J.S. Bach, Cantatas, J.E. Gardiner
Due to the nature of this 40 volume (two discs per volume) cycle, it somehow seems to stand outside of the competing cantata surveys (Harnoncourt, Rilling, Kopmann, Suzuki). It would be difficult as it would be to judge the merit of a cycle based on just 14 cantatas anyway, but I never even felt compelled to draw on Suzuki’s or Kopmann’s versions to compare. For one, Gardiner’s cantatas are – naturally – recorded live. They are documents of travel, study, devotion, exaltation and the joy of Bach that nourishes the performers enough to have prevented them from any noticeable fatigue. I cannot imagine any other composer an orchestra should be so willing to play exclusively for an entire year, day in and out.
All these elements express themselves on these four CDs that make up volumes one and eight. Most beautifully presented in a well-documented, heavy hardbound book (much like Andante issues), the musical quality that comes to mind here foremost is honesty. No artificial polish, no grappling for effect – just gorgeous music-making in honor of God and (or) Bach. With participating soloists like Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Paul Agnew, Dietrich Henschel, Peter Harvey et al., it’s no wonder that the quality of performances is never less than good (often more than that) – and all that with an average of less than a week of time for preparation.
Andrew Farach-Colton, writing his review for Gramophone (the two volumes were the Record of the Month in March, waxed at length about the interpretation and execution’s supreme qualities. Enjoying them as I do, I cannot say that I am quite as ecstatic about the issues. There are some (albeit very minor) flaws in singing here and there that would hardly be noticed in the live performance but can become more obvious upon repeated listening. (Of course, I’ve been listening to them ‘round the clock, which may have been overkill.) In BWV 75 “Die Elenden sollen essen” for example, I could not choose Gardiner over Herreweghe that I recently reviewed. But then, this cycle is truly sui generis and anyone who loves Bach ought to consider dipping both ears. The price is steep, but apart from the musical content, the presentation is outstanding and both volumes are chock-full with over 145 minutes of glorious music.