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V 20: Bach Cantatas
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Having reviewed 15 or so of this series I find myself becoming repetitious, because the standard so far has been high with only slight and occasional lapses. However newcomers to the project can join the caravan unpredictably at any of the volumes so far issued, so for their benefit I shall summarise briefly. Over the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his colleagues performed and recorded all Bach's extant cantatas, on the liturgical dates for which Bach wrote them, at a series of widely separated locations in Britain Europe and America. Other than Gardiner himself the cast of soloists varies from date to date, as surely it would have had to, and these two discs have no solo singers in common. Gardiner himself contributes a long, loving and learned `blog' to each issue, and there is also a shorter contribution by one of the performers, in this case from the long-resounding name of Wilke te Brummelstroete, alto soloist on the Septuagesima disc. The volumes are usually 2 discs apiece, as here, and the format is a kind of book, requiring care in extracting the discs.
Gardiner is an eminent scholar as well as interpreter of the music of Bach and his contemporaries. The instruments are period instruments, and the style of singing is the kind now usually accepted, without modern vibrato. Technical assurance can be taken as granted, but one aspect that surely qualifies for more comment than it gets is Gardiner's sheer leadership abilities. We read tribute after tribute to him from his collaborators, but even more eloquent is the way they perform for him. The itinerary alone can only have been taxing, but we also keep hearing from the performers that they were having to pick up new works as they went along, and the available time for rehearsal must have been minimal. You would not guess any of that from what you hear. Gardiner did not have to train performers possessed of this level of talent, and devotion to the music of Bach could be depended on too, but what keeps striking me with every successive set is the sheer sense of motivation that the performers project, the feeling that they believe utterly in what they are doing.
I get this sense from the singers on this particular set, the soloists mainly but also the chorus, to an exceptional extent. There is a sense of proclamation about the solo arias. Gardiner's own notes tell us about some of the questions of text and interpretation that they had to resolve as they went along, and one of the most interesting in this case concerns the final chorale to BWV 84 on the first disc. Gardiner interprets Bach's instruction as meaning that this chorale should be sung unaccompanied, so that is what they do and very affectingly they do it. The great Tovey, never afraid to generalise beyond his knowledge, stated categorically that Bach wrote no a cappella music, and it would be interesting to hear some other informed opinions on the matter.
Now and again I have some mild reservations to voice about some particular issue in this great series. Not this time. Newcomer or veteran, I can recommend this set cordially to you, and if I have failed to mention the recorded quality, let me add that it is excellent as well.