BACH: Cantatas Vol. 25 – BWV 86, 87, 97, 44, 150 & 183 – Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria SDG144 (2 discs) 55:10; 52:40 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
Codicil 7 of Bach’s Liepzig contract, which he signed in May 1723, specified that the music to be written for the township and the church not be too long or contain operatic traits. Nevertheless, the cantatas he produced are truly a compendium of techniques, styles and musical devices adopted from Italian opera: especially recitativo secco, the da capo aria and much of the musical expressiveness that lies at opera’s heart. Bach wrote approximately 300 sacred cantatas in five cycles during his tenure as Cantor of St. Thomas in Liepzig (1723-1750), of which 190 survive.
The focus of the Lutheran worship service was the sermon. The Bible reading for Sunday became the subject matter for that day’s sermon. In Bach’s era it was preceded by the Lutheran church cantata, a musical composition that the composer conceived as a sermon in music. In effect it contained the sermon’s spiritual essence, and even dramatized its contents through Bach’s profound talent for word painting. Cantata merely means “a piece that is sung.” The Lutheran church cantata is a work whose musical basis usually was the main chorale or hymn of that particular Sunday, the text of which itself was based on that week’s Bible reading. The nature of the Lutheran church cantata varied widely in different Lutheran communities. Bach’s greatest compositional efforts and output lie in his sacred cantatas.
John Eliot Gardiner continues releasing the recordings that document the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. They represent his effort to perform all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas (on the liturgical feasts for which they were composed) in the course of the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. This two disc release features cantatas written for the fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogate) on the first one and those written for the Sunday after Ascension Day (Exaudi) on the second. None of these cantatas are amongst those most familiar to listeners. Nevertheless, they contain moments of ravishing beauty and offer frequent examples of Bach’s signature solemnity and musical profundity. Bach confronts the awesome mystery of Creation in these six cantatas. He exhibits his deeply-rooted need to celebrate the soul’s devotion to God through music. These are temporally varied settings of a soul’s ecstatic poetry when standing naked before God. They are most representative of Bach’s titanic genius precisely because they are lesser known. Without the burnished patina of foreknowledge, they shimmer even more brightly: as if they were newly expressed and simply garbed songs of devotion in the guise of an anonymous down-to-earth artistry. It is a manifestation of Bach’s genius that he can unadorn his divine inspiration so that it can be expressed by the humblest soul.
These are beautiful masterpieces that are beautifully recorded. The sound is immediate and full with the Monteverdi Choir hovering slightly above the instrumentalists of the English Baroque Soloists. The various singing soloists are recorded so that they sound center forward and are nicely framed by the instruments, despite the difficulties posed by the different venues. Gardiner conducts with his customary brisk efficiency, allowing all of his forces to confront Bach’s scores with maximum artistry. There is a bloom to the musical proceedings, a lovely sheen that heightens the beauty of Bach’s music. Gardiner’s recordings of the cantatas in this series are perhaps the finest yet made. Only time will tell if the entire series retains the finer qualities of the earlier recordings, but Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage has been a splendid journey thus far.
– – Mike Birman