SOLI DEO GLORIA: TO THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE!
(The label SDG takes its trademark name from the initials that Bach wrote on the manuscript of each of his cantatas.)
John Eliot Gardiner's millennial, Europe-wide Bach Pilgrimage was just a year, but the release of the performances on CD is not yet complete. Volume 13, performed in Dec. 2000, celebrates Advent in the reverberant churches of Luneberg (where Bach sang in the choir) and Cologne, includes six cantatas for the first and fourth Sundays of Advent, the best known of them being BWV 147: 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben' (Heart and mouth and deed and life).
CD i includes BWV 61, 62 and 36. All three of these Advent Cantatas display a sense of excitement at the onset of the Advent Season. This is a time of anticipation and waiting, and an opportunity for all to turn away from self-absorbed feelings of guilt, fear, damnation and hellfire that dominated the final Sunday of the Trinity Season.
Two settings of 'Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland' (Come now Saviour of the Gentiles)BWV 61 & 62 from Weimar in 1714 and Leipzig in 1714 exist and both are herein recorded. They anticipate the arrival of Christ in music of avenging angels, hellfire and fury. Prettiness comes later at the end of CD 2 with BWV 147, with the cradle-rocking, chorale-setting 'Jesus Bleibet meine Freude' (Jesus remains my Joy).
BWV 62 'Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland II' gives us a sense of a new beginning which is summed up in the radiantly calm soprano & alto duet 'Wir ehren diese Herlichtkeit' (We honor this glory). sung skillfully and smoothly by soprano Joanne Lunn and alto William Towers. In the earlier version of 'Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland I' the successive stages of Advent, the different perspectives, are most clearly marked.
CD 1 concludes with BWV 36 'Schwingt freidig euch empor' (Soar joyfully aloft), a two-part large scale work; the first part would have been performed before the sermon, the second afterwards. It ends with a joyous chorus befitting the season and Gardiner describes it as a spiritual madrigal - capricious, light-textured and deeply satisfying sung melliflously by the Monteverdi Choir.
CD 2 begins with BWV 70 'Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!' (Watch, Pray, Pray, Watch), performed in the musical form in which Bach's Cantatas have survived- the expansion that Bach made for performance in Leipzig in Nov. 1723, of this shorter six-movement Advent piece (composed seven years earlier in Weimar), contains only three surviving upper parts. Part One of this includes a lovely alto solo 'Wenn Kommt der Tag, an dem wir Ziehen' (When will the day come when we leave) sung expertly by Michael Chance. Dietrich Henschel, bass, astounded me with his vocal flexibility, especially in his aria 'Seligster Erquickungstag' (Most blessed reviving day).
We next hear one of Bach's earliest Cantatas, BWV 132 'Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn' (Prepare the ways, prepare the path), the title being the name of the opening aria sung very well indeed by soprano Brigitte Geller. This cantata is an intimate work scored for four voices, oboe, bassoon, strings and continuo.
The STAR of these two Discs is definitely BWV 147 (which accounts for its being recorded numerous times, some good and some not so good) 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben'. It is the best known reworking of an earlier Weimar Cantata. The pre-Christmas excitement is captured in the glorious opening chorus. However, the most familiar solo in this work has to be the exquisite alto aria 'Schame dich, o Seele, nicht' (Be not ashamed oh soul). And we are indeed fortunate to have Michael Chance perform it; the Master Bach Interpreter!
Gardiner's responsiveness gets consistantly under the surface of the music, whether its the cautionary agitation of BWV 70 or the fluid consolation of the closing chords of BWV 147. The soloists are some of the best I have heard on these volumes; they are all skilled, experienced and sing with much fervency and expression. CD1: J. Lunn, W. Towers, Jan Kobow and D.Henschel; on CD 2 we have B.Geller, M.Chance, the other two are on both.
AND FROM GRAMOPHONE: "Once again, Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir is the jewel on the crown of each cantata performance. Add to that Gardiner's electric response to music he clearly loves and you have a set that rivals his Gramophone record of the year Award-Winning disc that launched this amazing series."
Unquestionably these two CDs display the heavenly simplicity of vocal and instrumental artistry as the performers deliver heartfelt and polished performances proving their devotion to Bach. Volume 13 won France's coveted Diapason De L'Anne Award.
These are two mid-priced CDs beautifully packaged with all pertinent information including the text.