Some Thoughts on John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Series

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For more than five years I’ve been buying John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series recordings on his label, Soli Deo Gloria. After this extraordinary series of performances was made in 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded them all, released several volumes of the series, then pulled the funding. Gardiner, armed with tapes of the performances, wisely decided to found his own label to sell these discs, starting with subscription sales, then expanding to distribution around the world in record shops and via online dealers (such as Amazon).

I received the final two volumes of this series (four CDs) in the mail this morning, which close this musical adventure. (These are the last two volumes that SDG will release; it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series.) This has led me to consider this series and its importance.

I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio (recorded on this DVD), Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the previously-mentioned DVD discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

If you haven’t heard these recordings, check out any of them; check some out on Amazon.com, and you can listen to samples on the Soli Deo Gloria website. And, to get a taste of Bach’s sacred music, there’s a 22-CD box set of John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s passions, his B minor mass, and a number of cantatas, including the four discs worth of cantatas from the Pilgrimage that Deutsche Grammophon originally released (and which SDG did not release; so if you want the entire series, you need to get this box in addition to the SDG recordings.)

Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for your amazing tour and its recordings.

A slightly different version of this article was published on MusicWeb International.

Update: The last two volumes of the series include a printed list of the cantatas by album and number. You can get a PDF file of that listing here.

And here’s a recent interview with John Eliot Gardiner about the cantata pilgrimage.

Update, August, 2013: There will be a box set of all the cantatas, including the four DG discs, in October, 2013.

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5 replies
  1. josean says:

    Hi Kirk,

    Thanks for this interesting post. You mentioned: “it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series”. Can you tell me which cantatas are those included in the four CDs?

    I have a DG box set with the cantatas recorded by Gardiner for DG (not the 22 cd box set), but unfortunately there is no information of place and date of the recordings, so I don´t know which of them correspond to the Cantata Pilgrimage.

    Reply

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