It shouldn’t be surprising that the quality of performance and sound throughout John Eliot Gardiner’s ambitious year-long Bach “pilgrimage” varies from cantata to cantata and venue to venue. There was simply too much very challenging music and too little time to tend to all of the details to ensure top-notch results for each different work and circumstance. Gardiner’s sometimes quirky interpretive decisions make things even more interesting–from the surprising and exciting to the puzzling and disappointing. And this two-CD set, containing six cantatas–for the first and fourth Sundays in Advent–is a case in point.
Gardiner and his mostly estimable forces deliver an impressively dynamic and compelling BWV 62–and an especially fine BWV 70, with its powerful opening chorus, whose introductory bars Gardiner builds to rousing effect. And no one tops Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir in the chorales, which are always perfectly paced, phrased, and articulated.
On the other hand, we have Gardiner’s inexplicably heavy-handed French-overture accompaniment in the opening of BWV 61, a movement that cries out for buoyancy; and then there’s the irritatingly fussy messing around with tempo in the gorgeous soprano aria in BWV 36 (contrast this with Sibylla Rubens and Herreweghe’s eminently lovely rendition!); the frantic opening chorus of BWV 147; and again, the messing around with tempo in another gorgeous soprano aria, “Bereite dir…”; and, as in his earlier rendition for Arkiv, the headlong charge through the famous BWV 147 chorus, Jesus bleibet meine Freude.
As in every recorded cantata traversal, soloists are variable in suitability and competence. Here, tenor Jan Kobow is a standout, excelling in all of his recits and arias; sopranos Joanne Lunn and Brigitte Geller are fine if not especially remarkable. But alto Michael Chance sounds shaky, his voice uneven and inconsistent in tone; and bass Dietrich Henschel, as beautiful as his vocal quality may be, scores low marks for his insistent “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” articulation in his many fast runs–an unnecessary affectation that’s distracting and disappointingly amateurish.
In general all of this music is presented in the kind of stylistically reliable, technically accomplished manner that we would expect from experienced professional singers and instrumentalists who didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time (and the orchestra is absolutely beyond criticism in these performances!)–but the overall impression leaves us unconvinced that these are transcendent performances. Rather, they are at once more human and more representative of the day to day circumstantial world of their origin, both flawed and miraculous, imperfect and wondrous. If we heard these one time in concert (as when they were recorded), we would surely be pleased; each listener will have to decide, in light of the fact that there are better versions of all of these cantatas on disc, if they are worthy of repeated hearing and a place in their own collections. Recommended with reservations.