For a few years now I have from time to time recommended John Eliot Gardiner's recordings of the complete Bach cantatas on the "Soli Deo Gloria" label. Besides the fact that these are superb recordings, they are further enhanced by Gardiner's insightful notes, and helpfully grouped according to the liturgical seasons and feasts.I consider Alex Ross the best music critic writing today; and in the current New Yorker he celebrates Gardiner's achievement. He writes:
More than half of the sacred cantatas were written between 1723 and 1726, when Bach was in the early years of his long, and often unrewarding, appointment as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig. For extended stretches of the liturgical year, he produced one cantata a week, and for the most part he refused to take the easy path of reworking older pieces, whether his own or others. Instead, in what seems a kind of creative rage, he experimented with every aspect of the cantata form, which traditionally served as a musical meditation on the Scriptural readings of the week. There are intimidating fugal choruses, sublimely extended operatic arias, frenzied instrumental interludes, weird chords galore, episodes of almost irreverent dancing merriment. To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bachs imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.
The almost operatic quality of these narratives is heightened by the changing moods of the liturgical year. The pivotal moment comes at Eastertime (Volume 22), where the sepulchral chants of Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the bonds of death) give way to the brassy shouts of Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices). Among many brilliant efforts by the Monteverdi Choir, the rendition of Christ lag stands out: Gardiner has his singers intone the solo lines in unison, each syllable chillingly precise. This release and the preceding one, Volume 21, make for an excellent introduction to the series.
I've been playing and re-playing volume 21 (Cantatas for Quinquagesima and for the Annunciation) -- since there was no music performed during Lent in Leipzig. But I'm already anticipating "Christ lag" which I traditionally play on Holy Saturday before the Vigil Mass.The rest of Ross's article, "The Book of Bach," is here.