What is it about volume 26 of John Eliot Gardiner's cycle of the complete Bach cantatas that makes it special? Is it the works? All seven cantatas on this two-disc set have their individual beauties, but the last -- Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174 -- starts with a magnificent Sinfonia based on the opening movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, only with oboes, horns, and organ, and thus has the added benefit of instant recognition. Is it the performances? As always, Gardiner obtains a bright tone and a robust performance from the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, an approach that brings out the best in these seven mostly celebratory works.
Or is it the sometimes out-of-tune singing and the occasionally out-of-tune playing? Most of the soloists are fine -- particularly cheerful soprano Lisa Larsson and chesty alto Nathalie Stutzmann -- and some are excellent -- especially soulful tenor Christoph Genz -- but they, along with the choir, do sometimes slip out of tune. And while most of the playing is first rate -- check out the clarity of the strings and the taste of the continuo -- there are moments when the strings or the winds slid out of tune. Still, since these are all live performances recorded with amazing clarity and presence at Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford in June 2000, these flaws are fairly insignificant compared with the performances' many strengths, and anyone who has enjoyed Gardiner's joyful and direct approach to Bach's cantatas will surely enjoy volume 26.