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Bach used to inscribe his cantatas `S.D.G.', which is `soli Deo gloria' or `glory to God alone'. It is well known that he had little reason to appreciate the musical resources, human and material, at his disposal, but these days we are a lot better off. Gardiner's pilgrimage through the cantatas calls for wholehearted commendation, and surely we can pay some sort of tribute to the near-unthinkable miracle of their creation without detracting in any way from what should be rendered unto the Creator.

There are six cantatas here, three apiece for the 12th and 13th Sundays after Trinity, all composed in the 1720's and amounting to a little less than two hours of playing time. The format will be entirely familiar to followers of the series. The presentation is made to resemble a book in a hard cover, an attractive and original idea but as usual I advise a little caution in handling the two discs as it is slightly tricky not to touch the surfaces. There are two essays, one by one of the performers, in this case the double-bass player, and a long and elaborate contribution from Gardiner. He has even more to say than usual this time, and of course the trouble with having something to say is that it gives a reviewer more to comment on. The first thing to be recorded therefore is that to be offered this essay is a privilege for us. It is erudite, illuminating, thoughtful, affectionate, reverent and candid. You may find it slightly heavy going at a first reading, but this is not a production for just one reading. I read it for the basic background before I listened, and I reread it after three or four playings to appreciate better the thinking that had gone into the interpretations. There is any amount of detail, and I preferred to learn rather than find points to dispute. Naturally there were some things I could not quite see in Gardiner's way. In cantata 77 I can't help feeling that the maestro is getting a little carried away with over-analysis of the aria Ach, es bleibt through his enthusiasm, and I offer my own simpler view that what you will find is a piece of quite extraordinary difficulty and originality performed with absolute assurance by the singer and especially by the obbligato trumpeter. I read with particular interest what Gardiner says about the aria Wie furchtsam in cantata 33, because this is the solitary case where I have not so far been convinced by his approach. At Gardiner's very slow tempo this number takes nearly 11 minutes, which is longer than many first movements by Beethoven and completely incongruous with any other item here of any kind. This aria seems, be it whispered, just a little repetitive, but obviously Gardiner's faith is greater than mine. In passing, I welcome as usual the pictures of the beautiful churches in Koethen and Frankfurt, but it would have been nice to know what took the travelling show to Frankfurt.

As ever, I am overawed by the unfailing and consistent quality of it all. The instrumentalists seem to have known these works all their lives, which was almost certainly not the case, and that trumpeter is deservedly highlighted by Gardiner himself. Both bass singers and one of the sopranos have English names, and so far as I can judge their German enunciation is excellent to complement their excellence in every other respect. The tenor throughout all six cantatas is the superbly accomplished Christoph Genz whose work I have commended elsewhere in the series, and I also found the soprano Katharine Fuge on the first disc admirable. If there is a voice I tend to be uncomfortable with it is the alto voice, and the male alto timbre in particular. On the second disc the alto numbers are taken by Nathalie Stutzmann who is a genuine contralto and not a mezzo. Her voice has the familiar `hootiness' often associated with English oratorio contraltos, but if you have no great difficulty with that you ought to find her work eminently accomplished and even, in her upper register, beautiful too. On the first disc it seems that Robin Tyson had to step in at short notice, and in fact the contrast with Stutzmann made his light timbre seem very attractive. He has the biggest job to do of all the soloists. On top of his work in the chorus and his solos in cantatas 69a and 137, he has to carry cantata 35 on his own. This work consists of two purely instrumental sinfonias and five vocal numbers, (two recitatives three arias), for the alto, a situation which Gardiner suggests probably came about when Kapellmeister Bach actually found a good singer. Tyson acquits himself really very well indeed, and in particular I admired his common sense and good musicianship in certain recitative sequences where he sensibly breaks the continuity of line rather than sacrifice clear diction to strict rhythm and legato.

The technical professionals should not go unsung either. As my collection of this series grows I have yet to detect the slightest sense of awkwardness in the sound as they adapt to church after church after church, all the way to New York. And then there is maestro Gardiner himself. S.D.G. I suppose, but to him a major vote of thanks for having the stature to undertake this project let alone to carry it out as well as this.
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on 4 November 2007
The French expression is "rien à dire" (nothing to say, with the connotation that all superlatives are exhausted). This is one great series. The highlight of this one is BWV137, "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren", which churchgoers would recognise as the hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation". My one quibble is that Gardiner takes the magnificent opening choral fantasia, with its trumpets and drums, a shade faster than I would like, which takes away some of the magnificence of one of the greatest hymn tunes ever written. However, the Monteverdis handle it with aplomb.

The other cantatas are less well known (to me anyway), and they receive great performances. Recommended for all Bach lovers.
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on 5 June 2013
For me, Gardiner has given us undoubtedly the best Bach cantata cycle ever: historically informed, beautifully sung and played, and deeply spiritual. Musicianship of an incredibly high order. The only people who will fail to appreciate these performances are those stuck in 1955 listening to Karajan, Klemperer and Furtwangler; for although these esteemed musicians were great at the things they did well, Bach wasn't one of them!
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on 17 April 2013
These John Eliot Gardiner Bach cantata recordings are all superb. I'm gradually trying to collect them all. Why am I unable at the moment to obtain Vol. 3? Frustrating!
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on 9 March 2014
As ever, Sir John Eliot Gardiner's conducting exposes the intricacy of Bach's sacred music. Complexity, clarity, emotion, revealing the essence of each cantata.
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on 20 March 2012
I had just opened the doors of my latest enterprise - Dr Quackenstein's Happy Acres Brain-Health Clinic (complete with photo-shopped diplomas on the walls) when the front-door swung open and in walked a distinguished looking gentleman. Much to my surprise, he was wearing one of those Groucho Marx face-masks from a two dollar shop.

