Notes and Editorial Reviews
J. S. BACH The Complete Bach Edition • Various artists • TELDEC 2564 66420-2 (153 CDs: 9524:46 + 1 DVD: 59:00)
As might easily be guessed from its size, this set has been my major musical preoccupation for a span of four months—but being Bach, the time (a bit more than six and a half days total) could not possibly have been better spent. Regrettably, for reasons of space its size precludes a review of the scope it deserves; since a fully detailed discussion could easily consume a hundred pages of this magazine, I (and you) must be content with the bare essentials necessary to convey a basic idea of its contents and quality. Since many of the individual performances have been reviewed previously by other Fanfare critics, I recommend a search of the Fanfare Archive for their more detailed observations.
The set’s 153 CDs and bonus DVD are housed in an oblong cardboard box, with each CD in a separate cardboard sleeve. A 355-page booklet provides the detailed contents of each CD. The cardboard sleeves provide the titles and BWV numbers of the works on that disc; the last names only of vocal soloists, but the full names of instrumental soloists, ensembles, and conductors; the number of tracks for each composition and its total timing (but not the timings of individual tracks), and the total disc timing. (Since I had to add up all the individual CD timings myself to come up with the total timing for the entire set listed in the headnote, I will stake no claim for the perfect accuracy of that figure.)
The discs are well filled, with an average timing of a bit over 62 minutes apiece. An online index of all the compositions, listed by BWV number with title, genre, year of composition, and CD number, is available at warnerclassics.com/complete-bach-works-index. No printed texts for the vocal works are provided; the original German texts, along with English and French translations, are available online at bach-cantatas.com. (This is an independent site, not owned, maintained by, or related to Warner Classics.) There are some typographical errors on the cardboard sleeves in the set. On CD 5, which contains Cantatas 13, 14, and 16, Gustav Leonhardt is listed as conducting Cantatas 10 and 12 instead. On CD 148, it is not indicated which artists perform which works. (Gustav Leonhardt and the Leonhardt Consort perform BWV 1052, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus perform BWV 1061, 1063, and 1064.) The names of several artists are misspelled, the most glaring mistake being Leopold Stastny (a once famous soccer coach) for flutist Leopold Stasny.
The difficulty is in the definition of “complete” Bach. Each of the three putatively complete editions currently available on CD—Brilliant Classics, Hänssler, and Teldec—includes or excludes works that are fragmentary or whose authenticity is disproven or doubted (the vast majority of these being brief chorales and lesser works for organ or keyboard), with some variations between each set. (See Wikipedia for a convenient online list.) In what follows I have listed by BWV number the items included and omitted in this particular set. (Again, as I had to tabulate the omitted BWV entries manually, I will not disclaim a possibility of error here.) The cantatas are the only part of the set where the contents are provided in strict BWV number order. The remaining vocal works, along with the chamber music and orchestral works, are arranged roughly in that order with certain exceptions. By contrast, the works for organ and for keyboard are in a completely non-sequential order dictated partly by attempts to assemble the pieces by genres and partly by the decision to keep together all the recordings made by a particular artist.
The set is divided into subsections by genre, with each subsection color-coded by a bar running across the top of the cardboard sleeve. CDs 1–92 contain the vocal works, CDs 93–153 the instrumental ones. There are also about three dozen short pieces that are alternative versions of arias, chorales, or keyboard works, individual genuine movements from otherwise spurious works, etc., which (with the exception of five major choral works) I will not list individually here but can be found at the end of Teldec’s online list. These are variously designated with additional letters (for example, BWV 245a, or “R” for reconstructed work) and abbreviations (“Anh.” or “App.” for “Anhang” or “Appendix” in German and English).
CDs 1–60 (Sacred Cantatas) contain BWV 1–199, and omit 15, 53, 141, 142, 160, and 189; for 190, 191, and 193, see the next set.
CDs 61–71 (Secular Cantatas) contain 200–215, 36c, 134a, 173a, 190, 191, 193, and 207a, and omit 216–224.
CDs 72–85 (Sacred Vocal Works) contain 232–249, 243a, and omit 246 and 247.
