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EASTER WITH BACH,
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This review is from: Bach J.S: Cantatas Vol 22 (Audio CD)
There are 6 cantatas in this 2-disc set, two each for Easter day itself, Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday. One is known to be an early composition, another is dated to 1715 when Bach was 30, and the balance are from his main period of cantata output 1724-1729. For newcomers, Gardiner and his associates dedicated themselves to the daunting project of performing the entire series on the days for which the master intended them within the year delimited by Christmas day 1999 and Christmas day 2000. The format is uniform throughout the series so far as I am aware at this stage, with an introduction by Gardiner and a lengthy and highly personal essay from him on the works performed in each set, full sung texts in German and English and, nestling shyly at the back, a short essay from one of the other performers.
My own less demanding pilgrimage to collect all the cantatas is not long under way, but I have had no disappointments so far, either from Gardiner or from a selection of other artists. I seem to sense that none would dare give anything but their best efforts to this astounding procession of masterpieces. It cannot have been easy to learn them all to recording standard in one year, but the very thought of what Bach achieved must have kept any such thoughts in proportion. If I had to draw exceptional attention to any aspect of the performances here it could only have been to note some shortfall, and I have none to note. All are excellent, and I was particularly pleased with the countertenor Daniel Taylor, not because he outshone the others but because this type of voice is often one I have problems with. I tend to like countertenors best when they most resemble female altos, which of course prompts the question why in that case have male altos? The answer is presumably historical authenticity.
The style of singing and the instruments used are of the `authentic' variety which is near-invariable nowadays in Bach, Handel and their contemporaries. Any effort required from us as listeners to accommodate ourselves to the idiom pays off in terms of greater understanding I am in no doubt at all, and as it happens I have come to my Bach cantata project fresh from collecting the entire oratorios of Handel. What was it in the air or soil of Saxony, or in the stars above it, that produced two such titans within months of each other? Getting to know each better has unquestionably added to my appreciation of the other, and I like to think to my comprehension of both also. When visited by the thought that Bach's choral writing, just as a display of that art, is not a thing of wonder and amazement like Handel's, I soon realised that I should be looking for something else. In Bach's choruses we find the sublime march of his polyphony that transcends any particular timbre, vocal or instrumental, and gives a sense of rightness and beauty to whatever voices he favours it with. Handel is always the musical rhetorician, with an instinct for variation, repetition of words, changes of pace and interplay between the voices and the accompaniment that left Haydn feeling aghast and inadequate and that probably no composer has ever equalled. In Bach's solos and ensembles the introduction sets off a celestial and uninterrupted musical sequence that I often wish would never come to an end. When Handel contemplates the deity, there He is, as in Michelangelo. There is no Italianate sense to Bach but a serene and unshakable Lutheran faith expressed in a music that seems itself the reward from on high for such total devotion.
Bach's music is often difficult technically, but this is a great age of technical executants and you will find no suspicion of difficulty or strain here. In terms of grasp of Bach's idiom and style, these are eminent specialists. The interpretative challenge is to convey the seemingly infinite variety of Bach's inspiration, a variety all the more extraordinary in being expressed through a musical language that was conservative even its own time and which seeks no novelties or special effects as such. To me that says that as far as interpretation goes Bach does much more than most of the great masters do in pre-packaging it for the performing musicians. This is not to diminish what has been achieved here, it only means that the performers have recognised their solemn duty and carried it out admirably. The recording plays its own part more or less ideally to my ears, and I beg everyone to read with proper care and thought the essay to which Gardiner has given so much care and thought of his own.
I sense that this is another musical journey that I am going to enjoy.