There are some of Bach’s finest choral movements among the five cantatas featured on these two CDs, works intended for the second and third Sundays after Trinity. And although John Eliot Gardiner’s “Bach pilgrimage” cantata cycle has had its hits and misses, here there’s no doubt that Gardiner and his choir and orchestra really shine, whether elucidating the pleading text and illuminating the chromatic fugal textures of the opening of BWV2 or rousing the heavens in BWV76’s Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes. Similarly, there’s likely never been a more affecting expression of the first chorus of BWV135, Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, nor more touching, delicately pointed orchestral playing than in the Sinfonia of BWV21.
As in most of this cantata series, the soloists are the potential weak links–not that they are bad, just that they have their “moments”, both shaky and solid: Daniel Taylor sounds uncomfortable in his BWV2 aria; soprano Lisa Larsson turns her dotted-rhythm articulation into a distracting mannerism in her BWV76 aria; and tenor James Gilchrist manages to sing an entire aria (in BWV76) with admirable energy but amazingly ambiguous pitch.
But these same singers, along with always-reliable bass Stephen Varcoe, also deliver some very fine work elsewhere, including the fiery soprano and bass arias from BWV10, and the tenor recitative and beautiful alto/tenor duet from the same cantata (this last well done in spite of the soloists’ having to fight against Gardiner’s inexplicably slower and slower tempo).
Generally, the different set of soloists in the Disc 2 cantatas are more satisfying and vocally and musically consistent. Katharine Fuge really (and appropriately) pulls at your heart in her BWV21 aria Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not (Sighing, weeping, sorrow, care), and the tears are convincing in tenor Vernon Kirk’s Bäche von gesalznen Zähren from the same work. The soprano/bass duet Komm, mein Jesu, has a delightful lighthearted quality and easy rapport between the singers that draws us eagerly in. And in the following chorus, the choir and orchestra perfectly convey Bach’s remarkable musical depiction of the despairing spirit finding the way to hope and God’s ultimate comfort.
There are two different venues involved here, and of the two, the church in Zürich (Disc 2) proves much more agreeable than the unforgiving space of the Basilique Saint-Denis in Paris. The latter is a magnificent structure and revered monument (final resting place for most of the kings and queens of France), but its qualities as a recording location are mostly of the kind that cause problems for recording engineers (who happen to have done a commendable job here!). And unfortunately, engineers aren’t the only ones given problems in this ambitious recording project: Gardiner’s crazy habit of altering tempos in the middle of movements–mostly slowing down for no apparent reason–must give producers fits! Fortunately these occurrences are relatively few and are not fatally disruptive–but you have to ask why Gardiner does this and why he’s allowed to get away with it.
You may wonder why Heinrich Schütz makes an appearance on a Bach cantata program–or why a concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord (albeit by Bach) are included. It’s because the surviving works for these particular Sundays were not sufficient to fill out the two CDs–and we can appreciate that the producers wanted to give us (and their concert audiences) more rather than less. The Schütz motet, which was dedicated to the choir at St Thomas in Leipzig–Bach’s future responsibility–and based on the same Psalm 19 text as Bach’s later cantata BWV76, is a more than fitting partner to the Bach work, with its solidly harmonious a cappella sections and assertive accompanied passages, highlighted by sonorous brass flourishes.
So, as we continue to travel with Gardiner’s Bach entourage, wending our way through the dozens of cantatas, venues, and solo singers, we occasionally find something we can settle on as being worthy of Bach’s genius and intent as a devoutly committed composer of church music. Here is one of those, respectfully recommended with the hope of more to come.