Also on that disc is BWV 199, written while Bach was still in Weimar. Its final item is an immensely cheerful gigue (the word derives from the English “jig”). All the cantatas on this disc were recorded live in St. David’s Cathedral in Wales, UK.
Another CD I greatly enjoyed contains cantatas 63, 64, 121 and 133, all composed for Christmas.
Number 63 is especially attractive — Gardiner calls it “exceptional in every sense.” It has a particularly bright, cheerful opening, appropriate for Christmas. But it’s also a highly original work — there are no angels, no shepherds, no lullaby and no traditional Christmas carol or chorale.
It so happens there’s a video of Gardiner rehearsing this cantata on YouTube. It lasts an hour and contains many fascinating comments, by Gardiner and by some of his performers, including the observation that boys’ voices broke later in 18th century Germany than they do today. No women sang in churches in Bach’s day, but Gardiner, though usually regarded as a specialist in “authentic” period performances, uses them in all his recordings, both on the Pilgrimage CDs and on Archiv.
Last October Gardiner published a book on Bach, no doubt timed to coincide with the issuing of his boxed set. It’s called Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (published in the UK by Allen Lane) and will be reviewed in Taipei Times shortly.
A friend, very well-informed musically, recently offered the opinion that Bach’s sacred cantatas collectively represented some of the greatest music ever written. I have to admit I was dubious. If this was the case, why weren’t there dozens of recordings of them, and from all the greatest conductors? (There are currently four high-profile complete recordings, Helmuth Rilling’s with German forces, Masaaki Suzuki’s with Japanese ones, Ton Koopman’s with Dutch ones, and Gardiner’s).
What can be said, though, is that Bach is among the very greatest of Western composers, and that his ecclesiastical cantatas represent a major part of his quite extraordinary achievement.