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on 4 March 2005
After numerous recordings of the Bach cantatas, I have definetely found my favourite. This is the first of 51 cds that will be released on the new Monteverdi Productions label. They are all live recordings performed on the sunday of the year for which they were written. There is a fantastic atmosphere and a unique live "nerve" in these performances. After hearing other versions by Herreweghe, Koopman, Suzuki etc. the choice is easy. The choir is AMAZING! I don't think that I have EVER heard the Monteverdi choir sing this brilliant and passionate. Naturally the concert form creates a more inspired atmosphere than the studio recording. The orchestra playing is also fantastic. Extra credit to Gardiner for using both harpsichord AND organ in these cantatas, something that is historically appropriate. Intonation and phrasing is superb. There is really nothing negative to say about the orchestra. The bass group could have needed one more cello and bass but it plays very well as it is. The soloists are top notch as well with the bass Henschel and the tenor Paul Agnew sticking out as the most extraordinary. The soprano and alto are also superb. Finally a recording that really stands out. These are some amazing performances by the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and John E. Gardiner. If you intend to hear all the Bach cantatas in your lifetime, this is the set to own!!
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on 27 February 2006
...and promptly signed up for the lot. Gardiner's Bach has been a bit of a movable feast, some brilliant, some ordinary, but always played with the Gardiner trademark committment. (To get an idea of this, buy the brilliant DVD Christmas Oratorio that kicked off the Pilgrimage). From this set, it appears that Gardiner's Bach is, to my ears anyway, now completely rounded. Always a good bet for the festive cantatas, where the Monteverdis, the precision machine of choirs, could be let spectacularly loose, his treatment of the more reflective works is now top-notch. Naturally nobody will ever get everything completely "right", especially in a live recording such as this, but the evidence of this disc and the others that have followed it is that this will be an outstanding set, matched only by Suzuki's brilliant BIS set. I already have the complete Rilling and Leusink sets and quite a few Suzukis, and I look forward to adding this one.
The set has the additional advantage of being the most beautifully packed CDs I've seen - little hardbacked books with the CDs in sleeves and the texts and excerpts from Gardiner's Pilgrimage journal in between, and of course Steve McCurry's stunning photos on the cover.
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on 10 November 2005
I am not a musician, do not read music nor do I have a great knowledge of the history of classical music in general, but with John Eliot Gardiner you have a conductor who I believe is what all good conductors should be - one completely able to understand and master the inner soul of J.S. Bach's music. This recording, the first of, I believe 51 cd's, is sublime. Every time I listen to it, the Choir take me into an almost dream-like state of euphoria and it makes me grateful that we were so fortunate to have been able to preserve such a work of genius and to be able to have it recorded by such a first class conductor and choir. The new Monteverdi label is certainly an important addition to the world of classical music.
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on 10 March 2005
I second DD's review. I adore Bach's music and I've listened and loved many recordings. But these truly stand out - a perfect combination of exceptional choral and solo singing, and lovely instrumental playing; and an ideal balance of devotion, seriousness, sorrow, joy and fun make for wonderful, life enhancing listening. Vol 1 and 8 - the first two releases - very highly recommended indeed.
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This wonderful two-disc set was recorded live at St. Giles Cripplegate, London in June 2000 as part of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage undertaken by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Although the pilgrimage actually began in 1999, this set is the first volume in the series of recordings made on the Soli Deo Gloria label of Bach’s surviving church cantatas.

Having bought the seventh volume to acquaint myself with a piece I was singing with my choir, I decided to go about purchasing the discs in order and this was, therefore, the first of what will no doubt prove to be many purchases.

The beauty of the music is matched by the excellence of the playing and singing and Sir John’s eloquent, scholarly, yet very personal sleeve notes make any observations I might make on the music largely superfluous; they are required reading, as is the postscript from the distinguished German baritone Dietrich Henschel, the most famous of the outstanding collection of soloists featured on these wonderful CDs.
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This 2-disc set is numbered 1 in Gardiner's great `pilgrimage' through the entire collection of Bach's surviving cantatas, but put not your trust in numbers where this series is concerned. The performances were recorded on the liturgical dates for which they were composed throughout the calendar year 2000, and the Feast of St John the Baptist and the first Sunday after Trinity fall just after midsummer. This issue has some claim to primacy from the sheer amount of music that it contains - several of the cantatas here are exceptionally long, and each disc contains an hour and a quarter of music.

I found the same things to admire here as I have found in all my growing collection of the pilgrimage issues. The style is impeccable, the execution by everyone concerned is exemplary, and the recorded sound is faithful, clear and proportionate. More important still, what shines out like a ray from heaven is the sheer love of this great music shared by the director and all his colleagues. Gardiner himself must have set out on such a daunting project as an expert on the cantatas, but we know from what the other performers tell us elsewhere that they were largely learning them as they went along. Their sheer musical talent and professionalism ensures quality, but there is a freshness also about these accounts that comes from a sense of new revelation. I never sense any fatigue despite the exhausting travelling that it all involved, to say nothing of the limited time for learning these often demanding scores and then rehearsal. They felt it a privilege, and they share the privilege with the rest of us.

