I do not mean to derogate from Sir John Eliot Gardiner's status as one of the great luminaries of the podium in our age--to say nothing of his status as a pioneer and perfecter of period performance practice--but in the end the capstone of his career might well turn out to have been in the medium of prose rather than musical performance! This is, quite simply, the most fascinating, engrossing, erudite and stunningly written work on the Leipzig Cantor available. Too bad it focuses primarily on his sacred music (I would love to have Gardiner's obiter dicta on many of the keyboard, chamber and orchestral works treated only tangentially here); but within that limited scope, Gardiner has achieved something quite remarkable: a work of musical historiography that manages to combine rigorous scholarship with philosophical acumen and literary flair. As a philosopher with a keen interest in the interface between aesthetics and religion, I particularly appreciated Gardiner's thorough understanding of the exigencies of church music within the Lutheran tradition, and his situating of tht tradition within the larger framework of Church history, scriptural exegesis and Christian spirituality. His effort to discern Bach's character and aspirations from his church music rather than principally from the documentary evidence (which is relaitvely meager) fixes the reader's (and listener's) attention where it must always begin and end--namely, with the scores themselves, as performed and heard. His charting of Bach's creative development, through the seasons and struggles of his career calls our attention anew to the status of the sacred music--particularly the Cantatas--as a kind of spiritual journal recounting the consolations and desolations of a fragile, fallible genius who also happened to be something of a mystic. For Gardiner, in the end, Bach's sacred-musical testament amounts to the bravest and most brilliant of stands against the depredations of our human condition at its most terrifying--and *for* the transcendence to the rapture of creativity fitfully but effectually points.
I cannot recommend this work highly enough. Its pages will afford a fresh encounter with the composer, even if you have been studying his works and his commentators (as I have) for nearly a lifetime. But even more tellingly perhaps, you will encounter John Eliot Gardiner in a new way--as an accomplished writer and winsomely humane scholar.