JS Bach: Cantatas, BWV 7, 20, 30, 39, 75 & 167

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LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
WORKS: Cantatas, BWV 7, 20, 30, 39, 75 & 167
PERFORMER: Joanne Lunn, Gillian Keith (soprano), Wilke te Brumelstroete (mezzo-soprano), Paul Agnew (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (bass); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
John Eliot Gardiner’s adventurous Bach Cantata Pilgrimage will remain for many of us among the most memorable musical events of the Bach anniversary year of 2000. At the time, DG marked the event with 12 CDs containing cantatas mostly recorded in the various, often far-flung venues where Gardiner performed them, but including others which DG already held in its archive. For various reasons the project was abandoned and no further discs were issued. Now, happily, Gardiner has taken matters into hand and formed his own record company which will release the entire canon of sacred cantatas in due course. Each album will contain two discs and Gardiner has sensibly chosen for the first two issues cantatas which were not included in the DG selection. Gardiner has firmly held convictions about how to perform music with which he has long felt fervent responses and a close identity; and it would be hard to imagine musicians better able to convey them than those of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with whom he has worked closely for many years. Listening to the cantatas in the present issues I am struck by Gardiner’s ability to convey textual imperatives with vigour and a lively sense of theatre. Choruses especially benefit from these virtues creating an impression comparably favourable with the choral element in performances by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi). Where the arias are concerned my feelings are more equivocal since, although Gardiner’s choice of soloist is generally discerning – Katharine Fuge, Paul Agnew and Peter Harvey are among those who make strong contributions here – his tempos are more idiosyncratic and inclined to be more hard-driven than those of Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) whose cantata series at its best seems to me at present to be unrivalled. Notwithstanding this criticism, and it is sometimes deeply felt, Gardiner’s cantatas represent an extraordinary achievement, providing an enduring souvenir of concerts which proved emotionally and often musically satisfying. Nicholas Anderson