John Eliot Gardiner's own notes for this concert centring on Bach's motets reminded listeners that elements of a "danced religion" find their way even into these complex pieces. They are believed to have originated in funeral services – though only one of the series can be definitely attached to a specific occasion; Der Geist Hilft Unser Schwachheit Auf was written for a memorial service in honour of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, rector of the school attached to St Thomas Church in Leipzig, in 1729.
That connection was evident, too, in Gardiner's performances, which maintained a lightness of touch and consistent momentum throughout works that are essentially serious and occasionally severe, while elsewhere encompassing spiritual joy and consolation. Virtuosic both compositionally and in the demands they make on performers – the Monteverdi Choir was on supreme form – this sequence comprises a compendium of technical skills that display Bach's astonishing range.
Admittedly, hearing the six works in one evening provided a dense experience for listeners, too, though the concentration required of the performers made this an extraordinary feat of musicianship; that it was carried off with such subtlety and apparent ease made it all the more remarkable.
The motets were interspersed by three individual items from Heinrich Biber's set of Mystery Sonatas – again contemplative but virtuosic works assembled for a religious confraternity in Salzburg some time in the 1670s. Violinist Kati Debretzeni made expressive highlights of sonatas representing the annunciation and the crucifixion, plus the final Passacaglia, which she played walking slowly around the church before reaching the stage for the transcendent last bars.
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