CDs 86–92 (Motets/Chorales/Songs) contain 118, 225–231, 250–524, 691, 1084, 1089, and 1122–1126, and omit 231, 441, 442, 444, 446, 448, 450, 455–461, 463, 464, 467, 473, 474, 476, 477, 481, 485, 486, 488–491, 493, 495–497,499, 501, 503, 504, 506, 508, 509, 512, 515, 517, 519–523, 1081–1083, and 1088.
CDs 93–108 (Organ Works) include 525–771, 769a, 802–805, 957, 1085, and 1090–1120, and omit 567, 573, 574, 580, 581, 584–587, 597, 631, 634, 692, 693, 695, 710, 711, 723, 744–746, 748, 751–753, 759–762, 764, 765, 771, 1087, and 1121.
CDs 109–30 (Keyboard Works) include 772–801 and 806–994, and omit 820, 824, 834, 835, 837–840, 845, 897, 898, 905, 907–909, 919, 920, 932, 945, 956, 957, 960, 962, 969, 970, 990, and 991.
CDs 131–43 (Chamber Music) include 995–1040, 1072–1080, and 1086, and omit 1020, 1024, 1036, 1037, and 1040.
CDs 144–53 (Orchestral Works) include 1041–1071, and omit 1070 and 1071.
This brings us at last to an overview of the performances themselves. The set begins with 60 CDs of the complete sacred cantatas in the series recorded between 1971 and 1989, with duties divided between Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Concentus Musicus Wien, Chorus Viennensis, Vienna Choir Boys, and Tölz Boys’ Choir on the one hand, and Gustav Leonhardt with the Leonhardt Consort, Collegium Vocale of Ghent (under Philippe Herreweghe), Tölz Boys’ Choir, and Hannover Boys’ Choir on the other. Both teams shared the same soloists, among which three names predominate: male alto Paul Esswod, tenor Kurt Equiluz, and bass Max van Egmond. Among occasional supplemental adult soloists, the most notable names include male alto René Jacobs, tenor Marius van Altena, and bass-baritones Ruud van der Meer, Philippe Huttenlocher, Siegmund Nimsgern, Robert Holl, Thomas Hampson, and Harry van der Kamp.
With this cycle now being 23 years old, familiarity has occasionally tended to breed contempt among music critics, and it has become too easy to forget what an extraordinary and revolutionary accomplishment it was. First and foremost, it was the first absolutely complete cycle of the cantatas, a virtual Mount Everest for the recording industry to scale. Second, it was recorded entirely on period instruments, with choral and instrumental forces on the more intimate scale of those actually used by Bach instead of the much larger forces used for similarly larger modern concert halls. Third, with the exception of the mediocre Marius van Altena (no, he doesn’t get a break from me, even if we share the same surname), the adult soloists are all first-rate to superlative—for interpretive depth I unapologetically consider Equiluz to be the greatest Bach vocal soloist in recorded history—though van Egmond shows some serious vocal wear near the end of the series. Fourth, with the exceptions to be noted shortly, the choral and instrumental forces likewise make worthy contributions. Fifth and last, there is the conducting of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, stripping centuries of leaden weight and opacity off these scores to present them as lithe, buoyant, and transparent, though not without gravitas where required.
At the same time, there are also some well-known and oft-noted shortcomings. The most serious of these is the stubborn insistence to the bitter end on using boy sopranos to sing all the solo soprano arias (with the exception of BWV 51), long after their technical and interpretive inadequacies had become sorely evident—though to their immense credit, the boys often cope far better with their daunting tasks than anyone would have a right to expect. (Quite unfairly, the boy soprano soloists remain unnamed for almost the first third of the complete cycle, and then most oddly are listed only in the booklet but not on the individual CD cardboard sleeves.) For typical examples of the flaws, turn to BWV 10, 14, and 18 early on, and to BWV 192 at the end; for an impressive exception, turn to BWV 51. The results are generally disappointing, though seldom unlistenable, and no worse than any number of wobbly or screechy adult sopranos who have also recorded these works. Ironically, the one outright train wreck involves not any of the boy soloists, but the entire boy soprano section in the opening chorus to BWV 31, “Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubiliert” (“Heaven Laughs! The Earth Rejoices”), an auditory disaster that should never have been allowed to see the light of day.
