The "Bach Pilgrimage" of conductor John Eliot Gardiner, with his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, was among a most ambitious musical project: a concert tour devoted to Bach's complete church cantatas, played on historical instruments, matched to the liturgical year in something like real time, and passing through the cities where Bach lived and worked but also stopping in churches in other countries. This recording of Christmas cantatas was made at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York at the end of the precisionists' millennium (in late December 2000). The recordings are designated as live; they actually represent final dress rehearsals rather than concert performances (no coughing this way), but they do have the feel of performances in a live setting.
The cover art of this album is striking: a picture of a baby with a dirt-streaked face, wrapped in a tattered blanket over a wool cap. The photo comes from Tibet; the baby is the child of nomadic farmers. The image nicely encapsulates the virtues of Gardiner's entire series, which is second to none in immediacy of impact and engagement with Bach's reaction to the texts. A standout here is Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57 (Blessed is the man), one of those Bach soprano-bass duets representing a dialogue between the soul (the soprano) and Jesus Christ (the bass). The soloists on Gardiner's set are generally not powerhouse singers like those on some of the competing sets, but he often elicits uncannily deep performances from them. Sample the arias by soprano Joanne Lunn in this cantata (track 16, for example). The language is purely operatic: "I would desire to die, to die, if Thou, my Jesus, didst not love me. Yea, if thou wert still to sadden me, I would suffer more than the pain of hell." (The translations here, and elsewhere in Gardiner's series, are annoyingly archaic and really at odds with the aims of the whole project; the German language of Bach's Lutheranism was meant to address congregations in a direct, personal way, not to cow them with archaisms.) But Gardiner and Lunn craft a form of address that is passionate without being operatic. As she answers Jesus' sober pronouncements, a performance of exceptional delicacy and power unfolds. The other cantatas are equally distinctive, and, as Gardiner points out in his wonderfully personal and always readable notes, "Bach has many ways of celebrating the Christmas season in music." The opening Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, BWV 64 (See what kind of love the Father has shown us), is triumphalist and dense, with a splendidly transparent performance of the thorny opening chorus; Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kommt, BWV 151 (Sweet consolation, my Jesus comes), is quietly pastoral; Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133 (I rejoice in you), is joyful and sunny. This collection of Christmas cantatas makes a fine capstone for a collection of any size of Gardiner's remarkable recordings.