While the obvious selling point of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's 'Bach Pilgrimage' through the complete cantatas is its comprehensiveness, as the series progresses it's also clear that each individual instalment is a voyage of discovery in itself.
It would be nice to buy them all of course, but if that's not an option, any single volume would provide a decent dose of food for the heart and head.
Here we have Volume 25, recorded in Dresden's Annenkirche and Sherborne Abbey in late May and early June 2000, covering the Fifth Sunday after Easter and the Sunday after Ascension Day. As ever, the seven works on offer are performed with a mixture of taste, emotion and information, and the recording quality of the Soli Deo Gloria label remains superb.
Things get off to a lively start with the merry bass arioso (with the estimable Stephan Loges as soloist) which begins 'Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch', BWV 86; as ever, Gardiner responds warmly to Bach's inventive instrumentation, here distinguished by oboes. The virtuosic solo violin line stands out in the alto's aria about man gathering roses even though their thorns may prick him, while the vocal line in the soprano's chorale floats lyrically in the middle of the oboes d'amore and bassoon continuo; also of note is the tenor aria with full string accompaniment, which finds the English Baroque Soloists at their most intense.
The stand-out movement in 'Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen', BWV 87, is the alto aria 'Vergib, o Vater, unsre Schuld', which finds Robin Tyson in excellent voice and again features an extraordinary instrumental sonority involving lower wind instruments; I also admire the gentle chorale which closes the work.
Yet of the works on the first disc, it's 'In allen meinem Taten', BWV 97, which stands out for me. The cantata has no liturgical designation, but its text is beautiful ('In all my undertakings I allow the Almighty to counsel') and the setting (first performed in 1734) shows Bach at his finest. For instance, the opening movement begins with a grand introduction, full of stately dotted rhythms, and gives way to a lively chorus; the expressive bass aria which follows is given an emphatic rendition by Loges. No less gorgeous is the tenor aria 'Ich traue seiner Gnader' (sung by the stylish Steve Davislim) which again provides as much of a showcase for the orchestra as for the vocalist in its challenging, almost fractured accompaniment. The lovely accompagnato and whirling aria for the alto and the surprisingly free, jerky patterns of the soprano-bass duet are topped by one of Bach's full-on powerful chorales. The whole performance shows the Bach-Gardiner alliance at its finest.
No less stimulating is the second disc. 'Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich', BWV 150 – once considered spurious but now thought to be Bach's first cantata – has many treasures in particular: a grave Sinfonia and opening chorale, a superb ringing tone and clear diction from Joanne Lunn in the soprano aria 'Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt', and delicately nuanced choral work in the final two numbers. It's hard to choose between the two settings of 'Sie warden euch in den Bann tun' – I love the four oboes in the terse introductory bass recitative of BWV 183, as well as the restrained tenor aria 'Ich fürchte nicht des Todes Schrecken', but the flowing tenor-bass duet, the pastoral colours of the alto aria and the urgent chorus of suffering and protection ('Es kömmt aber die Zeit') in BWV 44 are scarcely less affecting. The disc closes with a moving performance of 'Fürchte dich nicht', a motet thought to be by Johann Christoph Bach that combines texts from Isaiah with the Gospel of St Luke.
In all, another triumph for Gardiner, his musicians and SDG.
Forthcoming releases on SDG include the start of John Eliot Gardiner's Brahms cycle in September