"Yes, can I help you?"

"Yes, hello and . . . all that," he spluttered in an English accent. "I am looking for some . . . therapy, I suppose you'd call it."

"Mate, we're still setting up but I'm happy to help. For instance, the leather couches are being delivered this arvo by my cousin Vinnie so you'll have to make do with bean-bags and no-name coffee. No worries, eh?"

He nodded uneasily. I led him inside into my `consulting room'. I boiled up some water, made a `Chernobyl Coffee' (six teaspoons of that brown, ill-smelling stuff - it always perks up patients no end). After handing it over to my tremulous patient, we flopped down in the bean-bags and started the session.

"Now mate, you have a name?"

"You may call me . . . Jeggy." He winced.

"Righto, Jeggy it is. So what's the go? Why are you goin' mad?"

"Well, I have been having a rather awful time of late. Those rotters at Deutsche Grammophon - they give money-changers a bad name - rudely dispensed with my services on the trumped-up basis that I was `uncommercial' - whatever that means. And now those blighters have the temerity to discount my definitive performances of Bach. That's adding insult to injury!"

Good heavens - I thought to myself: this is the real Jeggy incognito. And as chance would so have it, I had been listening to one of his discs on the way to work.

"Mate," I said stoutly, "we all must cope with adversity as human beings. Get your bony backside off the canvas and start punchin' again!"

"It's all very well for you to say that," he replied snootily. "And that's exactly what I did. In response, I set up my own company and undertook a Bach pilgrimage throughout Europe. The aim was to perform and record all of the cantatas. It was immensely satisfying. I even complied a `Bach journal' which contained my pensées on this luminous figure! What a document it is!"

"Well it sounds like things are looking up for you, Jeggy, and perhaps in more ways than one!"

"Yes, one would have thought so but alas," he sobbed, "I cannot take a trick. The critics continually trumpet the glories of the Suzuki series on BIS while damning my survey of the cantatas with faint praise. It's rather awful and . . . deflating . . ."

"Well Jeggy, look what I was listening to this morning," I pulled out my (library) copy of his performances of the Cantatas for the Twelfth and Thirteen Sundays after Trinity. His face brightened.

"How nice of you, Doctor Quackenstein! I am quite proud of those performances."

"No worries. Yes, I'm a big fan of Bach's secular cantatas myself!"

"My dear fellow, you are mistaken. These are deeply spiritual works."

"Oh . . . sorry mate: they didn't sound religious in the least . . . No matter. Now Jeggy, do you mind if I ask you some questions? We need to understand why the market has turned on you."

He nodded his head.

"It's . . . good to see that clipped phrasing is still working for you Jeggy, even if does not do much for the listener. And what has happened to the `English Baroque Soloists? Have the strings - such as they are - gone `diet'? They're now being monstered by an oboe. The opening of Du Solit Gott, BWV 77, sounds like moggies on heat. I hate to say this, Jeggy, but a comparison with Suzuki's account is not to your advantage."

My patient remained silent.

"And Jeggy, 'Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren', BWV 137, is surely a masterpiece; it's Bach at his most cosmic; as such, doesn't it warrant grandeur of treatment? And since when this consideration been synonymous with mere timpani and trumpets? The first movement is noisily pedestrian and the same could be said of its finale! Jeggy, this is what I fail to understand: why do you have to be so sprucely inhibited in this glorious music? Why? What is holding you back?"

Jeggy shrugged his shoulders as the tears congealed in his eyes. I pressed on.

"And where on the earth did you dig up that shrill counter-tenor? Did you really think he was going to assist the cause? Strewth - have you heard his mooing in the second movement of BWV 137? I hope you kept the receipts. It's almost as unlistenable as those bootleg tapes from Count Hugo Wankle and the Dixieland Funktime Band!"

Jeggy's face reddened but he kept his peace.

I lowered my voice.

"Worse still, the more I listen to your Soli Deo Gratia series, Jeggy, the more I'm convinced it is a sausage machine. Each one of them sounds like a proficient run-through. Name one of them - yes, one of them - that has a sense of occasion!"

"It's not my fault," Jeggy sobbed, breaking out into tears. "Those Young Turks in the Period Practice Taliban - the next generation of period practice semi-conductors - have forced me to go `Diet Bach'. They were sniggering that I was an antediluvian. What is a man to do?"

It was water-works for the next minute or so. Then it was time to turn off the tap and resolutely at that.

"Jeggy, no worries. You are not alone. I am a big believer in shock-treatment. It's the best way to blow away the cobwebs! Now we can go with the usual 240 volts job - I'm pretty sure there's an extension cord somewhere around here - or we can opt for a more unorthodox treatment!"

I pulled out a copy of Karajan's Matthew Passion.

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