What God has done is done well. What Bach has done in the name of God's greater honour and glory is not badly done either, and what John Eliot Gardiner's `pilgrimage' series of the Bach cantatas is continuing to do is to bring our musical culture abreast of this parade of musical sublimity. As a rule I am not myself one for complete sets. We can hardly move for complete sets of the Beethoven sonatas although I am innocent of them, but the Bach cantatas, an even greater achievement in my own opinion, are only gradually becoming familiar to the musical public, and that is why I am systematically collecting the series.
Each issue in this great programme is accompanied by a long and deep essay by Gardiner himself, together with a shorter contribution by one of the other participants. In many cases Gardiner's colleagues tell us how they - professional musicians conversant with the early 18th century - were literally learning the music as they went along. Each issue has to be assessed separately of course, but this pilgrimage has an atmosphere about it, not easy to describe but not difficult to grasp. Consistency of style can be taken for granted obviously, but the atmosphere that I am talking about is one of palpable commitment and even devotion to what they are about. What the musicians were learning they were learning eagerly, and I for one am just as eager to learn it from them. Welcome to any newcomers to the pilgrimage, for whose benefit let me summarise briefly what its veterans already know. The year 2000 saw the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, and throughout the year Gardiner and his travelling players and singers performed all the extant cantatas of Bach, on the liturgical dates for which they were written, at a variety of locations on both sides of the Atlantic. What we have here are the works for the 3rd and 4th Sundays after Easter. The texts for the former lay stress on the need to persevere through a vale of tears in order to attain ultimate salvation, in the latter case the tone becomes more upbeat although there is a strain of anxiety in the injunctions to keep to the true path before the last cantata resolves the doubts in a more festive song of praise. There is great sadness and awe in the first chorus of all, a well-known masterpiece, but for me the predominant tone of Bach's religious music is one of serene and untroubled faith.
As frequently, I have no real reservations about this release. All the singing, choral as well as solo, is admirable both for sense of style and for technical accomplishment, although you are not going to find a soprano solo in the chorale Ich bitte dich in BWV 166. The playing on period instruments is exemplary too, and this time we have a special bonus in that quarter. There is a magnificent organ voluntary on a particularly magnificent organ (one known to Bach himself) at the start of BWV 146, and the note writer here is Silas John Standage who had the honour and thrill of playing it. You will likely know the music better in its other surviving incarnation as the keyboard concerto in D minor.
Also as nearly always, the recording is beautifully and sensitively calibrated (to use a word currently in vogue) to the scale and idiom of the music. Bach inscribed his MSS `SDG', which is Soli Deo Gloria, or `Honour to God Alone.' I hope there is no impiety in suggesting that Bach deserves some credit too: he was born with the genius, but he did an unholy amount of hard work to perfect it. Among the performing artists the only omission from my list is the director himself, doubtless as modest as was the composer, so let me submit my own tribute to what he has achieved here. One of the best among the offerings released so far.