Thursday, March 24, 2005

Soli Deo Gloria

Photograph by Steve McCurry; he provides the cover images for John Eliot Gardiner's cycle of Bach cantatas described in this post, open this link to see more images by this superb photographer.
Musician owned record labels have already been the subject of postings on On An Overgrown Path, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' MaxOpus, Michael Nyman with MN Records, The Sixteens' Corro label, the Brodsky Quartet, and even as I type this the London Philharmonic Orchestra announce the launch of their own label. But the acid test for any recording project is whether the artists have anything important to say. With his latest recording venture John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque soloists with distinguished soloists pass that test with flying colours (this choir also brought us the superb Santiago a Cappella disc mentioned in my Pilgrimage post).

The project started with the Bach Pilgrimage. This performed and recorded all Bach's surviving church cantatas on the appropriate feast day in a single year starting in Weimar on Christmas Day in 1999, and travelling to a different venue for each group of performances. The logistics of the project were mind-boggling, with 198 cantatas to perform in various locations throughout the year. Underpinning the project was a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, then owned by Canadian drinks conglomerate Seagrams, to record and issue all the cantatas on CD.
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But with the pilgrimage successfully completed, and with all the cantatas on tape, came the sting. With just a handful of releases on the shelves DG pulled the plug on the project. The main reason given was too many rival versions in an already crowded market (including one from the innovative super-budget label Brilliant Classics). But DG clearly also had their eyes focussed on loftier artistic projects such as their 2000 release of guitarist Goran Sollscher playing arrangements of the Beatles music, plus an inexorable orchestral piece by their producer George Martin (interesting URL in that link - http://www.sirgeorgemartin.com/ - gives a whole new meaning to the word surtitles!)

In a classic knights move John Eliot Gardiner turned obstacle to advantage, and created his own record label to release the cantatas. And in a brilliant piece of nose-thumbing at DG the new label is called Soli Deo Gloria, meaning to the Glory of God alone, which Bach wrote at the bottom of his manuscripts. And of course Soli Deo Gloria abbreviates to SDG. (Universal Music's dubious financial machinations failed to save their bottom line, as profits tumbled they were sold to the now collapsed French conglomerate Vivendi run by the financier Jean Marie Messier who eventually was taken into custody under suspicion of financial misappropriation and insider dealing, presumably he will blame it all on file sharing?) .

But SDG is not just a vehicle to market recordings that were already on the shelf. Even before hearing the music it is clear that Gardiner has created a thing of beauty. Every part of this project has been brilliantly thought through. The two mid-priced CDs that make up each release in the series are beautifully packaged in a wallet which thankfully fits into standard CD storage slots (the complete set will comprise around fifty-one CDs so storage space is a consideration!)

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The covers are graced by contemporary photographs by Steve McCurry, and there are informative notes in the form of a pilgrimage diary by Gardiner (will this journal see the light of day as a book? - I have Tallis Scholar's Director Peter Philip's book on the shelf for summer holiday reading). Even the practicalities have been thought through. It can be difficult to open the shrink-wrap on CD wallet packaging without damaging the card, SDG have thoughtfully split their shrink-wrap into to two easy-to-open sections. Card sleeves for the CDs can result in damage, but here the discs are held in place by embossed retainers.

But what about the music? The performers are, of course, of the highest order. The soloists change with location. Volume 8 which I bought features Katherine Fuge soprano, Robin Tyson alto, Mark Padmore tenor, and Thomas Guthrie bass. All the recordings are made live in concert, but are patched where necessary with takes from a complete rehearsal performance in the same venue. This allows for obvious fluffs and audience intrusions (including applause) to be edited out.

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The music making is quite superb, and the unique aural 'footprint' of each venue, and sense of spontaneity of a live performance, more than compensate for any minor compromise arising from not using a conventional studio location. The venues for Volume 8 which covers the fifteenth and sixteenth Sundays after Trinity are Unser Lieben Frauen in Bremen, and (joy of joys) Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santaigo de Compostela. The Executive Producer is Isabella de Sabata , who is John Eliot Gardiner's partner, and previously happened to be a senior executive at, you guessed it, DG.

Bach's sacred cantatas are one of the triumphs of western civiliation. John Eliot Gardiner and his collaborators have complimented them with their own masterly presentation, which puts into perspective the shabby policies of DG and their corporate peers. There has been speculation as to whether SDG will be able to complete their journey by releasing every cantata. For me completeness is a highly desirable luxury, meanwhile we should relish every issue in this remarkable series.

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