The pilgrims have come to the end of their pilgrimage. For newcomers to the series, John Eliot Gardiner and his colleagues undertook a Bach Cantata Pilgrimage from Christmas 1999 to Christmas 2000, performing the master's surviving cantatas on the liturgical dates for which he had composed or adapted them. This had started in Bach's own Saxony, and here it reaches its conclusion in New York. This issue is a single disc containing 4 cantatas, providing excellent value with 71 minutes of music quite apart from the value it gives us in musical respects.
As I have reported in all my growing collection of the series, this one fills me with admiration and gratitude. The sheer difficulty of such an unprecedented undertaking seems to have inspired, not daunted or fatigued, the artists. If your knowledge of the cantatas had been sketchy up until now, so had mine been and so had theirs. To a great extent the singers and instrumentalists, if not Gardiner himself, had been learning the works as they went along under these self-imposed conditions. I had not yet found reason to qualify my appreciation of the sheer freshness combined with a thoroughness that would have done credit to months of preparation, of the sense of commitment that comes over so clearly, and of the sympathy and understanding that they bring to this transcendentally great music, nor do I find reason on this occasion. My gratitude extends also to the work of the recording technicians, who have adapted to the acoustic of successive churches without any apparent sense of difficulty or challenge.
Of the four cantatas here, two are for Christmas Day itself, two for Boxing Day. Gardiner himself believes that these cantatas have been unjustly undervalued in comparison with the Christmas Oratorio in what he calls popular `esteem'. I agree that they are of comparable quality, but I'd say that this is not a matter of esteem so much as of randomness in the amount of attention each has attracted. As always, he provides another of his long and eloquent essays on the music, expressing appreciation as usual of the performers as he does so. Also as usual there is a separate and shorter piece from one of the performers, this time the bass soloist Peter Harvey, paying very deserved tribute to Gardiner himself among his other insights. Whether or not it was because I was so taken with what he said, I thought I found Harvey the best of a very fine bunch of soloists. I should also draw attention to some particularly fine choral work, and I thoroughly welcome the director's rather supercilious dismissal of the one-voice-per-part school of interpreters of Bach's choruses.
In his customary way, Gardiner gives minute attention to details in which he feels the music reflects particular aspects of the text. I most certainly do not want to take issue with him on this question, but for my own part I don't seem to find this a marked feature of Bach's style, although there are some very obvious instances where it is true. In Handel, who was a dramatist and rhetorician, the tone and idiom of any setting is closely allied to the text being sung. With Bach I have an overall impression that the infinite wellspring of music that flowed through him is at the service of the overarching faith that guided and inspired everything he did, and the rest is details. He was not more inspired by the gospel for one Sunday or feast-day than by the epistle for another or by the pietistic verses for any of them, but equally, wonderfully, for them all.
This may have been the end of the physical road, but happily for us there are more of these marvellous issues still to come. On each cantata Bach inscribed `SDG' or `soli Deo gloria' - glory to God alone. For my own modest part, as I think of what is still to come out of this pilgrimage, I shall just add the simple motto `Bring them on.'