Sir John Eliot Gardiner

The British conductor on his Bach Pilgrimage with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists

Sir John Eliot Gardiner

‘When we embarked on the Bach Cantata pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out.’ And so during 2000, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists began their ambitious adventure, travelling around the great churches of Europe, performing each of the 198 sacred Cantatas on their proper day in the church calendar. The final recording of their 51-CD odyssey has just been released on SDG.


What made you decide to undertake the Bach pilgrimage?

It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision but something that had been brewing inside me for many years. I suppose it was three things: the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death and the millennium; a perplexity – that I still have – that this major tranche of his repertoire is partially known and rarely performed; and the state that I had arrived at with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.

Having done the major oratorios, the Passions and some of the Cantatas, I felt that this was the biggest single slice of his whole repertoire that we really needed to come to grips with at some stage. This seemed the golden opportunity.

There must have been some challenges along the way…

It was hugely challenging and ambitious to try and do all the Cantatas in a single year. There were a lot of hurdles to surmount but what it gave us was an in-depth exposure to this repertoire on a weekly basis almost for a whole year. We had this bizarre phenomenon that on a Monday morning we’d be looking at three or four Cantatas that we’d not done before, and we had to forget the ones we’d done the previous week.

I’d spent the previous two years learning them but nonetheless on a Sunday evening I’d wonder what was coming up next. We had to be quite self-disciplined and put to one side all our memories of the Cantatas we’d just been doing. 

Was it difficult to keep the musical forces consistent throughout the year?

Yes, it was fearfully difficult. I had different soloists and continuo players; different principal oboe players and leaders. Not every week, because sometimes we did it in two-week segments. But there might be an abrupt change of personnel, so you couldn’t refer back to the previous week. But as we went through the year it became easier because nearly everybody came back to do another segment – refreshed and eager to start where they’d left off – and we developed a sort of house style.


So you didn’t always have the forces you wanted at the right times?

No, not always, by any means. We ran out of money. A lot of the soloists I was hoping to work with, people like bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, to name just two, were available at the beginning, but we ended up using more soloists from within the group. It was sometimes absolutely amazing how they came through.

I had three sopranos who did fantastically well – Katharine Fuge, Joanne Lunn (click play on the audio right-hand audio player to hear Lunn) and Gillian Keith – they had fairly little experience with Bach at the beginning of the year, but by the end they were experts. I also had two wonderful Bach soloists in tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Peter Harvey who were just starting their careers then. We caught them at the right time.

How did you decide which forces to use for which Cantata?

I looked at what the Cantatas were for a given day, and if they included trumpets and drums and a large orchestra that dictated to some extent how many strings you were going to take with you and how big the choir was going to be. I didn’t want to fake it. One of the most ridiculous things about the one-to-a-part movement is when it’s recorded with the trumpets 100 metres away and the recorder right up next to you. That’s ludicrous, it seems to me you need to be practical from the word go.

We can’t say definitely what forces Bach had for any given series of Cantatas, but then Bach was utterly practical and empirical. He might have started out with an idea but he was quick to adapt. And I tried to do the same. We weren’t trying to write a PhD thesis. The project demanded a certain amount of uniformity of approach, otherwise our logistical nightmares would have been compounded.

It’d have been ridiculous to have been on tour in Eastern Europe with programmes demanding full forces with trumpets and drums, then to send musicians home because we wanted to do a solo Cantata with just five performers, for instance.


Musical extract: Bach: ‘Gerechter Gott, ach, rechnest du!’ from Cantata, BWV 89
YouTube clip from Kultur Films: Bach: ‘Liebster Gott, erbarme dich’ from Cantata, BWV 179