I confess I can hardly keep up with the activities of Soli Deo Gloria. The independent record label was set up by Sir John Eliot Gardiner as a way of releasing the recordings made during his 'Bach Cantata Pilgrimage' during the year 2000 after the project was dropped by Gardiner's commercial label, Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv.
It's turned out to be a blessing, because what Gardiner and his team have done far exceeds the average DG release in terms of presentation: the CDs come in an elegant and stylish 'hardback book' format, containing full texts, translations, and – best of all – a detailed exegesis by Gardiner of the works being performed in each set. Indeed, I only hope that these are published separately as a book, since they're evidently a kind of 'journal' and would be an excellent source of information for students, scholars and performers alike.
But what's truly extraordinary is that SDG has now branched out from the cantata series and now provides an outlet for the other activities of Gardiner's ensembles, The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. In so doing, the label has become a serious contender on the recording market, and one only hopes that the trend continues.
First up this month, and my personal favourite of the group, is a two-CD set containing the six Brandenburg Concertos. In his article, Gardiner refers to the fact that the concertos were written during a particularly happy period of Bach's life – when he was 'surrounded by hand-picked virtuoso musicians with whom he could engage and experiment more or less at will, under the benign eye of Prince Leopold, a thoroughly decent and genuinely music-loving patron' – going on to relate this to the joy apparent in all six of the works. The gesture and mood of the dance, Gardiner tells us, are central to the structure and Affekt of these pieces, and since he sees the ripieno-concertino groupings as an extension of this, his role in these performances/recordings is as director and advisor, rather than conductor. It's left to the outstanding English Baroque Soloists and their inspirational leader, Kati Debretzeni, to find their way by themselves, and discover, in the words of Johann Quantz (Bach's contemporary), 'how to judge which is the feeling behind each idea, and to govern his expression accordingly.'
All six of the concertos are truly splendidly performed, yet I was especially intrigued by the rendition of the Fourth in G major, BWV 1049. What surprised me was the spikiness of texture that Gardiner and his team opt for, such as in the opening bars where smoothness and richness of sound are negated in favour of reproducing the intimacy and individuality of each instrument's timbre. Also excellent is the sensitivity with which the players negotiate some of Bach's unusual instrumental pairings – for instance, the trumpet and the recorder in Concerto No.2 – and it's fascinating to see how the ensemble enact Gardiner's interpretation of Concerto No 1, where he perceives a 'court-versus-country battle for supremacy' between the horns on the one hand and the oboes and strings on the other. This highly recommended release – Gardiner's first recording of the Brandenburgs, incidentally – is also enhanced by short essays by six of the key instrumentalists, who explain the challenges of performing the concertos.
Another of Gardiner's recent projects involves the juxtaposition of Brahms' four symphonies against choral music written by both Brahms and the composers who inspired him. In particular, Gardiner's focus is on the 'vocality' of these symphonies, and he traces different figments of his interpretation in the vocal works of Brahms and his predecessors. The project was done in two instalments, and the first part of the second instalment has now been released in the form of the Third Symphony, which is pitted against six of Brahms' choral pieces. Even before it comes down to interpretation, Gardiner's Brahms automatically stands out by virtue of using period instruments and techniques. The textures and timbres are consequently very distinctive, for instance in the mellifluous, poetical second movement in which the woodwinds stand out – in the best sense – rather than all blending together.
This is the respect in which Gardiner's theory about Brahms' 'vocal' approach to symphonic composition is particularly persuasive. The dynamic contrasts created during the opening of the third movement are as pronounced as in any recording of this work I can think of, and it's striking that the outer movements are both more passionate and dramatic than in Simon Rattle's high-profile new recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. I must say, overall, that I'm not entirely certain that placing a big symphony in the middle of a CD of smaller vocal works is entirely user-friendly – the Monteverdi Choir's performances of items such as 'Nänie' and 'Gesang der Parzen' are exquisite, but I'd think that most listeners would prefer to have the symphony at the start or end – and for that reason I can imagine the four symphonies being packaged together in the future without the choral items. But to be frank, the future is too long to wait: this is another high-quality release from the label.
Finally, the Cantata Pilgrimage continues with the release of Volume No. 9: Lund and Leipzig. This set covers the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Sundays after Trinity, and as usual each CD contains around seventy minutes of near-impeccable performances from both choir and orchestra. For my money, the actual compositions for these Sundays don't quite match up to the very best of previous releases, but given the completist ambitions of the series that's beside the point. Amongst the fine line-up of singers, Mark Padmore's tenor soloist is notable in the two cantatas, BWV 148 and BWV 114. And as if all that weren't enough, the label has released a compilation album entitled Eternal Fire, which contains fourteen choruses from previous releases and is the ideal Christmas present. Still, I know I'd most love to have the Brandenburgs in my Christmas stocking.
All SDG's new releases are available now, with more information on their website.
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