Like a number of its companion sets in this series, this one contains six cantatas. It also contains something completely different, namely one of Bach's great motets. This bonus comes about, Gardiner tells us, because there is relatively little choral work in the cantatas here. The motets are choral throughout, with no solo or solo-ensemble episodes, and they are partly unaccompanied a cappella and partly with a discreet organ background. This brings the total playing time of the 2-disc set to well over two hours, as the motet, BWV 227 Jesu meine Freude to the text of one of the set hymns for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, is actually longer with its 11 sections than either of the cantatas that come with it here for that liturgical date. It is longer also than the third cantata on the same disc, # 26 which is actually for the 24th Sunday after Trinity but had no other home to go to as there was no 24th Sunday after Trinity in the year 2000 when this project was implemented. The other disc contains the three cantatas for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany.
As usual, the standard of professionalism, understanding of and deep affection for this great music, commitment to quality in everything that is done and unswerving dedication to the awesome undertaking is exemplary. Having collected a sizeable number of the issues so far I can't in my own mind think of this `pilgrimage' as just a collection of separate productions, something I could do if the works in question were the Beethoven symphonies or sonatas. The more I hear of it the more it coheres as a single unity. All the same, my job in reviewing it is to try to assess it on its own, and I couldn't actually say that this is quite the best of the series that I know. Now and then, particularly on the first disc, the soloists seem a little nearer to the microphone than I might have preferred. This comes on top of my sense that these are not quite my favourite soloists in general either. The two basses are very good indeed, and particular credit to Gerald Finley, who apparently had to stand in at short notice. I was a little disconcerted in the opening soprano recitative in the very first cantata, where it sounds as if Joanne Lunn might have a slight cold, and the forward microphone balance that I was just mentioning doesn't help. Matters certainly improve with her aria shortly afterwards, and I find it difficult to assess her in general on the second disc as we don't appear to be told which numbers she takes part in and which feature Katharine Fuge. The two tenors are fine if not my own chart-toppers, and whatever my temperamental difficulty with male altos, William Towers has to get a special mention for his handling of the long notes on `schlaeft' in cantata 81. These are nearly as long as the famous `sed' in the Offertorium of Verdi's Requiem, and a performance like this deserves commensurate fame too. It is also only fair to pay tribute to all the soloists without exception for the mastery they show in handling Bach's difficult and instrumentally-influenced vocal writing.
Mentioning cantata 81 takes me on to Gardiner's usual long essay, which understandably has a lot to say about this unusual cantata. The tenor aria Die Schaeumenden Wellen represents an exceptional attempt by Bach at drama and representational effects. For Gardiner this indicates what Bach might have been like as a composer of opera, and I would agree with that except to add that what he would have been was hopeless. This is a Kapellmeister's idea of drama, and even when it is from the greatest Kapellmeister who ever was it is pedantic stuff in comparison with the real thing from Mr impresario Handel.
Otherwise Gardiner's essay is searching and illuminating as usual. He admits to finding the motet a challenge, so it is not for the likes of me to pretend otherwise. If I may offer a thought of my own, the motets show a distinctive characteristic that comes from being for unaccompanied voices. I said above that Bach's vocal writing is instrumentally influenced, meaning his vocal music with instruments involved. With Bach, as with Wagner later, I really feel that instruments predominate. When composing for instruments Bach is either writing fugues or spinning patterns - patterns of sometimes the utmost sublimity, patterns that seem able to express anything, but patterns that lock the vocal elements into them. Set free from instrumental patterns the voices in the motets sometimes adopt a rhetorical tone - not grandiose Handelian rhetoric, but more the rhetoric of animated conversation such as is sometimes represented in the text by exclamation-marks. I find Bach's motets fascinating, as I also do those of his great follower Brahms a century and a half later. Brahms asked Joachim what he thought of his motets, and when Joachim started to praise their academic mastery Brahms cut him off, saying `Never mind that. Are they good music?' I wonder what Brahms himself thought, or what Bach thought. Sometimes music just takes a certain kind of composer over, and there is no relating it to more normal considerations of expressiveness or human emotions.
The format is the familiar `book' format, and for newcomers I would say as I usually do `Be careful in handling the discs.' If newcomers to this series are starting here, it's not exactly where I would have suggested, because there are no obvious smash-hits in this selection, but stay with it all the same. Bach is for life, and however long you live you are going to find more in him with each passing year.