Bach Cantatas - Volumes 5 and 17

The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria 147/150)

23 November 2008 4 stars

Bach CantatasIt almost seems unnecessary to say that the two latest instalments of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's recorded Bach Cantata cycle with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir match up to the earlier releases. But such is the excellence of the performances that Soli Deo Gloria really does deserve the support of music lovers as this extraordinary monument to the German master's achievement in the genre comes to a close.

Volume 5 was recorded in Rendsburg and Braunschweig and contains music for the Eighth and Tenth Sundays after Trinity. The former feast is represented by three excellent cantatas including the two-part 'Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist', BWV 45, a grand and pungent setting of a hugely dramatic text that finds the Monteverdi Choir responding in their most rousing way. Marginally less consistently good is the performance of 'Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz', BWV 136, which suffers from an ill blending of voices in the tenor-bass duet. Robin Tyson's singing is also a little too contained and restricted in the alto aria, but Brindley Sherratt excels in his recitative and the opening chorale is irresistibly jolly and cheeky. It's Sherratt, too, who shines in 'Wo gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält', BWV 178, his impressively secure coloratura in his florid aria providing the highlight of the set for me; in contrast, I must say I find the performance of Christoph Genz in the tenor aria disappointingly plain.

The Tenth Sunday has the music that excites me more. The gorgeous soprano-alto duet in 'Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott', BWV 101, is done with amazingly intimate detail by Joanne Lunn and Daniel Taylor, for example, and again it's the bass (this time Gotthold Schwarz) who steals the show with his aria. Genz is more impressive here, interacting sensitively with the violin and flute in his solo spot. 'Schauet doch und sheet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei', BWV 46, is distinguished by some imaginative instrumental choices – duetting recorders in the tenor's accompagnato, two recorders and two unison oboes da caccia in the beautiful alto aria – and the tsunami aria for bass, trumpet and strings is a real knock-out. Finishing the volume is the chorale 'Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!', BWV 102, which starts with a minor key movement for the choir whose contrapuntal tension and vivid word setting (the cries of 'Herr' are hurled out) pave the way for more brilliance: a chromatically undulating melodic line in the alto aria, throbbing low strings enhanced by an emphatic delivery of the words in the bass aria, and a complex flute obbligato in the tenor aria.

Volume 17 was recorded in Berlin during a hectic couple of days over the New Year. Gardiner presents the four cantatas for New Year's Day on CD1 and the two Bach wrote for the Sunday after New Year on CD2 (the actual concert was filled up with part of the Christmas Oratorio, omitted here, hence the set is being sold as a 'two for one'). The works on the first disc must have been a colossal undertaking, both for Bach and the present performers: each of these four pieces has its tricky moments. But the choir, orchestra and soloists cope well on the whole. Notable moments in 'Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele', BWV 143, include the gentle soprano aria, subtly delivered by Ruth Holton, the minor-key solo tenor aria with solo violin (featuring the excellent James Gilchrist) and another for the same voice, this time with pastoral imagery and a chorus part (plus bassoon and cello interweaving the continuo part).

'Jesu, nun sei gepreiset', BWV 41, is the most substantial of the four, largely due to the eight-minute-long tenor aria 'Woferne du den edlen Frieden', where again Gilchrist gives an extraordinary performance – as indeed he does in the equivalent movement from 'Herr Gott, dich loben wir', BWV 16, characterised by a lovely oboe da caccia obbligato. Less impressive is Peter Harvey's bass solo, which does not have as full a tone as might be desired. In 'Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm', BWV 171, the soprano and alto are not ideally secure, but once more one has to praise Gilchrist for his literally breathtaking rendition of the tenor aria, with its interlocking violin duet.

The two brief pieces for the Sunday after New Year are more sparse in feel, due to Bach having pared down his forces and relied on the abilities of the solo singers to carry the text. Aside from Gilchrist (again outstanding), Ruth Holton carries the honours with her alert performance of her aria from 'Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid', BWV 58, in which both she and Bach respond observantly to the mixture of pain and comfort in the text.

All in all, two more wonderful releases from perhaps the most impressive recording project of our times.

By Dominic McHugh