Sir John Eliot Gardiner talks to the Times about Ascension Cantatas

30 Mar 2012

Wanted: 2,500 Bach lovers, each with 20 quid to spare. Previous experience of philanthropy not essential. Admiration for Sir John Eliot Gardiner an advantage. Rewards: free CD, and small footnote in the history books for helping to complete one of the great recording projects.

John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach cycle finds donor

The mission was one we all thought was done and dusted. Back in 2000, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Gardiner took his superb Monteverdi Choir on a “pilgrimage” of 50 European cathedrals and abbeys, performing all 200 of Bach’s surviving cantatas. However, completists have been mortified to discover that, even with 27 double albums now available, the set has a hole. On the 2000 tour Gardiner’s musicians performed Bach’s Ascension cantatas in Salisbury Cathedral. But what the conductor’s publicist euphemistically describes as “noise issues” meant that they weren’t recorded.

Luckily, opportunity has knocked again, in the unlikely shape of the comedian Alexander Armstrong. “I had a call a few weeks ago,” Gardiner says, “and discovered that a man I’d never met was offering to recruit 2,500 music lovers to fund a new recording of the Ascension cantatas. I’m overjoyed and immensely grateful.”

Armstrong takes up the story. “I was given Gardiner’s recording of the St Matthew Passion when I was 16 or 17, and immediately hooked,” he says. “It was so different from the monumental, vibrato-laden performances I’d heard before that. And his Bach cantata series is wonderful. It just needs to be finished.”

Armstrong became involved through a series of chance connections. The vicar in his local church in Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, asked him to give a vocal recital (before Armstrong took up comedy he was a bass choral scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge). The pianist whom Armstrong asked to play was Gardiner’s niece, and it was she who alerted him to the gap in the Bach set. Armstrong hit on the currently vogueish “crowd funding” wheeze — getting a lot of people to give small amounts — as a way of paying for the recording. And it seems to have worked. “We’ve raised £10,000 in a week,” he says. “Just another £40,000 to go!”

So the Ascension cantatas will finally be recorded — fittingly on Ascension Day, May 10 — in live concerts at St Giles, Cripplegate, in London. After that, can Gardiner declare his Bach cantata set complete? “Not quite,” he grins. “I haven’t yet done the ones Bach wrote for the inauguration of various town councils. People laugh, but they contain lovely music.”

Before anything else, however, he has important business at the Royal Opera House. From Friday he will conduct a revival of Davd McVicar’s staging of Rigoletto. Although many music lovers still associate Gardiner with 18th-century music and period instruments, he now spends much of his life conducting standard orchestras in all sorts of repertoire — Baroque, Classical and Romantic. Although he has never done Rigoletto before, this will be his fourth Verdi opera.

Will it be “historically informed” — as his Bach famously is? “The Royal Opera Orchestra is what it is — a very fine modern-instrument band,” he says. “Nevertheless, the string principals have worked very hard with me to restore Verdi’s original string articulations.”

Restore them? Why doesn’t everyone do them? “Because they are so hard!” Gardiner exclaims. “And we are also using a cimbasso [a strange, angled bass trombone with valves] instead of a tuba, as Verdi specified. Amazingly, the Royal Opera House actually had one somewhere in the building. It gives a real punch to the brass passages.”

from The Times, by Richard Morrison, 30th March 2012 [abridged]