handel was the radical and experimenter, not Bach, although Gardiner may have a point when he suggests that Handel (who probably knew everything by everyone) might have got the idea for the last chorus in the Messiah from Bach's setting of the same text in BWV 21. It is not a matter of the notes, just of the way the thing is gone about in general.
For newcomers to finish with - take care in handling the discs, which are tricky to extract. Treat them as sacred things.