BACH: Cantatas Vol. 17 = Nos. 143; 41; 16; 171; 153; 58 – Ruth Holton, soprano/ Lucy Ballard, alto/ Charles Humphries, alto/ James Gilchrist, tenor/ Peter Harvey, bass/ Sally Bruce-Payne, alto/ Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner, conductor – SDG 150, 95:54 **** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
The Bach pilgrimage continues, or perhaps I should say “starts” with these two discs. For they are from some of the very first concerts given, in this case January 2 and 3, 2000, in an odd coincidence where New Year’s Day and the First Sunday following New Year’s fall on consecutive days. The cantatas on this release are for those two precise days, so John Eliot Gardiner’s propitious selection of time slots fell quite naturally on the calendar. These performances took place in Berlin at the Gethsemane Church.
Prayers to Christ in gratitude for the arrival of the New Year, hopes and aspirations for a successful upcoming twelve months and the blessings of God for the water and crops and animals and general exultant praise mark each of the four cantatas written for January First. There are trumpets in splendor, lots of energetic part writing as well as reflective moments of thankfulness in the arias that show Bach at his most inspired and subtle, always able to motivate his muse into a festal and festival mood when needed. What strikes one the most about the performances occurs when we get to the last two works on the second CD, for the Sunday after the New Year. All of a sudden, and without any sort of preparation it is as though cold water has been thrown in the face of heated jubilation, for the tone and tenor of these two pieces becomes comparatively sullen and novo gloomy. Behold dear God, how my enemies reflects the gospel reading of the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Yet, even if one does follow this most normal of lectionary lessons for the time of the year, still you might have expected a slower rush into the more serious aspects of life that we find here, a veritable plunge. Ah God, how much sorrow is already encouraging us to reflect on the misbegotten state of the wicked world, the patience required in bad times, and the necessity of a Christian to find the sorrowful narrow path and to deal with the hatred of the world. Stern stuff, this! Yet Bach’s sentiments are never solely spiritual downers, but always reside on a foundation of expectation, and the last aria employs us to be consoled with hope.
So this is one of the more interesting releases to come along, peppered with Gardiner’s unique musical and spiritual way with Bach, the multiple soloists and chorus members doing their all to pay attention in these mostly live performances as little rehearsal time was offered, and the ensemble often found itself winging its way along, which ultimately makes these readings that much more alive and vibrant, as good as any on the market. The sound remains clear and warm in this difficult recording venue, and so the journey continues. Can you believe these releases, just now offered, are almost 10 years old? [But since we’ve been placing all the others in the series in Classical instead of Reissues, we’ll continue doing that…Ed.]
— Steven Ritter