Writing a positive review is not an easy task. When confronted with something lacking error, a review can go one of two ways: a brief and simple praise of all involved and a summary of the evening, or an over-the-top full-blown confession of awe and admiration. Spoiler alert: this review is the latter. To be lost for words is traditionally taken as a positive sign; yet when one’s duty is to summarise the event that knocked you for six, this lack of words proves rather problematic. Nonetheless, here goes…

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sheila Rock / Decca
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sheila Rock / Decca

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s latest musical project, the Paris “Bach Marathon”, has him conducting a number of key works from the composer’s repertoire including the Violin Concerto BWV 1041, the Sonata for two violins and basso continuo BWV 1037, the Concerto for two violins BWV 1043, and several of the composer’s magnificent cantatas. Whilst such a programme may be stretched over several days for any normal conductor, it is clear that Gardiner is no normal conductor: this was simply day one of the two-day Bach marathon, thus proving that Gardiner is fuelled by more than simply a big breakfast, but rather a soul-deep passion for the beloved German master. Gardiner himself admitted that his “desert island disc” would be the incomparable B minor Mass, to which we were treated today. One of Bach’s final works before his death in 1750, the B minor Mass is also a work that spans much of Bach’s musical life: several of the work’s movements are drawn from earlier works in Bach’s career, the earliest being a cantata chorus from 1714. It is therefore an integral element of Bach’s musical output, and certainly considered one of the greatest works of the 18th century, if not of all time. At the helm of both the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, two of the most noteworthy pioneers of Baroque performance and created by Gardiner himself, we have here the Holy Trinity of Baroque music, performing the Holy Grail of Baroque music. I was clearly not the only one to share this excitement, as rapturous applause welcomed the musicians and Gardiner before the first note of the music had even been sounded.

The next two hours was to be one of the most humbling and inspiring musical experiences I have had the fortune of witnessing. Stood score-less in front of his orchestra and choir, Gardiner immediately summoned the music, greeting us with a powerful Kyrie. However, carefully balanced with this power was a timbral purity and overall clarity form the orchestra, and excellent diction from the choir, resulting overall in a very sharp performance. The solos throughout were simply exemplary of the concert’s high standards, in particular the 4-part chorus Crucifixus Etiam Pro Nobis from the Credo, whose haunting chordal progressions were made all the more sublime by the choral phrasings rising ever so smoothly from nothing. After a glorious final Agnus Dei, the standing ovations essentially summed up the audience’s enthusiasm: as Sir Gardiner walked off, calm and collected and seemingly less out of breath than the rest of us in the audience, we were left to reflect on what we had just experienced.

Such an experience has forced me to ask myself just exactly why Sir John Eliot Gardiner is well and truly in a class of his own. I do not claim to have the one and only answer, but I certainly believe I have answered the question with regards to my own opinion. The truly masterful approach and conception by Gardiner when it comes to interpretation and conducting is, for me, where he makes his mark. He is able to craft with ease, through his orchestra and choir, the overarching narrative of Bach’s B minor Mass, nuanced perfectly and not forcing the emotions of the words onto its audience but instead inviting us to feel the weight of the words and the pure yet beautifully complex musical counterpoint. He is able to do this, whilst also extracting the most minute of musical details from his musicians, displaying an almost obsessive nature over each note, each chord, each phrasing, until we are left with a perfectly weighted musical sentence, with each voice cared for by the talented musicians at his service. Overall, it is simply clear to me that Gardiner is able to bring a perfect mix of grand conducting, focused on orchestral and choral forces, all whilst bearing in mind those little details that, in the long run, can make or break a performance; they say that the devil is in the details, but with Gardiner as our shepherd, these devils are banished.

*****