For newcomers to Gardiner's `pilgrimage' project of recording all the Bach cantatas, the virtues of this particular release are the same as those you will find in practically any other volume in the series. The style of interpretation is scholarly and exemplary, the vocal idiom is the right kind for Bach and the instruments are suitable for music of this period, the actual performances are totally assured in the technical sense, the recording is faithful and proportionate, and above all the atmosphere is instinct with love of the music. Any reviewer who has offered notices of a good number of the other volumes, as I have, risks inflicting tedium on regular readers through constant repetition of the same opinions. However there is no way of knowing which item a newcomer will encounter first. The same things just have to be said every time, and of course the tedium is a property of the reviews only, in no way of this celestial music.
The separate volumes are all edited to a common standard. The format is a sort of book, and among my other repetitions I may as well give my usual warning that the discs require care in extracting. Also as usual, there is a long, scholarly and highly personal essay from the conductor, plus a shorter contribution from another participant, in this case a viola player. This latter is rather refreshingly down-to-earth this time, more concerned with accommodation and shopping than with the performing conditions or even the music. What Jane Rogers says about Berlin is interesting. They stayed at one of the new hotels in the east in 2000, and so did I in 2003 or 2004 - the Holiday Inn on the Prenzlauer Allee. Like Ms Rogers I found the streets nearly deserted after dark, but I sensed no danger whatsoever. I even went to Pankow, once the dreaded abode of the Stasi and the Communist Party, and I found it cheerful and an excellent place to shop for bargains.
Gardiner's own essay is of the kind those familiar with the series must know very well. As always, it is full of deep, affectionate and often even visionary musings concerning the music, its creator, and his Creator in His turn. However the texts that we have here, for the 8th and 10th Sundays after Trinity, prompt certain thoughts in me that having been lurking for a while. These texts do not show a very attractive face of Lutheranism. They express a combative spirit against other Christian communions that outdoes Belfast in the old days with its willingness to invoke the torments available to the Almighty Himself as the righteous punishment for their doctrinal errors. If only one thought it had anything at all to do with the Creator, if there is a Creator. Instead it parades the entirely human sentiments of resentment, alienation and vindictiveness under a banner of theology, the only relief being found in some texts that content themselves with the contemplation of what miserable sinners we are. Relating this to the music, I shall take the last cantata here, # 102, as a random example. The aria Weh der Seele is certainly pensive and sad in a way I know very well from Bach, but its spirit is not one of putting the frighteners on us, which is what the text is doing. As for the fine sturdy chorus at the start, and the arioso Verachtest du, if you did not know what the meaning of the words is, would you guess their truculence from the tone of the music?
This makes me wonder about quite a lot that Gardiner has to say regarding Bach's word-setting. I do not really believe that Bach fitted words to music in anything like the micro-manner that Gardiner keeps looking for, and certainly not words such as we have here. It seems to me that Bach's Lutheran faith was one of radiant certainty, and that his inspiration was entirely musical and not really dramatic in the way Gardiner purports to find. Any `drama' in Bach is stylised and formal, because he knows who he is and stays true to himself. Ally that sublime faith to that even sublimer inspiration and what will be created is a purely musical masterpiece, the tone appropriate in a general way to the associated sentiments, but the details an entirely musical matter and not at all a literary or pictorial one.
Constant and intense immersion in music as toweringly great as this music is benefits Gardiner as an interpreter, but it is almost bound to skew his judgment as a critic and commentator. Some of his comments recall to me the great Donald Francis Tovey, for whom anything Bach or Beethoven did instantly eclipsed all that the rest of musical creation had ever attempted along lines that were even remotely similar. Regarding the aria Dein Wetter in cantata 46 Gardiner enquires rhetorically `Is it just the superior quality and interest of this music that makes it so much more imposing, and indeed more frightening, than any operatic "rage" aria of the time by, say, Vivaldi or Handel?' Whoa, please. Hold on. Handel, are we to understand, who spent his life as an impresario and who was thought by no less than Beethoven to be the superior of Bach himself, could not in his entire career equal what a contemplative Kapellmeister could achieve in a single foray into the idiom? The danger with unwise and excitable opinions like this is that Handel is gradually returning to the musical mainstream from which he was exiled for so long, and I am sure that people are gradually recognising, as I am myself, what Beethoven meant. It never deterred Tovey from sweeping generalisations that he did not, in the rigour of the expression, know what he was talking about, but Gardiner I am sure does, and perhaps he will come to agree that partisanship of this kind is better reserved for sporting contexts.
Top class all the same.