John Quinn
MusicWeb International
March 2006

The performances included here come from the very end of the Pilgrimage, when the pilgrims celebrated Christmas 2000 in New York, fittingly uniting the Old World and the New in the festive season, a time of year that often seems to have brought out the best in Bach. Christmas Day found the pilgrims in St. Bartholomew’s church, the church where Leopold Stokowski was organist between 1905 and 1909, when he first came to the USA, during which period he conducted his church choir in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

The cantata, BWV 91 opens with an exuberant chorus, here given with all the festive spirit imaginable. The tenor aria, ‘Gott, dem der Erden Kreis zu klein’, is splendidly sung by James Gilchrist. I love Gardiner’s comment about the accompaniment of “three oboes swinging along like prototype saxophones: baroque big band music in the city of the Village Vanguard!” Katharine Fuge and Robin Tyson combine most effectively in the duet, ‘Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt’, with the syncopated accompaniment of violins driving the music forward purposefully.

Then Gardiner breaks up the liturgical chronology slightly to give us two cantatas for the Second Day of Christmas. In BWV 121 the orchestra is strengthened by no less than three sackbuts, which underpin and enrich the textures in the opening chorus. James Gilchrist is in fine, easy voice for his aria, ‘O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur.’ William Towers excels in the recitative. ‘Der Gnade unermesslich’s Wesen’ and this is a good time to correct an omission from my comments to date on this whole series of CDs. I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned many of the aria performances but have neglected to say much about the recitatives. Let me hasten to correct this now. Towers’ sensitive singing in this particular recitative seems to me to be symptomatic of the carefully considered and committed approach to the recits, which I find is a consistent feature of this series, no matter who the singer is. It’s very evident that considerable thought has been given by one and all to the meaning of the text and how best to put it across. Returning to this particular cantata, I enjoyed very much Peter Harvey’s account of the joyful and positive bass aria, ‘Johannis freudenvolles Springen’. The final chorale is superbly colourful, with those marvellous sackbuts once again adding a special sonority.

BWV 40 is also for the Second Day of Christmas. It opens with a strong, positive-sounding chorus to which a pair of horns makes an important contribution and in which the singing of the Monteverdi Choir is very incisive. However, Gardiner draws our attention to the fact that, despite the positive tone on the surface, the chorus is actually in a minor key. Bach, one presumes, is drilling down into the deeper meaning of Christmas, namely that it is the prelude to the redemptive work of Christ. The words of this chorus translate as ‘For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.’ Later there’s a “feisty, rumbustious” bass aria, which finds in Peter Harvey an excellent proponent. The cantata also contains a taxing aria for the tenor soloist, which James Gilchrist performs splendidly and in which he receives exciting support from pairs of oboes and horns.

It’s back to Christmas Day itself for the final item in the programme, BWV 110, shrewdly chosen by Gardiner as the perfect end to a celebratory concert. The opening chorus is, in fact, the Overture to the Fourth Orchestral Suite, BWV 1069, with the addition of a pair of flutes in the orchestra and, of course, a choir. It’s superbly celebratory music and Gardiner’s forces deliver it with tremendous panache, making it into a real feast for the ears. The flutes also appear in the tenor aria ‘Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen’, providing an exquisite accompaniment to James Gilchrist’s eloquent singing. Then the listener’s ear is ravished further by the sinuous combination of alto (William Towers) and oboe in the aria, ‘Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind’. Gilchrist and Joanne Lunn are then irrepressibly joyful in their duet. The final aria, ‘Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder’, falls to the bass soloist (Peter Harvey). As Gardiner points out, this aria, complete with trumpets, is a precursor of ‘Grosser Herr’ in the first cantata of Christmas Oratorio. He describes it as “assertive, festive and brilliant” and so it is in this performance. What a Christmas treat this whole concert must have been for those New Yorkers lucky enough to experience it. Thankfully it’s now preserved on disc for us all to enjoy.