Reaching the end of their pilgrimage to perform the complete Bach Cantatas must have provoked varied emotions in Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. As Gardiner himself says in his typically revelatory liner notes, 'The mood of the choir and orchestra was a strange mixture of fragility and elation, as though the huge effort of reaching the finishing post had brought all the pent-up emotion to the surface.The engagement, zest and sense of complicity amongst both the singers and players was palpable, a climax to a year-long venture in which new friendships had been formed and cemented through collective experience.' All these emotions have been captured on this latest instalment in the CD document of the complete pilgrimage, recorded on 31 December 2000 at St Bartholomew's in New York.
The elation of which the conductor writes is especially apparent in 'Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied!', BWV 190, the cantata for New Year's Day which was the very final piece to be performed on the pilgrimage. 'Sing unto the Lord a new song' is the perfect sentiment for ending a marathon of this sort, indicating a start rather than an ending, and there's a thrilling unity of vocal sound in the line 'Herr Gott, dich loben wir!' (Lord God, we give Thee praise!). Alto Daniel Taylor, tenor James Gilchrist and bass Peter Harvey are the exemplary soloists in the intricate smaller movements of the cantata, which receives one of the most exciting performances I've yet heard from this series of recordings (and that's saying something).
The first item on the programme is a motet using almost the same text as this cantata, namely 'Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied', BWV 225. This pretty little piece for double choir could almost have been written for the Monteverdi Choir, which clearly revels in the detailed part writing, especially in the pensive central episode. The performance is carefully layered and Gardiner keeps his eye on the energy and goal of the piece.
Perhaps the most moving of the four cantatas is 'Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn' (Tread the path of faith), BWV 152. This is essentially a piece of chamber music and has that kind of intimate sensitivity, whether in the poignant Sinfonia, the slightly stern bass aria or the concluding duet in which Jesus tells a tortured soul that suffering is the only path to glory. The level of expression and quality of ensemble are as high as we've come to expect from this glorious team of musicians.
I absolutely adore the following cantata, 'Das neugeborne Kindelein', BWV 122. The hushed opening chorale, the bass' simple but profound aria and the beautiful Trio with Chorale find both Bach and Gardiner's forces at their most wonderful. Katherine Fuge is the superlative soprano soloist and she makes a stunning impression in all her entries. In the remaining cantata, 'Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende', BWV 28, she steps aside for her colleague Joanne Lunn whose phrasing, controlled vibrato and fervent interpretation of the lyrics about the joy of the New Year are another of the recording's cornerstones.
With Christmas around the corner the shops are brimming with music for the festive season, but you'll not find many contenders as strong as this one.
Listen online to extracts from this excellent new recording here.