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 Recording of the Week  Bach Cantatas - the Gardiner pilgrimage

One of the most ambitious performance and recording projects of all time was that undertaken by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists back in the year 2000. Starting on Christmas Day 1999 in Weimer, they spent the whole of the following year on a Bach Cantata pilgrimage touring throughout Europe’s great churches performing all 198 of Bach’s sacred cantatas, and - as far as was possible - doing so on the correct feast day for which they were written. Over the last five years these recordings (all live but with a remarkable consistency of quality) have been released on Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s own label SDG (standing for ‘Soli Deo gloria’ or 'to the Glory of God alone') – initials which Bach wrote at the end of each of his cantata scores. Spread across 51 CDs covering 27 volumes (twenty four 2-CD sets and three single CDs), the final volumes appeared this autumn, and with the whole label currently on special offer it seems an appropriate time to tell you a bit more about them.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Gardiner says it was a combination of reasons which persuaded him to undertake the project in the first place. The year 2000 marked the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death so it was an obvious time to do something Bach-related. He had already recorded and regularly performed all the Passions and major oratorios, but above all (having spent the previous few years studying the scores), he had come to the firm belief that there was a major injustice in the fact that this key tranche of Bach’s repertoire was only partially known and rarely performed.

As is clear from the journal which Gardiner kept throughout the pilgrimage it was a hugely demanding experience for all, and presented a considerable number of challenges to overcome and solve as the year went on:

With weekly preparations leading to the performances of these extraordinary works, a working rhythm we sustained throughout a whole year, our approach was influenced by several factors: time (never enough), geography (the initial retracing of Bach’s footsteps in Thuringia and Saxony), architecture (the churches both great and small where we performed), the impact of one week’s music on the next and on the different permutations of players and singers joining and rejoining the pilgrimage and, inevitably, the hazards of weather, travel and fatigue. Compromises were sometimes needed to accommodate the quirks of the liturgical year (Easter falling exceptionally late in 2000 meant that we ran out of liturgical slots for the late Trinity season cantatas, so that they needed to be redistributed among other programmes). Then to fit into a single evening cantatas for the same day composed by Bach over a forty-year span meant deciding on a single pitch (A = 415) for each programme, so that the early Weimar cantatas written at high organ pitch needed to be performed in the transposed version Bach adopted for their revival, real or putative, in Leipzig. Although we had commissioned a new edition of the cantatas by Reinhold Kubik, incorporating the latest source findings, we were still left with many practical decisions to make over instrumentation, pitch, bass figuration, voice types, underlay and so on. Nor did we have the luxury of repeated performances in which to try out various solutions: at the end of each feast-day we had to put the outgoing trio or quartet of cantatas to the back of our minds and move on to the next clutch - which came at us thick and fast at peak periods such as Whitsun, Christmas and Easter.

This series has been consistently outstanding. The sound engineers have done a remarkable job when they must have been working in a new venue almost every week, while The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are technically superb throughout whilst always sounding fresh and spontaneous. Gardiner’s readings are always heart-warming and expressive and the soloists consistently top-drawer. Mark Padmore, Nathalie Stutzmann, Dietrich Henschel, Bernarda Fink, Daniel Taylor, Sara Mingardo, even a young Magdalena Kožená – it is a remarkable roll call of stars who appear somewhere on this series. But above all it is regular soloists who appear throughout who deserve the most credit. The three sopranos drawn from the choir - Katharine Fuge, Gillian Keith, Joanne Lunn – do remarkably well, while tenor James Gilchrist and bass Peter Harvey (both then at the start of their careers) are truly world class.

It is a phenomenal achievement and whether you own just one or all twenty-seven volumes these will be a treasured part of anyone’s CD collection.

20% off SDG: