Bach Marathon, Royal Albert Hall, London


In the Easter splurge of Bach, John Eliot Gardiner’s ‘marathon’ was always going to stand out, and it marked the culmination of a lifelong crusade.

Gardiner’s Cantata Pilgrimage has this week been released in its entirety on his SDG label (Soli Deo Gloria, affectionately known as ‘Sod DG’ in honour of his dumping by Deutsche Grammophon). Meanwhile BBC2 has broadcast his documentary on Bach, in which the cruel dislocations of the composer’s childhood were plausibly shown to have stimulated his genius, if also to have induced mild paranoia. Now came a nine-hour sequence of performances plus a plethora of panel discussions.

Despite the host-venue’s palpable reluctance to make its audience welcome, and despite the exiguousness of the printed programme, things started strongly with the motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’ in which twin choirs pinged jubilantly off each other under Gardiner’s light and springy beat.

The antiphony was delicately pointed, the melody lovingly sculpted. Next came the German cellist Alban Gerhardt with Bach’s sixth suite, and I have never heard that work played with such relaxed expressiveness, nor in such exquisite pastel shades. The spell was broken, however, by Joanna MacGregor’s dismal account of the Goldberg Variations. It’s quite an achievement to make Bach sound mimsy, but that’s what she did, with the muscularity blurred, no contrapuntal excitement, and a sound too weedy to reach the gods.

There were no such problems with violinist Viktoria Mullova’s graceful performance of Bach’s second Partita, nor with John Butt’s organ recital - beginning with the ‘Fantasia and Fugue in G minor’ – which brilliantly showcased Bach’s genius with that instrument.

The discussions didn’t get anywhere much, but since we also had Gardiner and his superb Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists that didn’t matter. After a further Cantata – for which we were all roped in to sing the final verse – the day climaxed with an unforgettable performance of Bach’s crowning masterpiece, the Mass in B minor. Three soloists shone – Meg Bragle, Esther Brazil, and Nick Pritchard – but the glory of this performance lay in the magic Gardiner created with his strikingly youthful ensemble, delineating with Olympian authority the work’s majestic symmetries and mighty coups de theatre.

The ‘Crucifixus’ was sung as though in a state of shock; the urgent ‘Confiteor’ dissolved into suspended animation before the liberating explosion of the Resurrection, followed by a ‘Sanctus’ fuelled by titanic force; the ‘Agnus Dei’ melted the heart.