Diminutive is not a word that comes to mind when Sir John Eliot Gardiner takes the stage. At 75, the British conductor and early music specialist is still tall, regal and spry. Yet his immersion in the music is so complete, once it gets underway and soloists step forward, itʼs easy to forget that the reserved figure at the podium is the one taking performers and listeners back across centuries to another world.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Petra Hajská

For Gardinerʼs appearance at Prague Spring Festival this year with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, that world was German churches in Weimar and Leipzig in the early 1700s, where Johann Sebastian Bach composed more than 200 sacred cantatas. In 2000, Gardiner led the ensembles on a year-long “pilgrimage” through Europe and the US to perform all 198 of those that have survived. This year he is reprising that effort with a project called the Bach Cantata Ring – performances of selected cantatas on an 11-city European tour in May, at extended appearances in Leipzig, London and Paris in June, and at Festival Berlioz in August. 

Gardiner prefers an energetic version of Bach, generally up-tempo and very pronounced, to the point where it almost seems to have a downbeat. The sound is muscular, especially for liturgical music, without sacrificing any reverence or gravitas. Most impressive is the spontaneity and freshness he maintains within textbook-perfect re-creations of staid period pieces. 

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists
© Petra Hajská

The opening Wachtet! Betet! Betet! Wachtet! (BWV 70) put the spotlight immediately on the choir, which was breathtaking. The group is exceptionally sharp and in this performance offered dazzling cascades of sound with dimensions and colors that seemed well beyond what 19 voices onstage should be able to produce. And somehow the ensemble creates and carries its own acoustics; instead of a concert hall, it sounded like the choir was singing in a cathedral, with soaring high notes and a bottomless reverb in the lower register that gave the auditory illusion (and religious connotation) of a much larger space. 

The opener also introduced one of the main solo vocalists of the evening, American countertenor Reginald Mobley. One canʼt help but be struck by the contrast between his appearance – one critic noted he could be a good-sized NFL football player – and his angelic voice, which also got an extended workout in the opening piece after intermission, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81). Mobleyʼs volume and tone can occasionally be uneven, but his mastery of the material and neat fit in the overall sound reflected both the universality of the music and Gardinerʼs skill at integrating a variety of modern voices into a historical whole.

Mary Bevan
© Petra Hajská

The musicians were also riveting from the opening notes, in particular the string section, which was like King Midas – everything it touched to gold. The sound was lush and the playing polished and tight. And the soloists were superb. First violinist Kati Debretzeni wove lovely lyrical interludes in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12) and Wachtet auf, ruft unds die Stimme (BWV 140). Oboist Rachel Chaplin was so good she outshone the singers in providing eloquent accompaniment in Weinen, Klagen and Wachtet auf, which closed the concert.

The familiar strains of the chorale “Zion hört die Wächter singen” in the finale neatly encapsulated many of the strengths of the performance – a distinctive rhythm and phrasing in the music, rich, engaging vocals and a transportive effect in the spirit and grace of the conducting. Few maestros could credibly claim to be leading a pilgrimage when they go on tour. But when Gardiner brings the church cantatas to the faithful, thatʼs a perfect description. Especially for a devotee who, like Bach, happily puts himself in service to a higher power.