John Eliot Gardiner has a long history with Bach, which has ultimately developed into his famous Cantata Pilgrimage, a marathon of non-stop performances all over Europe (and one concert in New York) following the liturgical calendar, his break-up with Deutsche Grammophon and the lauching of Soli Deo Gloria, a concert production venture plus label. The dramatic, vivid approach to the cantatas has won him a reputation as a Bach specialist (although some traditionalist and also some historically-informed-practice-radicals may disagree with his middle-of-the-way style) also in Germany, where he is a regular guest in Bach festivals. For my part, although I acknowledge some of the critiques, I cannot resist his dramatic approach, in which one can really feel his love for this music. That is also why I could not miss one of his rare appearances in Berlin, in a program of advent cantatas.
First of all, Gardiner’s excellence as a chorus master is beyond dispute. His Monteverdi Choir is simply one of the best in this repertoire (and in some others). Their clarity of enunciation, their precise articulation, homogeneity of tone and engagement are probably the main feature in Gardiner’s performance. For this concert, the English conductor decided not to invite soloists and use his own choristers for the solo numbers. Although this decision has given the performance a rare sense of unity and also a quite touching sense of congregation, the fact is that adaptations had to be made to accommodate these singers. If you compare this evening’s rendition of these arias to those in his old DG CD (with Nancy Argenta, Petra Lang, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Olaf Bär), one will realize how more flowing his beat was and how more spontaneous the general impression. That said, Esther Brazil, besides a charming surname, has also a truly lovely voice and, if her low notes were more strongly supported, she could make a regular career as a Bach soloist, and Peter Davoren’s particularly smooth tenor shows promise.
The English Baroque Soloists has a warm and pleasant sound and, even if there was the occasional bumpy moment, these musicians are all of them in the same wavelength. Neil Brough’s polished playing of the valveless trumpet and Michael Niesemann’s incisive and expressive oboe deserve particular mention. He was joined by Kati Debtrezni, the orchestra’s “spalla” in animated account of the “reconstructed” Concerto for oboe and violin BWV 1060. It is only a pity that the concert had not been given in the Kammermusiksaal, where the orchestra would have had a fuller sound and the oboe a richer sonority.
Cantata BWV 61 had a specially heartfelt moment in the recitative Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür, where the bass soloist sang it in such soft pianissimo and the accompaniment had such a sense of suspense that one could feel as if a voice from above has been calling you back there in your seat. The chorus showed real theatrical verve in the Zwing die Saiten chorus from cantata BWV 36, but I have to confess that I dislike Gardiner’s ultraslow tempo for the exquisite soprano aria Auch mit gedämpften, which sounded tentative and staid. Cantata BWV 70 had a shaky start and the demanding solo numbers found his soloists all wanting. His orchestra displayed some impressive accurate divisions in Bach’s graphic descriptions of the judgement day. As an encore, the opening number of the famous cantata BWV 140 found the orchestra a bit lacking concentration, but the marvelous Monteverdi Choir offered some chilling dynamic effects.