I have spent the last week trying to unravel the recording history of John Eliot Gardiner’s Cantata Pilgrimage. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.
In 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the UK Bach expert undertook to perform and record all the composer’s church cantatas on the days in the ecclesiastical calendar for which they were written, and in widely dispersed venues.
A boxed set of 56 CDs was duly issued last October. Most of them are on a label of Gardiner’s own, SDG — “Soli Deo Gloria” (“For God’s Glory Only,” which was how Bach signed off many of his manuscripts).
But there are other Bach cantata recordings, on Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label, also by Gardiner and with many of the same artists. These appear to be the residue of an earlier purported agreement between Gardiner and DGM that failed to come into complete fruition, and most of them were indeed recorded earlier than the Pilgrimage year of 2000.
Some of these Archive discs have now come into my possession. I was surprised, however, when I discovered that one of them, Archiv 463 591-2, containing cantatas 113, 179 and 199, was identical with the Cantata Pilgrimage item on SDG.
But the difficulty isn’t confined to the recording history. Bach’s own story, too, contains its own complexity.
When he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, he set to work composing a cantata a week for all the Sundays of the year. However, there are only 52 Sundays in any year, and nearly 200 church cantatas by Bach survive (some 100 more have been lost). The reality is that, firstly, Bach had written a number of cantatas in Weimar, before he got to Leipzig, and, secondly, once he had written a Leipzig cantata for each of the Sundays, he went on to compose new ones for certain Sundays when he felt the need arose.
It so happens that the standard list of Bach’s works, the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Work Catalogue), BWV for short, isn’t chronological but assembles its items according to category, and the cantatas are placed first. Thus a Bach cantata’s BWV number is conveniently identical to the number the cantata is known by (Cantata Number 36 is BWV 36, and so on).
I mention BWV 36 because it was the first of the Archiv recordings I listened to. It was a lucky choice because it’s a delightful work, written for the first Sunday in Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas and the traditional beginning of the ecclesiastical year.
If you want proof of its excellence, download track 13 of the CD on Amazon.com. On it a soprano, Nancy Argenta, sings a solo aria, Auch mit gedampften, schwachen stimmen (Also with muted, weak voices) to violin accompaniment. Gardiner has described it as “pure enchantment.” It’s almost nine minutes long, but will only cost you US$0.79.
If even that’s too much, you can hear the same item for free on YouTube, also excellently sung by the Catalan soprano Nuria Rial. If anything demonstrates Bach’s accessibility and genius it’s this aria.
Another showpiece aria is in Cantata Number 62, also written for the first Sunday of Advent. It’s for bass voice, and has a rumbustious figured accompaniment. Look that one up too online — its title is Streite, siege, starker Held! (Struggle, conquer, powerful hero!).
The CD I listened to that’s identical with Gardiner’s Pilgrimage performance is of three cantatas Bach wrote for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity. (The Sundays after Trinity fill up most of the year after Pentecost — known in the UK as Whitsun). They’re brilliant works, and here star the celebrated Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena.