THE TRANSITION FROM the year of our lord 999 to the year of our lord 1000 was marked by outbreaks of collective psychosis all across

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Bach to the future

Twelve releases in 12 months honor the late, great composer—with mixed results.

THE TRANSITION FROM the year of our lord 999 to the year of our lord 1000 was marked by outbreaks of collective psychosis all across Christian Europe. By contrast, the most recent turnover of the millennial odometer passed without serious disruption. But to judge from this recording under consideration, all the evidence isn't in yet.

Bach: Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv)

John Eliot Gardiner is a highly respected musician with a large body of first-rate recordings to his credit. It is understandable that he, like many other specialists in the music of the baroque era, would choose to signalize this year's 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death with a special project of some kind. Harder to understand is why he has decided to do so by embarking on a strenuous and risky musical stunt— performing every one of Bach's 200-plus surviving sacred cantatas in a single year, all on the Sundays for which they were composed to be performed, in more than four dozen churches scattered across Europe.

Bach, a notorious workaholic, gave himself a full week to prepare his musicians and choir for each Sunday's single cantata performance and composed his gargantuan output off and on over more than 30 years. Working four times as hard as he did, risking physical and interpretive exhaustion in the process, seems a curious way of paying tribute to an idol. Committing oneself to recording the results for posterity may be deliberate courtship of disaster.

The first of 12 planned monthly releases celebrating Gardiner's "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage" came out in March and was well up to Gardiner's accustomed polished standard. But it was recorded in late 1999, well before the marathon began (at Christmas, in Weimar's Herderkirche, with eight cantatas performed over five days). April's issue, also first-rate, was actually a re-release of material originally recorded over a decade ago.

BUT ON THIS occasion, for the May release, the third time was emphatically not a charm. This release presents the result of two January performances in Milan's Chiesa di San Marco of four brief works created for the chilly third Sunday after Epiphany. It is an unmitigated disaster: one of the worst majorlabel releases I can recall ever hearing. The sound is awful, both stuffy and cavernous, and grievously out of balance. Gardiner's tempi are recklessly fast, but it is doubtful whether his soloists, particularly his hapless tenor, could have done justice to their complex material at a more reasonable pace.

The chorus—the admirable Monteverdi Choir, which has turned in wonderful performances for Gardiner over the years—sounds harried and ragged. The texts of all four works deal with imagery of pain, death, and submission to the will of God, but you'd never know it from the generic-bouncy-baroque readings Gardiner & Co. give them. Without the eminent names on the front of the package, one would be likely to categorize this recording as the vanity project of a devout but overambitious amateur ensemble.

After rehearsing and performing 13 cantatas in a 10-day period, the performers have allowed themselves more recovery time between live recordings. The August package of music in honor of the Virgin Mary and next year's round of Trinity cantatas may well achieve a higher standard, comparable to the studio and re-release recording that make up the remainder of the series. But a single disc like this one dims the luster of the whole.

 
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