John Quinn
MusicWeb International
June 2006

The concerts at Greenwich in mid January 2000 were the first given in the UK as part of the Pilgrimage. Prior to this all the venues had been in Germany. Greenwich played host for a selection of cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Scarcely, it seems, has the great festival of Christmas passed when the mood of the Lutheran liturgy once again includes a vein of penitence—though in fact reminders of man’s sinfulness are present even in Bach’s cantatas for Christmastide. As Gardiner observes of the cantatas for this particular Sunday, their texts “inscribe a path from mourning to consolation.”

Joanne Lunn is very affecting in the aching recitativo with which begins Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? BWV 155. She represents the penitent Christian soul who is then encouraged in her faith by the alto and tenor soloists, who combine in ‘Du must glauben, du must hoffen’ with its perky bassoon obbligato. Miss Lunn has another aria, ‘Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch’, in which the soul is enjoined “throw yourself” into Christ’s loving arms. She obeys this injunction in her singing and the aria trips along eagerly.

At the start of Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid I, BWV 3 the mood is once again one of affliction, this time conveyed by the chorus. There’s a crucial role here for the oboes d’amore. These help establish the air of melancholy in the substantial instrumental introduction and thereafter weave in and out of the choral texture. It’s a powerful movement and it’s performed arrestingly here. The bass aria, ‘Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein’ is “an uncomfortable, tortuous ride for both cello and singer.” Suffice to say that both acquit themselves with distinction. Gerald Finley is very accurate in his divisions, nowhere more so than in the long, recurring phrase, ‘ein rechter Freudenhimmel sein’. Throughout this aria he makes good sense of what can be difficult musical syntax. I love Eliot Gardiner’s almost throwaway description of the soprano/alto duet, ’Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen’. He dubs it “Bach’s equivalent of Singin’ in the Rain.” What a marvellous comparison—and how apt! But if you think for a minute that he’s being flippant read what he has to say about the cruciform symbolism of the music in this aria, which reminds us that these are the thoughts, both serious and light-hearted, of someone who really knows his Bach and has thought long and hard about the music.

The tenor aria with which begins Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13 is eloquently delivered by Julian Podger. The marvellous combined sonority of an oboe da caccia and two recorders provides a most effective accompaniment. But even the invention and emotional range of that aria is dwarfed by the bass aria, ‘Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen.’ Gardiner takes this very broadly—the performance lasts for over ten minutes—but sustains the musical line excellently. The accompaniment is founded on an implacably treading bass line over which we hear a plaintive unison from a solo violin and the recorders. Against this the bass soloist projects a deeply melancholic line. Finley sings with great feeling and inwardness, displaying amazing control and concentration. His success in putting the music across so profoundly is all the more remarkable when we read that he was a late replacement as soloist in this concert. All concerned give a spellbinding performance of the aria, which sets the seal on a very fine account of the entire cantata.

Two weeks later and the Pilgrims had moved on to Romsey Abbey—presumably we shall catch up with their concert for the Third Sunday of Epiphany in due course. Only two cantatas for this Sunday have come down to us so Gardiner, ever the pragmatist, took the opportunity in particular to give his choir more to do by including other music.

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26 is a 1724 cantata for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. It owes its inclusion in this concert to the fact that the incidence of Easter was so late in 2000 that this Sunday would be omitted from the liturgical calendar. It’s a fine work, which begins with a brilliant and vigorous choral fantasia. The movement is strongly projected here, but not excessively so. In the aria that follows, ‘So schnell ein rauschend Wasser scheisst’, solo lines for flute, violin and tenor interweave. The passage of time and the rushing of water are suggestively illustrated in fluent music. Paul Agnew excels in the demandingly long stretches of passagework. The cantata also features a magisterial bass aria, in which the singer is accompanied by no less than three oboes. Peter Harvey, reliable as ever, does this very well.

In the booklet Sir John writes at length and with perception about Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? BWV 81, which he regards as having almost an operatic dimension. The intense, melancholy aria with which it commences is well sung by William Towers. The next aria, ‘Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen’, is a fearsomely demanding storm aria for tenor and strings. Here Bach whips up a real musical tempest but Paul Agnew surmounts the considerable technical difficulties. The bass aria, ‘Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer!’ is equally challenging. Christ has to work hard to subdue the waves and the Christ that Bach portrays here is a commanding figure, not a gentle Jesus. Peter Harvey excels here and the calming of the storm paves the way for a confident note, at last, in the following alto recitative and the concluding chorale. This is a most exciting and accomplished account of a fine cantata.

The other cantata for the Sunday is Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14. Particularly noteworthy is the opening chorus with its complex textures. In this performance an impressive clarity is achieved. The soprano aria, ‘Unsre Stärke heist zu schwach’ features a high horn obbligato—rather an unusual combination. It’s very well done here with a splendid contribution from the horn player, Gabriele Cassone. Equally impressive is Peter Harvey in his aria, ‘Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen’.

The inclusion of the motet, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 is no mere caprice. Not only does this give the choir something substantial to sing but the text is one of the prescribed hymns for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. There’s great variety in the eleven sections of the piece and Bach’s compositional virtuosity is extremely well served by the vocal virtuosity of the Monteverdi Choir. The singers show consistent precision. Their rhythmic acuity and dynamic range impress at all times as does the sheer verve and commitment of their singing. I particularly admired the clarity that they bring to the part writing in the second section and also the sensitivity of their quiet singing in the ninth movement, ‘Gute Nacht, o Wesen.’ The motet is a masterpiece and here it receives a performance that is fully worthy of the quality of the music.

As I’m sure is evident from my comments, [this volume] maintain the very high standards set by previous issues in this series. The recorded sound is consistently excellent and, as before, Sir John’s notes are a consistent source of illumination. Collectors who are acquiring the series as it unfolds should certainly invest in [this issue] as well. Any Bach lover who has yet to experience the Cantata Pilgrimage should hasten to rectify the omission and [this volume] would make an excellent starting point. This is turning out to be an important and distinguished series and I recommend [this latest issue] very strongly.