Sir John Eliot Gardiner could easily divide his professional career into "before BCP" and after "BCP." At the close of the 20th Century, Gardiner began the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with the bulk of the project taking place throughout the millennial year 2000. With his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner performed and recorded all of Bach's surviving church cantatas over the course of the year, in proper liturgical order and at the same time marking the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. These recordings were made live in churches throughout Europe and even in the same churches where Bach had served.
This pilgrimage served to reinvigorate Gardiner, who had spearheaded much of the period instrument performance movement in the 1980s, 90s and '00s. His performances and recordings, Bach and otherwise, since have been intensely informed by the project. Gardiner's 2012 Carnegie Hall recital rendered revelatory performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies
twenty years after his landmark cycle (including the Missa Solemnis
) was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon's Archiv Produktion imprint.
This live Beethoven was closely followed by Gardiner's reassessment of Bach's Motets
. In 1993, Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir released Bach's Motets, BWV 225-231 coupled with Cantatas BWV 50 and 118, originally recorded in 1980. Gardiner included BWV 231 "Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren" and the unclassified "Der Gerechte kommt um" as completed motets with this set. Since that time, BWV 231 has been identified as part of an incomplete cantata or motet by Telemann while "Der Gerechte kommt um" continues to be argued about. On this present recording, the conductor sticks to BWV 225-230 with the addition of "Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn!" BWV Anh.III 159 closing the disc.
A main effect that Gardiner's BCP has had on the Motets is to open them up dramatically. Gardiner, like Bach, was first a singer and with that as a perspective, he want to make the music sing. With the same zeal he dismantles our conception of Bach in his recent biography of the composer Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven
(Knopf, 2013), Gardiner returns to the Motets to liberate them from the pedantic and overly reverent treatment they have been subjected to in recent years. Gardiner tries to capture Bach's reverence to dance as illustrated in the latter's keyboard compositions. "Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden" is a kinetic marvel of movement while "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf" modulates between gavotte and cantata-like worship.
Much has been made of Gardiner's dry tone on these recordings, a tone not readily detected. There is certainly little or no humidity here, only warmth and gladness. Gardiner's post-BCP recordings are proving to be justified reassessments of a repertoire already well explored by Gardiner and his fine band.