The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was an incredibly ambitious project undertaken in 2000 in which John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, performed and recorded all of J.S. Bach's cantatas in a variety of European churches on the liturgical feast days for which they were composed. The results were released on the label Soli Deo Gloria in 27 sets, and this album, Eternal Fire, includes 14 choruses from the cantatas. The technical and musical assurance of these performances comes as no surprise given the track record of Gardiner and these stellar groups. It would be easy to imagine, though, that in such an intensely packed schedule of recordings, the performers might not have the luxury of time, much less stamina, to fully exploit the individuality of each of the cantatas. The care that they give to these choruses is remarkable, both as a demonstration of their discipline and of the imaginative thinking that went into their distinctive and varied interpretations. Gardiner is a master of lovingly attending to the smallest details of phrasing, as well as giving meaningful shape to the choruses, which are often formally complex, with subtly complicated emotional content. The clear expression of that emotional content is central to his approach, and his success at communicating it is a key element in making these performances stand out. An example is the way the chorus spits out the phrase, "the ancient wicked foe," from Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, which is attention-grabbing in its vehemence, as is appropriate for the meaning, but which doesn't sound overdone or unmusical. The performances are full of countless little felicities that are musically delightful and disarmingly direct in their emotional honesty. The recordings, though made in a variety of settings, are consistently excellent in their clarity and presence. The CD should be of strong interest to any fan of choral singing, or of this repertoire, and ought to whet the listener's appetite for looking into the complete performance of the cantatas.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins