Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall, reviewed by The Guardian
The Guardian, by George Hall, 02 Apr 2013

Touching the sublime … John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall, London. 

John Eliot Gardiner's devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bachhas been extraordinary; Easter Monday's lengthy Bach Marathon was partly devised to mark the conductor's 70th birthday later this month. The whole event lasted close to nine hours, with three concerts, live discussions, appearances by leading instrumentalists in major solo works, and a couple of half-hour breaks.

No single day of programming, however extensive, can do more than sample Bach's vast output, and with Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir as well as his English Baroque Soloists providing the backbone, there was a distinct focus on choral works. A virtuoso performance of the double-choir motet Singet dem Herrn got the event off to an exciting start, followed by Alban Gerhardt's characterful account of the Sixth Cello Suite. Then came one of the day's highlights: pianist Joanna MacGregor's exceptional interpretation of the Goldberg Variations. With her tone as poised as it was subtly refined, she explored the many planes on which Bach's structure operates, highlighting its protean variety of texture in a performance that touched the sublime.

The second concert began with participation, as Howard Moody rehearsed the audience in the chorale that ends the cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden. Gardiner eventually took over, leading the subsequent performance which ended with the public emulating the church congregation of Bach's day by joining the professional musicians in the final hymn. More solo interventions followed from violinist Viktoria Mullova in her clean-edged account of the Second Partita, which culminates in the famous large-scale chaconne, and Bach specialist John Butt offering a clutch of organ pieces that sounded unusually grand on the Royal Albert Hall's vast instrument.

The final concert comprised one of Bach's largest and most comprehensive creations: the Mass in B minor. Largely compiled from earlier works, the Mass itself is mysterious in origin; no performance is known to have taken place in the composer's lifetime, and he may have intended it as a summation for posterity of his compositional skills. At any rate, its magnificence registered fully in Gardiner's measured, purposeful interpretation, carried off with a combination of strength and delicacy by his regular forces. The young soloists, all – with the exception of sopranoHannah Morrison – drawn from the choir, were uniformly excellent. Throughout the day, Gardiner and his expert guests – including such notables as jazz musician Julian Joseph, writer Paul Elie, psychologistTamar Pincus and philosopher Raymond Tallis – furnished stimulating commentary.

Read on Guardian website.