The "Bach Pilgrimage" of conductor John Eliot Gardiner, with his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, is among the most ambitious musical projects of recent decades: a concert tour devoted to Bach's complete church cantatas, 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. The funding itself was a minor miracle. His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, is the first name listed, but corporations also kicked in, and individual donors could help out with single concerts along the way. The recordings designate themselves as live; actually, they represent final dress rehearsals rather than concert performances, but they have that edge-of-the-chair quality that dress rehearsals sometimes attain, and they're not marred by coughs, creaking pews, and doors opening and closing.
The performances are, furthermore, not perfect. In this two-disc set of Epiphany cantatas, rounded out by the motet Jesu, meine Freude, soprano Joanne Lunn is severely challenged by the devilish (sorry, JSB, but that's the right word) quick-triplet mode mixtures in the "Wirf, mein Herze" aria in the Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?, BWV 155 (CD 1, track 4). Gardiner's overall treatment of the cantatas is quiet and reverential, and he can go to extremes in pursuit of this ideal; the bass aria "Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen" (Groaning and pitiable weeping) in the cantata Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13 (My sighs, my tears) is taken at a grindingly slow tempo and extended to a 10-and-a-half-minute length. Gardiner justifies this decision with reference to symbols of the Cross he finds in the score -- always a risky business.
Any complaints one might have, however, are swept aside by the great virtue of these performances -- the intensity of the performers' response to the texts. Gardiner seems to put himself in Bach's shoes as Bach sought to find individual meaning in well-worn Lutheran texts. His observations, expressed in a sort of road diary that serves as booklet notes, are acute, and people will be reading them a century hence to find out what Bach meant to listeners of the early twenty-first century. (They're admirably personal and colloquial -- if you've ever wondered how to say "hair shirt" in German, you can find out from the booklet here.) What's really remarkable, however, is the way Gardiner has involved his performers in his creative response to the texts. The performance of Jesu, meine Freude at the end of disc 2 is one of the very best ever recorded, with absolute conviction from the Monteverdi Choir in singing lines like "Lass den Satan wittern" (Let Satan storm). Those who approach Bach's cantatas from a specifically religious perspective may well find these performances definitive, and they are, from any perspective at all, documents of extraordinary commitment and musical enthusiasm.