LABELS: DG Archiv
WORKS: Cantata No. 34; Cantata No. 59; Cantata No. 74; Cantata No. 172
PERFORMER: Magdalena Kožená, Martina Jankova (soprano), Bernarda Fink (contralto), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Christoph Genz, Steve Davislim (tenor), Peter Harvey, Reinhard Hagen (bass); Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 463 584-2
This clutch of discs contains cantatas which Bach wrote for the Epiphany, Ascension and Whitsun festivals, and for the Feast of the Purification of Mary. Not all the recordings have been made from live performances during Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage; indeed one of them, the Ascension anthology, was made as long ago as 1993, while the Whitsun collection was recorded early in 1999.
Gardiner’s greatest strength in these infinitely varied masterpieces lies in the spirit of optimism with which he imbues the music. The choruses are supple, light of tread and spirited in their declamation, even if they are not always sung with that well-disciplined precision for which the Monteverdi Choir has often been justifiably acclaimed. Fine examples of Gardiner’s choral direction occur in the opening movements of BWV 111 and 34. Gardiner is also acutely sensitive to textual content, highlighting nuances with dynamic shading – sometimes too exaggerated for me – and affective articulation. But where I frequently part company with him is in his choice of tempi for the arias. A notorious case in point is the radiant G major duet for alto and tenor from BWV 111. This beautifully sustained da capo movement, one of the most precious jewels in the entire canon, is so hard driven that its lyricism is all but obscured. The problem with this seemingly frenetic approach is that poetry too often is rendered into prose. In summary, notwithstanding many fine individual contributions, these are uneven performances, sometimes hugely rewarding, at others deeply disappointing. Nicholas Anderson