Tuesday 26 May 2015

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Volume 8 - Bremen and Santiago de Compostela

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage volume 8
Bach cantatas for the Fifteen and Sixteenth Sundays after Trinity BWV138, BWV 99, BWV 51, BWV 100, BWV 161, BWV 27, BWV 8, BWV 95; John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists; SDG
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 19 2015
Star rating: 5.0

John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage re-visited

John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage took the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists on tour for a year, performing all of Bach's church cantatas during the course of the year 2000 in concerts which placed the cantatas on the liturgical feast for which they were composed. The resulting recordings are a remarkable live document of this event. This two disc set (on the Soli Deo Gloria label), contains the cantatas For the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity recorded live in Bremen (Warum betrubst du dich, mein Herz? BWV138, Wass Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan II BWV 99, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV 51, Wass Gott tut, das is wohlgetan III BWV 100 ) and For the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity recorded live in Santiago de Compostela (Komm, du susse Todesstunde BWV 161, Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende? BWV 27, Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben BWV 8, Christus, der is mein Leben BWV 95), with soloists Malin Hartelius, William Towers, James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey in Bremen, and Katharine Fuge, Robin Tyson, Mark Padmore and Thomas Guthrie in Santiago de Compostela.

It is clear that the pilgrimage made a profound effect both on performers and on audiences. The schedule required a constant dusting off of the liturgical cantatas, some of which were substantially unfamiliar to the performers, only for them to be put back after the concert. But memorable events do not necessarily generate memorable recordings, and what is remarkable about these discs is that they are so much more than a simple record of the event. There is a live vitality to the performances and a sense that the performers are full engaged (with one or two edge of seat moments inevitably). The performers came from a pool, with many common to a number of performances, with the constant being John Eliot Gardiner himself and that fact that he worked through cantatas in a single year surely coloured his view. There is a very much a sense that the works are seen whole, understood both in their entirety and in the way they relate to others.

Performing all the cantatas together meant compromises. The Weimar cantatas are all performed in the later Leizipg adaptations so that all are at the same pitch. And John Eliot Gardiner is firmly in the choir and orchestra school, so that he performed with a group of soloists plus his sixteen strong choir (with both men and women on the alto line). That his musicians have lived with him, and this music, a long time really shows. It just flows.

One of the fascinating things about the way the cycle was put together is the gathering together of all the cantatas for a particular feast, this means that we get two groups of four all examining the same themes. For the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity we have a great deal of darkness with man's sin and despair, but also supported by God's goodness so that the group finishes on a brilliant note with Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!. What really struck me, listening to these cantatas together was Bach's inventive and highly expressive ways with chorales. BWV 138 has a long opening movement in which the tenor is supported by a vividly complex orchestral texture, with choral interruptions. Again and again, it was the chorales which drew me, as Bach seemed to respond to the challenge of surrounding the plain chorale texture with something elaborate.

For the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity the subject is very much one of death, (the Gospel reading is the raising of the widow of Nain's song). So we get the tolling of funeral bells and the Lutheran longing for death, but many seem remarkably light in texture as if Bach is deliberately addressing death with a calmness. There is the pastoral texture and the dancing triple time in BWV 161 with more dancing in the bass aria in BWV 8.  Again, harking back to the chorales BWV 100 opens with a large scale movement in which the chorus chorale is contrasted with delightful perky cross-rhythms in the orchestra. Here Bach introduces a remarkably bravura recitative, which interrupts things before subsiding.. This is just one example of his remarkable dramatic vision, these works are not operatic but have strong movements of vivid drama.

We get two groups of soloists, one for each location and each singer gets their moment. Both sopranos have moments of sounding a little under pressure, and both counter-tenors seem to find the tessitura a little challenging, but overall there is lots to enjoy here. I treasure Mark Padmore's way with recitative and James Gilchrist's mellifluous intensity of line.

The presentation is excellent with copious notes from John Eliot Gardiner, and full texts.

Throughout John Eliot Gardiner seems the presiding genius. Though the performances are very much a group enterprise, it is his vision which articulates them. I know that some people prefer the versions from Masaaki Suzuki, but on this disc the refinement of the performances combines a vibrancy to make something special.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Warum betrubst du dich, mein Herz? BWV138
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Wass Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan II BWV 99
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV 51
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Wass Gott tut, das is wohlgetan III BWV 100
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) -Komm, du susse Todesstunde BWV 161 
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende? BWV 27
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) -  Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben BWV 8
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - Christus, der is mein Leben BWV 95
Malin Hartelius (soprano)
Katharine Fuge (soprano)
William Towers (alto)
Robin Tyson (alto)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Peter Harvey (bass) 
Thomas Guthrie (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Recorded Unser Lieben Frauen, Bremen, 28 September 2000, Santo Domingo de Bonaval, Santiago de Compostela, 7 October 2000
SDG 14 2CDs [72.02, 73.02]
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