BACH: Cantatas Vol. 20 – BWV 144, 84, 92, 18, 181, 126 – Soloists/ Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria SDG 153 (2 CDs), 53:18; 42:07 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
Sir John Eliot Gardiner continues the superb CD releases documenting his famous Bach Pilgrimage of 2000. He spent the year conducting all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, always observing the Lutheran liturgical year and performing the works on the Sunday for which they’d been written. Bach wrote some 300 cantatas – his largest output in any genre – of which approximately 200 survive. They constitute one of the greatest collections of music ever composed in any single genre, joining Mozart’s piano concertos and operas and Beethoven’s string quartets, piano sonatas and symphonies at the very apex of western art music.
The six cantatas recorded live for this release were all composed for the observance of the Pre-Lenten Season or Shrovetide, as it was known in the traditional liturgical calendar. Because this is a period in which the penitent is seeking absolution and preparing for Lent, these are deeply serious works for which Bach carefully matched his music to rather austere libretti. Although none of these cantatas are amongst his well known ones, they are all beautifully written and feature some breathtaking moments where the soloists and orchestra truly shine. Two of the six are comparatively lengthy and have an almost symphonic breadth in their orchestral writing, with a profundity and depth of emotion that is often quite chilling even for Bach.
These performances are as superb as we’ve come to expect from Sir John and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. There is an illusion of effortlessness and a surface perfection to these performances that serves to heighten our amazement over the fact that Bach composed these "mini-operas" at the rate of one a week. Each cantata is like a musical gem, their beauty always in the service of their religious function. Sir John seems to conduct each work with that viewpoint as his guiding principle. Bach adored the oboe and gave the instrument a prominent part in his cantatas. The two oboes d’amore are exemplary in their crucial role as obbligato soloists, the darker sound of these Baroque-era woodwinds lending gravitas to these works. The singers are all splendid and we are even more appreciative when we remind ourselves that in many cases they have not seen these works until the week prior to their performance.
The sound on these recordings is clear and bright with an emphasis on the mid-range which benefits the vocalists. Although the recording is quite good there is a slight thinness to the sound that may be an artifact of the venue’s acoustics. The timings seem a little short for this day and age but that is unavoidable given the liturgical restrictions imposed on the choice of material.
— Mike Birman