The pilgrimage is now over. John Eliot Gardiner and his associates have chosen New York for the final concerts of this fine series in which they have performed all Bach's surviving church cantatas on the liturgical dates for which the composer intended them. As usual, there is a long and eloquent essay, from a sort of project log, by the conductor plus a short personal statement by one of the performers. Gardiner is as eloquent and illuminating as ever, and I had to wince slightly when he gave his reason for preferring New York to anywhere in England as the scene of his grand finale.
All the discs that I have so far acquired out of this series have been outstanding in point of quality, but this issue provides exceptional value in terms of quantity as well. No fewer than five works have been accommodated in a single disc, providing 77 minutes' worth of music, and of course what music, among the greatest in the entire world. Four are cantatas, the other is Bach's great motet for double chorus Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Four of the works are for the Sunday after Christmas, which will in some years be New Year's Day, and one cantata is for New Year's Day, which of course will in the same years be the Sunday following Christmas. Another aspect of this disc that makes it outstanding even among such companion issues is its variety. One item, as mentioned already, is a motet, one cantata is from 1714 during Bach's Weimar period (and goodness knows how many from that time have since been lost). The others are from his principal period of cantata output, the 1720's, but in the last cantata of this collection Gardiner and his colleagues have actually had to restore the music in part as the extant MS is deficient. This work, for New Year, again starts with the words Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, although the text diverges thereafter from that of the motet, and it was the last number performed in the whole great series. The restoration was a team effort, Gardiner tells us, and what a fine job they seem to have made of it.
There is something else that makes this issue special. In his essay Gardiner pays particular tribute to the principal viola player Katherine McGillivray. His tribute is completely understandable from a musical viewpoint for her contribution on viola d'amore to the fifth section of the final cantata, but when we read on we find her photograph together with a note that this disc has been dedicated to her memory. The days of Katherine's life were 1970 to 2006, which is pitifully short. As a lasting testimony to her we at least have the entire pilgrimage.
The virtues of this recital are the same as those of its companions that I know so far. The singers and instrumentalists, as we are told in other issues, were to a great extent learning the music as they went along. The whole series has been characterised by a marvellous union of the freshness of such new discovery together with an assurance and empathy with the music that would have done credit to veterans. The actual travelling involved would have taxed many a tourist, and what it says for the talent and dedication of these outstanding artists to have got to the end without the least sign of fatigue is something I do not have the words for. What then are we to make of the indescribable genius who turned out this succession of masterpieces week in and week out?
This disc records the end of the pilgrimage, but for me and others following in the performers' wake only part of the distance has been covered. I have not been collecting the discs in any systematic order, but in any case if my memory serves they have not all been issued and those that have been issued have not been in chronological sequence either. Presumably they will all step out into the light sooner or later. Bring them on.