Some Thoughts on John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Series

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For more than five years I’ve been buying John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series recordings on his label, Soli Deo Gloria. After this extraordinary series of performances was made in 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded them all, released several volumes of the series, then pulled the funding. Gardiner, armed with tapes of the performances, wisely decided to found his own label to sell these discs, starting with subscription sales, then expanding to distribution around the world in record shops and via online dealers (such as Amazon).

I received the final two volumes of this series (four CDs) in the mail this morning, which close this musical adventure. (These are the last two volumes that SDG will release; it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series.) This has led me to consider this series and its importance.

I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio (recorded on this DVD), Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the previously-mentioned DVD discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

If you haven’t heard these recordings, check out any of them; check some out on Amazon.com, and you can listen to samples on the Soli Deo Gloria website. And, to get a taste of Bach’s sacred music, there’s a 22-CD box set of John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s passions, his B minor mass, and a number of cantatas, including the four discs worth of cantatas from the Pilgrimage that Deutsche Grammophon originally released (and which SDG did not release; so if you want the entire series, you need to get this box in addition to the SDG recordings.)

Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for your amazing tour and its recordings.

A slightly different version of this article was published on MusicWeb International.

Update: The last two volumes of the series include a printed list of the cantatas by album and number. You can get a PDF file of that listing here.

And here’s a recent interview with John Eliot Gardiner about the cantata pilgrimage.

Update, August, 2013: There will be a box set of all the cantatas, including the four DG discs, in October, 2013.

New Big Box Set of Bernstein Symphonies

There’s no details yet on the Amazon page listing this box set, but it contains 60 CDs of symphonies recorded by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic from Sony. My guess is that it includes the recently remastered Mahler recordings from the 1960s, along with many other key Bernstein recordings. At less than $100, this is a no-brainer. I’ll be getting this no matter what it contains, because there was so much great music that Bernstein recorded with the NYPO.

It’s getting to be the Christmas season, so all the labels will be releasing big box sets at low prices like this one to tempt music lovers. I’m looking forward to this year’s selection, as every year I generally find one or two that are worth getting.

Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”

While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.

The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.

Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.

Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.

Essential Music: Morton Feldman

Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.

Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)

And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…

There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.

Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.

Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | iTunes

About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)