One discovery that I made about a year ago as I gradually built up my collection of this great series was the voice and musical personality of Malin Hartelius. I was impressed forcibly not just by the beauty of the voice and the perfection of the technique but also by the sheer radiance of the personality that comes across. On that previous occasion Gardiner himself was on top form, and Mme Hartelius was perhaps the brightest jewel in the box, but all around her was near-perfection. This time I say with all due respect that Gardiner is just a tad below his very best, but Malin Hartelius lights up the scene with everything she does.
There are two discs here, as in most of this `pilgrimage' series conducted around Europe and America in the year 2000 to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. The locus of the first set of performances is the Abbaye d'Ambronay, of the second group it is Bremen, and the occasions are the 14th Sunday after Trinity and the Feast of St Michael and all Angels respectively. In the main, the recorded quality is admirable, but for once I have to feel some reservation about the earlier tracks, particularly the first, in the Bremen church. The sound is just a bit cavernous for my liking. The forte choral chords come across in a `jagged' sort of way, but matters improve before long. In particular I like the texts for this occasion much better than those for the 14th Sunday. They are still a bit fixated on the devil, but the prevailing tone is of relief at being helped to foil his efforts, and the obsessive image of the human condition as a form of spiritual leprosy that I find rather disagreeable in the 14th Sunday texts is happily left behind.
Otherwise all is well with this second disc. Gardiner has recovered the sprightliness that seemed to have deserted him at the Abbaye, Malin Hartelius is a joy to listen to, but all the soloists are good, as is the chorus, as are the instrumentalists. As usual, there is a short personal essay by one of the performers, this time the tenor James Gilchrist. These contributions give fascinating insights into the thoughts and feelings of this ultra-gifted group of musicians, and they complement the long, scholarly and visionary `blogs' by the director himself. These are slightly hard going at times, but they are priceless for all that, and accompanied, like the texts of the cantatas themselves, by translations into the `mainstream' European languages. On this occasion one thing that Gardiner highlights gives me pause, and it relates to cantata 78. He highlights the extreme contrast, as he hears the matter, between the opening chorus and the celestial duet `Wir eilen' that follows it.
I don't really intend a value judgment when I say that this is not my idea of the matter at all. The contrast need not be so stark, in the version by Prohaska it isn't, and I urge all lovers of Bach who don't already know it to remedy that situation. The opening chorus has no need to be as slow or as sorrowful as Gardiner makes it, and it has a natural and dignified flow as Prohaska handles it. After that there is no need to play up the exuberance of Wir eilen. Sung by Teresa Stich-Randall and Dagmar Hermann in the Prohaska version it is something like a duet from a Mozart opera, or maybe from two angels out of the sky itself. Don't force the effect like this, say I, let it be itself. Not even Malin Hartelius can quite retrieve the matter, although she does her loyal best, including (I suppose) the uncomfortably pert and wince-making final `zu dir'. I notice that Gardiner accompanies this duet with just a barebones cello part, as in another version that I own. Prohaska not only uses a small organ instead of the cello but also superimposes the melodic line over the bass. I dearly hope that this has some scholarly and historical authority, because I like the effect 100 times better.
In general I don't find Gardiner quite at his best in the first disc. It has a slightly weary feel here and there, and in particular the bass aria on track 3 is surely a bit too slow. I wonder whether this has something to do with the texts, and maybe with the composer himself in turn. There is in my own opinion a thoroughly disagreeable side (or more than one) to the kind of Lutheran theology that Bach espoused, and I find it here with its obsessiveness and downright prurience. Bach was an out-and-out loyalist to his faith, he and Gardiner are both out-and-out musical professionals, but those texts about leprosy can hardly have inspired either of them. No wonder, I guess, that Gardiner got carried away with the contrast provided by Wir eilen. Even Malin Hartelius was deprived of the opportunity to make this the thing of my dreams that Prohaska comes close to making it, but she is there throughout the rest of the disc to shed light and blessing around her.