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This is the 25th issue in a 27-part series, but there is no reason why someone new to the series should not light on this one first. In that case I shall first summarise for the 27th time what the newcomer will find. It was an incredibly ambitious project, described by Gardiner as a pilgrimage, in which the musicians and their recording team toured Europe (finally also including New York) performing all Bach's extant cantatas on, or as near as possible to, the liturgical dates for which they were composed. Divergences sometimes had to happen because there are cantatas for, say, the 22nd and 23rd Sundays after Trinity, but no such occasions in the year 2000, chosen as being the 250th anniversary of the master's death.

In fact this 25th volume is about as `representative' an issue as I can think of. Terms like `standard' and `average' lose their ordinary meanings in this connexion. The standard of this music is great beyond greatness, the average quality of the performances is little short of superlative, and the recording work is all but flawless. There are actually arias elsewhere that are even more marvellous than any here, and I have some favourite singers who do not participate in what we have this time, but as a `taster', giving a fair idea of the general level of the series, this will do as well as any. The format of the whole series is standardised, presented in a book format with striking cover photos, and the only thing to be careful of is handling the discs. This is tricky to do without touching the surfaces, except when sometimes the discs fall out of their own accord. Texts are given in the German with English translations, Gardiner's own lengthy essays are translated into German, and the only contribution in monoglot English is the shorter item from one of the performers, this time the cellist David Watkin. Gardiner's thoughts are, obviously, illuminating although he is perhaps inclined to over-analysis and he has yet to persuade me of the symbolism that he sometimes finds in the music. To me it seems that Bach's religious faith informed everything that he thought and did, his musical gift was infinite, and we don't need to bring all this down to specifics. Occasionally some kinds of text involve him in token illustrative effects, but we don't find those here, where the texts could perhaps be described as Sunday-standard.

The actual performing began at Xmas 1999, but for some reason the numbering sequence of the volumes starts with the feast of John the Baptist. This set, like most in the series, contains two discs, featuring cantatas for the fifth Sunday after Easter and the Sunday after Ascension Sunday, plus a couple of works whose occasions are uncertain, and a short final a cappella motet by Johann Christoph Bach, a distant elder cousin of the great man. The sequence of my collecting the 27 sets was haphazard, partly because they seemed to be released in an incomprehensible order. Now, the way it has all worked out, I am taking my own leave of reviewing the pilgrimage. In no way am I taking leave of the performances themselves. This pilgrimage is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is a possession for constant recourse, as Thucydides called his history. The sense of style, under such a director, is beyond question, and in particular the seemingly desperate need to set speed records, a constant feature in the early days of the `authentic' movement, is happily a thing long forgotten. There are some memorably slow, and awesomely slow, numbers here. Before I finish my final review I should pay especial tribute to the instrumentalists. Like their singer colleagues, they often had to learn the music from scratch before their next trip to Orkney, Lithuania or High Street Bavaria in three or four days' time, and then perform it as if they had known it all their lives. They were obviously overwhelmed with it, the sense of that comes through instead, and if you are still unconvinced of the sheer beauty of authentic 18th century instrumental sound this is where you may enjoy a conversion. The truth is that Bach's inspiration, unlike Handel's, was instrumental in origin, with the voices secondary, so the instrumentalists are right at the heart of a project like this.

Among the singers here I don't think I recall the bass Panajotis Iconomou before this series, but either way I am glad to know his work now. Steve Davislim I certainly recall vividly (try to hear him in Brahms's Rinaldo), and most music lovers will surely welcome him again here. At the end of his note Gardiner shyly mentions a lady who called out to the performers as they were leaving the platform `Please don't go.' I don't have to make any such plea. These artists have given me what old man Thucydides called a `ktema es aei', I have studied this one far more attentively, and I shall keep doing so for as long as I am given to do that because it can lose nothing but only add value over time, as the scripture reminds us in the quotation I have taken from one chorus to use as my caption.
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on 27 January 2014
This is astonishing music and Gardiner's notes help the listener to enter into the work of Bach's genius. This is live music beautifully recorded.
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