As always, Gardiner gives us his own thoughtful and illuminating commentary. I found this chapter even more interesting than usual, because the texts presented to Bach for the first Sunday after Trinity major on the theme of eternal damnation. Cantata 20 has not gone far before we hear `the pain of eternity has no end: it pursues without cease its game of torment...there is no redemption from agony' and similar intimidations are continued with growing fanaticism as the text progresses. In his notes Gardiner seems almost to suggest that one number in particular represents Bach's attempt to reassure us that it's not as bad as all that really. I have to take respectful issue with Gardiner. In the first place I don't think that Bach queried or watered down the Lutheran faith in any way; and secondly I rather suspect that Gardiner's deep fascination with the music leads him to find more elements of representation in the music than Bach put there. In one of these cantatas, for example, Gardiner detects the waters of the Jordan flowing, and I really think this is just an enthusiast's fancy. Bach will now and then use the music to represent pictorial aspects of the text, like the storm rising and abating on the Sea of Galilee in another issue, but that is not his normal style.

It seems to me that an infinite river of pure `absolute' music flows through Bach, a gift of the Holy Spirit perfected with an unholy amount of hard work. The cantatas are in general as absolute in that sense as his Art of Fugue is, and the vocal parts are integrated into the instrumentally-based patterns that were Bach's mode of expression. I don't sense that from choice Bach wrote music that responds directly to its text in the way Handel did. Music creates its own expression and its own moods, it is a universe in its own right and it will serve the greater glory of God without going beyond its own natural idiom. Obviously there are limits to this, and Bach would not write music in a sorrowful tone to a joyful text, but for the most part he recognises only the solution that is best musically.

Cantata 20 confronts the composer with the issue of hell fire and eternal undiminished torment, and the music is unquestionably agitated and suggestive of fear, as well it might be. Bach has not elected to be above that sort of thing, although modern enlightened Anglicanism is, and although the tone is far from Bach's usual atmosphere of serene trust in God I have to think that he takes the sentiments at their face value. This is nowhere near my own favourite Bach cantata, and the reason for that is partly that I am repelled by the texts but much more because such settings are not the natural voice of Bach. I have no idea whether there is a Creator of the cosmos, but I am absolutely sure that if there is He has not been communicating to us via scriptures prophets or pastors. The Christianity that underlay Bach's divine purpose seems to me a wholly human construct, and the mediaeval sadism of these texts was as much the outcome of its time as well-meaning modern Anglicanism is. If on this earth we are making any contact with something outside above and beyond, it seems to me that we are doing that through the medium of music above all, and here is the purest of such channels.

If you are trying to trace the composer's development or the progressive artistic enrichment of the performers, the hardest way to do this would be from the numbering-sequence of either the cantatas or the recordings. Neither bears any perceptible relation to chronology. However this issue is #1 for some reason that I cannot fathom. I have collected 10 or a dozen of the issues to date, and if I were ordered to rank them it might as well be #1 so far as quality goes, as might most of the others.
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on 10 February 2014
As a result of watching JEG's tv programme on Bach I became hugely extravagant and bought many of the great man's works. He has a complete series of the existing Cantatas this being just one set.
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on 10 March 2016
Good value - perhaps not the best cantatas.
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on 19 November 2015
Gift but told wonderful
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on 15 May 2015
McCurry's photos for this series were mentioned by one reviewer so I feel they are fair game (I also know I won't be the most popular fellow on the block from writing this, but here goes):

What the HECK do the McCurry photos that appear as the "cover art" in this series of Bach cantatas by conducted by Gardiner have to do with this music?? I read the "explanation" on another website about the universality of the music and so people who can barely afford food to keep themselves alive (never mind ever be able to afford to purchase one of these CDs) have been chosen to "grace" the covers in this series: smudgy, dirty people, at times cloyingly photographed as though they are begging for scraps or perhaps belong on the side of milk container as missing. Art, such as Bach's is pure, this artistic decision is strange to me and insults my senses.

To stretch this artistic idea to it's ultimate conclusion, for every dirty-faced urchin that stares out at you behind a cantata disk there should be another cover image of a harried housewife from Deluth or a ginger-haired court stenographer from Copenhagen. Why not? These kind of people listen to Bach, too. But no, only exotic careworn types seem to listen to Bach and, it would appear, only those scruffs who've been given a strange airbrushed treatment. The photos are slicker than anything Vanity Fair could cook up -- the faces are "glamorized" in a strange Hollywood sort of way which, to my mind, make them even more offensive. They are almost not real people, but prototypes -- these images are fill-ins for what our bloated, soulless, smart phone-addicted selves think people from far-away places look like. I bet the performances on these discs is just great but I couldn't listen to it with the manipulation these photos represent swimming in my mind.

I wonder what Gardiner will do for his next series. How about some Handel CDs illustrated by a series of children's birthday cakes? Or CDs by Berlioz, each with a different snowglobe of the Eiffel Tower. The possibilities are limitless.
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