This pair of discs contains Bach's 4 surviving cantatas for New Year's Day plus the 2 that we have from him for the Sunday after, which in the year 2000 fell on the very next day. Those already familiar with the series will have an idea what to expect. They will find sound and erudite style in the direction, they will find singing that is assured, affectionate and beautiful from both soloists and chorus, they will find immaculate instrumental work using period instruments and they will find the standard of the recording to be high.
Also as usual Gardiner contributes one of his deep and illuminating essays on the works offered in the set. Occasionally in other volumes what he says puzzles me, but this time he puzzles me for an unexpected reason. Gardiner expresses particular admiration for the opening chorus and the aria Woferne in BWV 41, and for some reason these are the precise places where I still, after four or five hearings, feel slightly disappointed. Could the recording be just a little dull? That's a possibility, but in Woferne I think the main problem is the performance, and in the chorus - dare I even say this - I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not really Bach's best, whatever Gardiner may say. My view of the music would not influence the rating I give the set, but what I would have liked from the conductor would have been more light and shade in the texture. Bach's choral writing does not have the resourcefulness or audacity of Handel's. Nobody's does, I guess, but when the composer's inspiration is only at reduced strength the director has to help. In Woferne I sensed the thing ambling along rather than being alight with enthusiasm such as I am used to this great series. I am also curious to know whether a specialist cello of the kind that Gardiner mentions as being called for in the score is actually played.
From the start of BWV 16 matters return to the high standard that I have come to expect eagerly from every issue in this project, and they remain at that level. I am also enthusiastic for the first cantata performed here, which I am personally convinced is authentic Bach although the scholars seem to be divided on this matter. It is dated to 1708, when Bach was in his 23rd year and well prior to his main cantata period, which was the 1720's. If this work is pastiche it is very good pastiche indeed, even if one concedes that Bach is easier to imitate then most great composers. However, supposing the date is right why would anyone bother to pastiche a young composer not yet established? The work is on the small side admittedly, particularly the opening chorus, and the very attractive second chorale is simple in style. I'm convinced that I hear the great authentic voice all the same.
The texts make an interesting contrast. On New Year itself they are upbeat and confident, but doubts and uncertainties beset the liturgists by the Sunday following. I do not believe that misgivings were any part of Bach's radiant Christian faith, and the sharp difference in the tone of the words is far less evident from the music. For all his towering and transcendental greatness as a composer, Bach is not a complex phenomenon, and for all his colossal thoroughness and technical mastery he is not forbidding or hard to get to know. Gardiner's fine 'pilgrimage' series, performing and recording all the cantatas on the liturgical dates for which they were written, does an enormous service to music lovers by making some of Bach's greatest music known to us after we sat in darkness for so long. All we have to do is enjoy it, and that should not be too much to ask.