Second, it is an astonishing sign of the progress of the period-instrument movement over the last 40 years that the level of instrumental playing exhibited in this cycle, particularly in the earliest entries, would no longer be acceptable among front-rank ensembles today. Right to the end, the horns and trumpets tend to fracture or lip into many of their notes, and the squawky oboist in BWV 8 and the raw, brittle trumpeter in BWV 46 would not make it to the stage of an initial audition nowadays. It is an unkind irony that these groundbreaking performances can now, by comparison with the ongoing cycles of Gardiner, Koopman, and Suzuki, seem dated in these aspects. But even if one or more of those later cycles ultimately supersedes Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, their cycle remains an indispensable historical landmark which every serious lover of Bach is obligated to hear.
The secular cantatas are drawn from a hodgepodge of sources in the Warner/Teldec archives, with recording dates ranging from 1963 to 2011. BWV 190, 191, 193, 201, 204, 207a, 210, 213–215, and 63 App. and 182 App. are performed by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, while BWV 134a and 173a feature Koopman with Concentus Musicus. BWV 209 is done by Leonhardt with his Leonhardt Consort, while in BWV 203 Leonhardt plays at the harpsichord in support of bass Jacques Villisech. BWV 205, 208, 211, and 212 have Harnoncourt with Concentus Musicus; BWV 207 is with Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln. Bringing up the rear are four oddities: the brief one-movement BWV 200 with Fritz Werner and the Southwest Chamber Orchestra of Pforzheim; BWV 36c with Peter Schreier and the Berlin Chamber Orchestra; BWV 202 with Jaap Schröder and Concerto Amsterdam; and BWV 206 with André Rieu and the Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra. (No, not the violinist of Strauss waltz fame; this is his father.) These are oddities because, apart from Missae Breves BWV 233–242, the three supplemental arias from the St. John Passion, BWV 245a-c, the BWV 118 motet, and the BWV 1001–1006 violin sonatas and partitas (all discussed further below), these four items are the only pieces in this set performed on modern rather than period instruments. (One wonders why Teldec missed the opportunity to produce an all-period instrument set. From the overall track record of parent company Warner, my guess is sheer parsimony.) The soloists throughout are generally good to excellent, though I have never liked the voices of either countertenor Michael Chance or tenor Peter Schreier (the latter sings as well as conducts in BWV 36c), and soprano Agnes Giebel is off form. The period-instrument performances are all quite fine, and Schreier is a stylish leader of his modern forces in BWV 36c. The Werner recording of BWV 200 from 1967 has an old-fashioned sweetness to it, but the 1967 recording of BWV 202 and 1963 recording of BWV 206 are rather lame. Again, one can only wonder why Warner did not license either Schreier’s recordings of those as well (discmates to his recording of BWV 36c in a Berlin Classics set), or more of Koopman’s ongoing cycle.
The collection of sacred vocal works is drawn again primarily from Harnoncourt’s recordings with Concentus Musicus—the pioneering St. Matthew Passion (1970) and Christmas Oratorio (1972), followed later by the Magnificat (1984) and his second recordings of the Mass in B Minor (1986) and the St. John Passion (1995). These are supplemented by performances (variously recorded between 1974 and 1998) of three arias from the 1725 version of the St. John Passion, with Peter Schreier conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden; the alternative version of the Magnificat, BWV 243a, with Simon Preston leading the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; the Missae Breves, BWV 233–242, with Michel Corboz conducting the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra; Psalm 51, BWV 1083, with Gunar Letzbor, the Ars Antiqua Austria, and the St. Florian Boys Choir; and the Easter Oratorio with Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. While I may court disagreement here, I for one am thankful that Teldec included Harnoncourt’s remakes of the B-Minor Mass and St. John Passion, as the singing and playing are far more polished than in the earlier versions, and Harnoncourt finally had the good sense to abandon the use of boy soprano soloists in favor of adult female sopranos fully capable of singing their parts. The St. Matthew Passion remains an impressive achievement, though again the use of boy soprano soloists remains a sore point. All the adult soloists throughout are again generally good to excellent. While none of these is a first choice any longer for a recording of these works, most hold up very well and are welcome additions to any collection; only the somewhat ragged Christmas Oratorio and the rather opaque Corboz recordings of the Missae Breves do not wear their age well and need to be supplanted.
