There are 27 volumes in Gardiner's great pilgrimage series of the Bach cantatas, my collection now holds 25 of them, this is my 23rd review, and I have long since run out of alternative ways of saying that the standard is not only very high but consistently very high. I have to be repetitious in reviewing them, but for the best of reasons because of this very consistency that they exhibit. I have no way of knowing at which point in the series any newcomer may encounter his or her first review, I very much doubt that anyone will have been tracking them serially, so I can at least take comfort from reflecting that the main or perhaps only victim of the tedium created by such reiteration will be myself.
So for newcomers yet again - in the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Gardiner and his associates travelled the globe performing all the master's extant cantatas on the liturgical dates for which he had written them, or as near as the different dates of Trinity and Pentecost in the two years allowed. Gardiner himself may have known all the pieces before he set out, but it is very clear from the contributions made by the other musicians that they were often learning them on the hoof. For me, to turn out the quality that they have done in such circumstances is a miracle second only to what the composer achieved in creating the works in the first place, week after week turning out masterpieces that many a composer would have been proud to produce once a year.
Just a small number seem to me to fall a little below the high average, but this 11th of the series (however they work out the numbering) is not one of those. The format is the same as always, with texts given in German and English, `texts' including the blog-style essays that Gardiner attaches to each disc, but not the shorter contributions made by one or other of the executants, in this case the soprano Suzanne Flowers. The 20th and 21st Sundays after Trinity found the wandering minstrels in Genova and Greenwich respectively, and I should note as usual that the constant changes of venue seem to have given the performers' technical partners no problems in recording live recitals. The presentation is attractive, a sort of book format, but let me issue my usual caution about handling the discs, which can be either hard to extract without touching the surface or liable to fall out spontaneously.
As usual, the entire troupe covers itself with distinction, and of course the stylistic sense under such a director is beyond criticism. There is an atmosphere to it all that I would guess must have come from the special sense of challenge and excitement in learning some of the greatest music in the world and getting it to perfection at a few days' notice. The singers get most of the comment, not unnaturally, so let me appreciate the instrumentalists in particular this time. Gardiner makes a remark that Bach's writing for tenor tends to be awkward, and he could have gone a lot further. Bach's vocal writing as a whole is profoundly influenced by instruments, which dominate his ear and imagination at least as much as they would dominate Wagner's 150 years later. For some reason, I found the instrumental dominance especially marked this time. In particular both BWV49 and BWV188 contain long instrumental sinfonias. The latter has had to be pieced together by Robert Levin, and this is apparently not his only scholarly contribution, but I wonder why Gardiner has nothing to say to us about its counterpart in BWV49.
A really astounding achievement, this series. I am ready to offer the world a few thoughts on volumes 12 and 13 over the next few days, and if I survive another birthday in June I shall finally wrap the process up with volumes 21 and 25.