on September 14, 2014
Stated baldly: If you acquire only one recording of Bach's church cantatas, this is the set to purchase. And for all you Bach freaks (like me) out there: Get this recording anyway, even if you were not planning on it.
Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage demonstrates, among other things, just how far historically informed performance on period instruments has come in the past 30 or so years. This is most obvious when compared to the venerable, pioneering cycle jointly produced by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Though this is not the proper forum to discuss how that project has, over the years, come to sound somewhat "dated"-- and I'm sure Harnoncourt himself has newer things to say when it comes to Bach's cantatas -- I find that Gardiner's broader range of tempi, expressive (some might argue over-expressive) use of dynamics, and imaginative variety of articulation certainly make his cycle more accessible, perhaps more amenable to early 21st-century ears.
It's ridiculous, really, to try and prove just how excellent Gardiner can be. Still, I'd like to mention a few favorites selected from 1208 tracks of music spread over 58 hours and 40 minutes. All are meltingly beautiful (though I should admit that I've always had a weakness for fine singers paired with fine oboists):
"Ich habe genung," the opening aria from BWV 82 (disc 8 track 6)
"Es ist vollbracht," the last aria from BWV 159 (disc 11 track 18)
"Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind," the first aria from BWV 42 (disc 15 track 17)
Gardiner's ensemble consistently projects a beguiling freshness behind their performances -- could this be a function of their insanely swift turnover rate, rehearsing and recording a new set of cantatas every week for an entire year? Yet the potential for disaster was somehow averted, and the results never sound under-rehearsed or (even worse) over-planned.
It's already been noted elsewhere that this box set includes all of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage originally released by Soli Deo Gloria in 27 volumes, plus the Ascension cantatas and oratorio that were recently added as "volume 28" (and thus slightly out of liturgical sequence). More importantly, the four discs issued by DG Archiv before they bowed out of the project have been finally reinstated -- a total of 14 cantatas that were excluded from SDG's 28-volume series. (The cantatas in question were for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Purification, the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, and Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.)
Therefore, the appearance of the entire, newly reconstituted cycle in this compact package makes this a better buy than the incomplete original set of 27 (no, 28) individual volumes. Note also that the discs are more logically ordered than the original volumes, appearing in strict chronological order. (And volume 28, recorded in 2012, has now been inserted in its proper liturgical position as disc 20.)
Although one may object that the liner notes are no longer present, an additional CDR provides a separate file (or "booklet") for every disc. These include all of the original introductory essays -- Gardiner's keenly observant journal entries, with Ruth Tatlow's notes from the DG Archiv discs -- with the cantata texts and translations. Unfortunately, all photos from SDG's original notes, which always included a vignette of the church where each disc was recorded, are no longer present. Nonetheless, aside from the occasional interior shot -- such as one of the stunning nave vaulting of Sherborne Abbey, or of the visually magnificent (if mechanically unreliable) Trost organ at Altenburg's Schlosskirche -- photos were never a major feature of SDG's presentation.
Of course, completists (like me) will want to know what Gardiner did not include in his cycle:
1) Obviously, he omits cantatas that are too fragmentary or incomplete to realize in performance, such as BWV 197a (realized somehow for Masaaki Suzuki's recently completed cycle on BIS), and BWV 193 (included in Ton Koopman's cycle on his label, Antoine Marchand).
2) Also ignored are the four inauguration cantatas for Leipzig: BWV 26, 69, 119 and 120. (However, Gardiner did include the inauguration cantata for Mühlhausen, BWV 71.)
3) The three known wedding cantatas are likewise not present: BWV 120a, 195, 197.
4) Gardiner omits the two funeral cantatas, BWV 106 and 157. (However, he recently released the `Actus tragicus' BWV 106 with the Easter oratorio.)
5) Finally, one cantata for an unknown occasion, BWV 196, was also left out. (But note that Gardiner recorded all six of the others in this category, and BWV 150 actually appears twice.)
From an aesthetic standpoint, the box set is presented in an attractive, pleasingly compact format. Collectors of SDG's original volumes may have found the covers, featuring photo portraits by Steve McCurry, an odd match for sacred music by a German composer dead for more than 2 1/2 centuries. In time, McCurry's portraits became oddly comforting, symbolizing the humanity one hopes to find in Bach's music. Happily, this current set positively celebrates McCurry's work: the original 28 portraits are now expanded to 56 (one for each disc) and the 28 colorful miniatures on the lid give an appealing, bejeweled look to this treasure chest of musical art.