In the “Motets, Chorales, and Songs” section, the BWV 225–230 motets are Harnoncourt’s 1980 recordings with Concentus Musicus and the Stockholm Bach Choir under Andreas Öhrwall. The BWV 253–438 chorales, supplemented by BWV 500a, 1084, 1089, and 1122–1126, feature a 1999 set with the Berlin Radio Choir under Robin Gritton. The BWV 250–252 wedding chorales likewise date from 1999, but with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra. Excerpts from the BWV 439–507 songs forming the Schmellis Gesangbuch are given by Koopman at the organ, with tenor Christoph Prégardien, bass Klaus Mertens, and cellist Jaap ter Linden, while excerpts from the BWV 508–518 songs belonging to the Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach are taken from the 1994 recording with Steven Stubbs and the Tragicomedia vocal ensemble. The BWV 118 motet recorded in 1964 features Jürgen Jürgens, Jaap Schröder, the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg, and Concerto Amsterdam, while the BWV 524 Quodlibet from 1967 has a solo quartet supported by the Leonhardt Consort. All of these are top-notch performances, though the BWV 118 on modern instruments is of a richly old-fashioned cast. Unfortunately, the potted versions of the BWV 439–507 and 508–518 give the lie to the title of The Complete Bach Edition for this set; if Warner/Teldec could license some of Ton Koopman’s newest cantata recordings from 2011 for this set, surely it also could and should have sprung for complete editions of these collections.
With CDs 93–108 we come to one of the great glories of this set: the complete organ works, in the set recorded by Ton Koopman from 1995 to 1999. Koopman’s cycle is one that elicits strong opinions pro and con, primarily because he frequently takes tempi considerably faster than those typical of most organists. For me that is absolutely welcome, as I have long lamented that performances of these pieces are generally too slow; Koopman by contrast is almost always just right for me. Allied to that are Koopman’s incredible ability to draw an astonishing array of timbres and tonal colors from the registrations and stops of the various Baroque organs at his disposal, his exceptional rhythmic vitality, and his utterly apt sense of expressive phrasing. There are a very few less than stellar entries. The Prelude and Fugue, BWV 544, is rather stiff; an otherwise terrific Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, is marred by eccentric extended trills on the sustained notes of the opening fanfare motif; the BWV 582 Passacaglia is very good but somehow does not quite build up to the mighty climax of the very greatest performances. The one outright failure is the famous Fugue in G, BWV 577, taken at an inexplicably lame tempo. But it speaks volumes for the caliber of this cycle that these are the only four works where I consider the performances to be less than superlative; for me, this is interpretively the desert-island Bach organ set. I do have two reservations: I wish Koopman had included the apocryphal BWV pieces, and that the set had arranged the works in sequential BWV order, as the typical attempts at thematic grouping of pieces pursued here (and in most other Bach organ sets) simply makes many pieces far more difficult to find. (Two cycles—by Wolfgang Stockmeier, originally issued in a 20-CD set on the Art & Music label but currently available in two 10-CD sets on the super-budget Documents label, and by Gerhard Weinberger on CPO—include all the apocryphal works, though Stockmeier lacks the Neumeister chorales, discovered after his set was made. The Stockmeier set also has all the works, with a few minor exceptions, arranged in BWV order.)
All of the pieces in the “Keyboard Works” section, BWV 772–994, are performed on the harpsichord except for BWV 952, which is played on the organ. Unlike with the organ works, the duties here are divided among several performers. (Has any single harpsichordist or pianist yet undertaken to record all of Bach’s keyboard works?) Most of these—Bob van Asperen, Olivier Baumont, Alan Curtis, Gustav Leonhardt, Scott Ross, Zuzana R?ži?ková, Andreas Staier, and Glen Wilson—will be readily familiar to Fanfare readers who are harpsichord aficionados, leaving only Michele Barchi as a relatively unknown name. Their assignments are as follows:
Curtis: English and French Suites, BWV 806–817;
Ross: Partitas, BWV 825–830; Italian Concerto, BWV 971; Overture (Partita), BWV 831;
Wilson: Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893; Aria Variata, BWV 989; 14 Canons, BWV 1087;
Van Asperen: Toccatas, BWV 910–916;
Staier: Sonatas, BWV 964–966 and 968; Fugue, BWV 954; Fantasy, BWV 918;
Leonhardt: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903; Capriccio, BWV 992; three shorter works, BWV 823, 895, and 952 (the last-named on the organ);
Baumont: Concerti after Vivaldi, BWV 972, 973, 975, 976, 978, and 980; Preludes, BWV 846a, 847a, 851a, and 855a;
Barchi: Concerti after various composers, BWV 974, 977, 979, and 981–987; miscellaneous shorter works, BWV 813a, 822, 832, 833, 836, 896, 899, 901, 902, 906, 917, 921–923, 929, 946–951, 953, 961, and 967;
R?ži?ková: Two- and Three-Part Inventions, BWV 772–801; Suites, BWV 818a, 819, and 821; miscellaneous shorter works, BWV 814a, 818, 819a, 841–844, 894, 900, 902a, 904, 924–927, 929–931, 933–944, 955, 958, 959, 963, 993, and 994.
As with the organ works, I am dissatisfied with the layout of this section of the set. Discs of major and lesser works follow one another in no discernible sequence. For some bizarre reason, the four discs featuring R?ži?ková are randomly scattered among other discs as CDs 109, 113, and 120–121, instead of being grouped together. Instead of the English and French Suites being presented as units, they are interleaved. It would have taken very little effort to come up with a far more logical and usable sequence for this section. Most of the recordings date from between 1989 and 1999; those by R?ži?ková stem from the mid 1970s, while those by Leonhardt and Curtis date back to the 1960s and 1970s. One must also again question here the set’s claim to be a “complete” Bach edition, as it does not include either the 1722 and 1725 Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach or the 1720–23 Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. One can of course argue that since most of the contents of these collections are included in other works, Teldec is justified in a decision to avoid duplication and offer only individual items from those notebooks that Bach did not use elsewhere, but I find it unfortunate and wrong-headed.
There is a certain stylistic affinity in the performances of the major works in this set, given that van Asperen, Curtis, Staier, and Wilson were all pupils of Leonhardt. All of these interpreters share a certain intellectual sobriety and restraint in style, scrupulous in the best sense of that word. That is not to say that individual personalities do not express themselves in such matters as registration and tone color. Curtis brings a deeply sonorous, weighty sound to the English and French Suites (in which, incidentally, he does not observe all the repeats). Much the same can be said of the various works performed by Staier. Van Asperen employs a somewhat more chiseled, staccato touch with emphatic accents to his traversal of the toccatas. Wilson surprised me with his resort to a more transparent, almost Italianate sound palette in the WTC than I would have expected from his modern copy of a German instrument. Leonhardt himself occupies a median position between his pupils, favoring a somewhat dry instrumental timbre, though he surprises one with the colors and sonorities he can produce from it. Not surprisingly, given his mammoth traversal of the 555 sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, Ross brings an appropriately light, graceful, Italianate touch to his performances of the partitas, Italian Concerto, and Overture. With Baumont the scale tilts back again toward the weightier, more resonant end of the instrument’s tonal spectrum. Barchi surprised me in the opposite manner of Wilson, as an Italian harpsichordist who employs an exceptionally dark, sonorous, even lush registration. The one consistent disappointment comes with R?ži?ková, whose harshly metallic, overly bright sound triggers unpleasant memories of the notorious Pleyel instruments of Wanda Landowska, and is unfortunately accentuated by close miking.
As with the sacred works, this is a situation in which, although I would not argue that any of the recordings of the major works here should be anyone’s first choice, they are mostly all very fine performances that make worthy additions to any Bach collection. (Quite surprisingly, not one of these performances has a review in the Fanfare Archive; the review of Leonhardt’s Goldberg Variations is of his earlier 1953 recording.) Briefly, I would single out all the performances by Curtis, Staier, Barchi, and Baumont as being deeply satisfying and competitive with any others in the catalog. Those by van Asperen and Scott also are gratifying, if not as immediately appealing. A step behind that is Wilson’s WTC; while many critics have praised it highly, I connect with it only intermittently and come away from it with considerable respect but not great affection. At the risk of speaking rank heresy, I have not always been very fond of Leonhardt’s solo recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, as some of them seem too stiff and self-conscious (though with other composers, such as Couperin and Frohberger, he blossomed before the microphone). In his book Inside Early Music, Bernard Sherman quoted Leonhardt as saying that in the recording studio he tried to play “neatly,” but in concert he tried to play “beautifully.” This recording of the Goldberg Variations is a case in point, being of a severely rigorous, over-analytical cast, though it seems to loosen up partway through and by its close succeeds in drawing the listener further in with an intellectually convincing if not emotionally engaging conception. On the other hand, R?ži?ková disappoints as much interpretively as she does sonically; her performances are percussive and mechanical, bulldozing their way through one piece after another with no inflection or relaxation. This is particularly unfortunate in that it is far easier to go outside a collection such as this one to find a preferred recording of a major work such as the WTC than it is to find a satisfactory collection of Bach’s minor keyboard compositions.
Good order returns to the portion of the set devoted to Bach’s chamber music, in recordings dating between 1965 and 1999, as the works are mostly presented in BWV catalog sequence. The lute works, BWV 995–1000 and 1006a, are somewhat idiosyncratically performed on a combination of lute (Luca Pianca) and harpsichord (Michele Barchi). Thanks to Barchi’s aforementioned usually dark and sonorous sound palette, the two instruments match uncommonly well, and the interpretations are delivered with an improvisatory rhythmic freedom redolent of Italian and French schools of keyboard and lute performance rather than German ones. The performances of the violin sonatas and partitas by Thomas Zehetmair (played here on a modern instrument) have their admirers, but I emphatically am not among them. For me, his performances join the keyboard performances of R?ži?ková as being among the few outright failures in this set, played with scratchy, ugly tone, less than faultless intonation, and no feeling whatsoever for what this music actually can express. One would never guess that he was a pupil of Nathan Milstein, whose immortal DG album of these works remains the imperishable standard. The cello suites with Harnoncourt were originally made for the Musical Heritage Society in 1965; I believe it was the first set to be recorded using period instruments. Alas, Harnoncourt’s great gifts as a Bach conductor do not translate here into great solo cello playing; these are earnest performances that get the job done but lack ebullience and color, and the rather arid recorded acoustic is likewise unflattering. Fortunately this, too, has a cornucopia of superior alternatives (see my review of the Gavriel Lipkind set in Fanfare 35:3 for a fuller discussion). Matters get back on track, and stay there almost until the end, with a fine set of violin sonatas, BWV 1014–1019, featuring Alice Harnoncourt on violin, husband Nikolaus on the viola da gamba, and Herbert Tachezi at the harpsichord; the violin sonatas, BWV 1019a, 1021, and 1023, with John Holloway on violin, Susan Sheppard on cello, and Davitt Moroney at the harpsichord; the BWV 1025 Trio and BWV 1206 Fugue for harpsichord and violin with Werner Ehrhardt and Gerald Hambitzer; and the gamba sonatas, BWV 1027–1029, with Harnoncourt and Herbert Tachezi. Duties in the solo flute works are divided several ways. Leopold Stasny on flute, Harnoncourt on viola da gamba, and Tachezi at the harpsichord collaborate in BWV 1030, 1032, 1034, and 1035; they are joined in BWV 1038 by Alice Harnoncourt on the violin and in BWV 1039 by Frans Brüggen on the second flute. On a second disc, BWV 1013, 1031, and 1033 enjoy the star-studded team of Jean-Pierre Rampal on flute, Jordi Savall on viola da gamba, and Robert Veyron-Lacroix on the harpsichord; Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua Köln (including Andreas Staier at the harpsichord) perform the Canons, BWV 1072–1078 and 1086; and dual harpsichordists Ton Koopman and Tini Mathot play the “Fuga a 3 Soggetti” from the The Art of Fugue. All of these performances are again quite fine, even if Stasny, Harnoncourt, and Tachezi do not quite rise to the level of transcendental beauty attained by Brooklyn Baroque on a 2009 Quill Classics release. Rounding out this section on a somewhat less successful note are renditions of A Musical Offering by Harnoncourt and members of his Concentus Musicus, and the complete The Art of Fugue with Tachezi playing the organ instead of the harpsichord. The Harnoncourt is a staid affair compared to the riches offered by either Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua Köln on DG or the Kuijken Klan (go ahead and groan) on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. For the Kunst der Fuge, the first issue is whether one has a strong preference for a performance of it on organ, harpsichord, or piano, or an arrangement for an instrumental ensemble. If one wants to hear it on the organ as done here, then Lionel Rogg on EMI is a far better choice than this overly sober affair. On harpsichord, a fine budget entry is Sébastian Guillot on Naxos, while Pierre-Laurent Aimard offers an excellent new piano rendition on DG.
The final section of this set, containing the orchestral works, rightly draws—with one glaring exception—upon classic recordings from the Teldec catalog, dating from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus perform the four orchestral suites (the later set from 1985); the violin concerti, BWV 1041–1043, 1052R, and 1056R, the Sinfonia BWV 1056R, the Violin-and-Oboe Concerto, BWV 1060R, the Oboe d’Amore Concerto, BWV 1055R, and the Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052, with violinist Alice Harnoncourt, second violinist Walter Pfeiffer (in BWV 1043), oboist Jürg Schaeftlein, and harpsichordist Herbert Tachezi as the soloists. Leonhardt and his Consort perform all the other concerti for one to four harpsichords, BWV 1053–1058, 1059R, and 1060–1065, and the Concerto for Flute, Violin, and Harpsichord, BWV 1044, with flutist Frans Brüggen and additional solo harpsichordists Anneke Uittenbosch, Alan Curtis, Eduard Müller, and Janny van Wering. Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music perform the Sinfonia, BWV 1046a, the alternative version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050a, and the Concerto for Three Violins, BWV 1064R, with violinists Christopher Hirons, Monica Huggett, and Catherine Mackintosh. The glaring—no, infuriating—exception comes with the Brandenburg Concertos, in which Teldec inexplicably—no, insanely—bypassed its two sets of Harnoncourt recordings to include instead an utterly awful version by Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico of Milan. (See the on-target review by Bernard Jacobson in 21:4, which rightly termed this “a perfectly vile release.”) Whoever at Teldec is responsible for this travesty should have his tonsils cut out. (I would like to suggest an anatomical location further south for infliction of this punishment, but decorum forbids it.)
The supplemental DVD is an hour-long program on Bach from a BBC series titled Great Composers, narrated by renowned Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh. The lowbrow level at which it is pitched can be gleaned immediately from the opening seconds, in which brief snippets of familiar masterpieces by various composers are played in souped-up pop arrangements. The talking heads include (among others) pianists András Schiff and Charles Rosen, organist Peter Hurford, organist-conductor Ton Koopman, and conductor John Eliot Gardiner. There are a few nice shots of churches, castles, and of Gardiner’s forces in studio rehearsals, but nothing much substantial or memorable. There is also the commonplace ploy of introducing the topic of religion—unavoidable in discussing Bach—only to undercut it with subsequent cavalier dismissals. (Karen Armstrong, author of numerous shallow books on religious topics, displays her usual degree of knowledge in such matters with her risible statement that Protestants seek contact with God solely through Scripture and therefore have “no sacraments.”)
Overall, then, how does this set compare with the competing complete Bach editions on Brilliant Classics and Hänssler? Quite simply, it surpasses them both, but some details are in order.
The Brilliant Classics set is, for the most part, mediocre to awful. Its newly recorded set of the sacred cantatas with a group of Dutch performers features a conductor, chorus, and instrumental ensemble that are merely adequate, and soloists who are painful examples of period-performance practice at its most provincial. The keyboard works, all performed on harpsichord, were for the most part also newly recorded with several well-known Dutch harpsichordists (excepting the French Suites with Joseph Payne, licensed from BIS), with results ranging from excellent (Payne, van Asperen in the English Suites, and Pieter-Jan Belder in the partitas and Goldberg Variations) to disappointing (Leon Berben in the Well-Tempered Clavier, who also makes numerous and inexplicably wrong-headed choices of inferior textual variants in Book 1, despite the existence of an unusually neat manuscript from Bach’s own hand). Unfortunately, some of the recordings made especially for this set (for example, the English Suites) are swamped with an overly resonant acoustic that muddies the sound and sometimes introduces electronic distortion. Most of the other performances are licensed from various other labels, with mixed results. The best item by far is the set of Bach organ works with Hans Fagius, originally issued by BIS. The remaining sacred and secular vocal works receive generally good if not outstanding readings, while the chamber and orchestral works are of uneven quality, overall acceptable but not competitive with many superior versions.
