St George’s Church in Eisenach, in the former East Germany: this is where Bach was baptised, where he sang as a chorister—and where in the first ten years of his life he was in what Sir John Eliot Gardiner calls in his notes ‘one of the cradles of Lutheranism’. Luther had sung in the same choir, and prepared his translations of the New Testament in the castle overlooking the town; the chorales, hymns and texts that he wrote would have been some of Bach’s earliest experiences of sacred music, the same chorales that he re-works in his cantatas and passions.
So when as part of their Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, Gardiner and his musicians arrived at the Georgenkirche at Easter 2000 to perform three concerts of Bach Cantatas on the appropriate days, you can appreciate how the occasion and the acoustic must have resonated with meaning as well as sound. In fact you can hear it: has there been a more overtly dramatic performance of Bach’s Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV4, with its battle between life and death? And after that struggle the almost explosive jubilation of the next Easter Sunday cantata: Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret BWV31 is cathartic.
The Easter Monday concert offers more exultation in Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen BWV66, and some seriously testing writing for the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, both impressively nimble in the enormous opening chorus. Given the circumstances of the performances, the soloists get just one shot at some of Bach’s severely testing vocal lines…so little wonder that it’s here that there’s the odd frailty, but across the performances as a whole, alto Daniel Taylor and tenor James Gilchrist make outstanding contributions, especially Gilchrist in the Easter Tuesday Cantata Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss BWV134.
Its companion Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen BWV145 is a simple dialogue between Gilchrist as Jesus, and soprano Angharad Gruffyd Jones as the Soul, with all the emotional resonance of a miniature Bach Passion. Everyone I’ve spoken to who took part in performances during this Pilgrimage speaks of a special atmosphere, an unusual feeling of absorption, devotion and dedication, and one of the triumphs of the series so far is how successfully this comes across in the recordings.