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It is rare for performing musicians to articulate their thoughts about music in a literary and intelligent manner, and to possess the necessary background scholarship. These qualities, together with a focused, imaginative interpretation of a particular repertoire makes this a valuable monograph. And what a repertoire! Gardiner’s Bach Pilgrimage (2000) was surely the catalyst for this book, which aims ‘to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music making.’ This, he states, ‘can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related process of composing and performing his music.’ This is a bold objective, and in fulfilling his object Gardiner has synthesized the latest research, as well as drawing on 54 advisers who (presumably) have ensured scholarly accuracy and integrity.

Gardiner begins with his own journey to become a Bach inter- preter. The author’s background as a historian and farmer is particularly valuable where he describes the political, religious, agricultural and educational contexts of 17th-century Germany. Bach’s family background, the known details of his musical education and development, and his musical-historical context are discussed – Bach’s forebears and contemporaries including Monteverdi, Schütz, Purcell, Handel, Scarlatti and Rameau. In ‘The Mechanics of Faith’, Gardiner discusses the early cantatas with reference to Lutheran theology, and in ‘The Incorrigible Cantor’ he deals with the politics and social relations with which Bach had to cope: insufficient respect, arguments over pay, and disputes of all kinds and from all stages of his career.

The focus, however, is Bach works that have poetic texts: cantatas, Passions, motets and Masses. In addition to the practical considerations of producing and performing cantatas each week in the three annual cycles, the author uses his insights and imagination to illuminate Bach’s own responses to the texts from both Lutheran and personal perspectives. These subjective insights will be better understood with access to scores or CDs; then the analytical process can be taken further – an excellent method to deepen one’s knowledge.

The writing is eloquent and articulate (with occasional colloquial lapses), and Gardiner cannot refrain from going off at extremely interesting tangents, here relegated to footnotes to avoid diffusing the main points. The quantity of references is huge, and hence a separate bibliography would have been useful; but what shines through is the inspirational enthusiasm and commitment to Bach’s music.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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