The Hänssler set is considerably better, but still not quite on the same plane as Teldec’s in the caliber of the performances. Its great strength is the complete set of sacred and secular cantatas with Helmut Rilling directing the Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium of Stuttgart. These performances are comparatively old-fashioned in that they are played on modern instruments (though to some degree observant of period practice) and feature vocal soloists (many of them leading international stars) who sing with correspondingly heavier voices also suitable for 19th-century operatic and Lieder repertoire. However, the performances are all deeply felt, and the singing and playing range from solid to superb. The various shorter sacred vocal works also receive top-notch readings that compare equally or favorably with their Teldec counterparts. Unfortunately, most of the large-scale sacred vocal works (the B-Minor Mass, the St. Matthew Passion, and the oratorios) are markedly inferior, being rather ponderous (the exception being the riveting account of the St. John Passion that remains my absolute favorite recording of the work). The organ and keyboard works are performed by a mixture of artists; in the keyboard works the Hänssler artists employ various instruments—harpsichord, clavichord, lautenwerk, and piano—rather than just harpsichord. These performances vary in quality, but in almost every case I would rate those in the Teldec set much more highly. The renditions of the chamber and orchestral works are the other Achilles heel of Hänssler, where the performances on modern instruments are uniformly heavy and stodgy in comparison with their fleet and lively period-instrument competitors on Teldec.
By way of compensation, the Hänssler set has several desirable features that the Teldec set lacks. It includes a greater number of the spurious or doubtful Bach works for organ and keyboard. If I have not misread or miscounted here, the most important differences (this is not an absolutely comprehensive cross-index) are as follows:
(1) In the vocal works, Hänssler offers the complete sacred Lieder and arias, BWV 439–518, instead of the severely potted version provided by Teldec, plus BWV 231, 1081–1083, and 1088 omitted from the Teldec set. Teldec, on the other hand, has several variant versions of choruses and arias that I do not readily find listed in the Hänssler set.
(2) In the instrumental works, Hänssler includes BWV 573, 574, 585–587, 631, 695, 711, 744, 753, 762, 764, 765, 820, 824, 837, 839, 905, 907–909, 919, 932, 957, 990, 1040, and 1121 omitted by Teldec, but omits BWV 561, 576, 598, 740, 755, 763, 844, 898, 1022, and 1059 included by Teldec. More importantly, Hänssler also offers integral sets of the 1722 and 1725 Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach and the 1720–23 Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, whereas Teldec includes only a few excerpts of items that Bach did not recycle into other collected keyboard works. Hänssler offers alternative and reconstructed versions of BWV 1046, 1052, 1053, 1055, 1056 (two different versions), 1060, 1061, and 1064, whereas Teldec omits reconstructions of BWV 1053 and 1061 and has only one reconstruction of BWV 1056.
The Hänssler set contains 172 CDs as opposed to only 153 for Teldec, though most of the difference is due to overall slower performances. Hänssler also provides a CD-ROM with the complete texts of the vocal works and extensive program notes in four languages (some 5,000 pages total, should you wish to print it all out; I wish Hänssler had thought to segregate the notes and texts for each language separately.) Teldec’s failure to include a comparable CD-ROM in its set is a real black mark against it; but Warner has already shown with its other budget CD rereleases that there is no corner it is not willing to cut to save a pfennig on production costs. Both sets sell for about $300, and either one is an absolute steal at those prices.
If you have pockets deep enough to afford both the Teldec and Hänssler sets, by all means get them—though Hänssler also sells portions of its Bach edition, such as the complete sacred and secular cantatas, in separate smaller boxed sets, and also sells most of the contents as separate one- or two-CD sets as well. However, if you can only afford one complete edition, then buy this Teldec set as the first choice, as the overall superior and consistently excellent performances ultimately trump the shortcomings in ancillary materials, and supplement it from individual Hänssler CD issues or desirable recordings on other labels. It is an inevitable, indeed obligatory choice, for the 2012 Want List; no one who seriously claims to love great music can forego its acquisition at the first affordable opportunity.
FANFARE: James A. Altena