For Bach’s Birthday, Discover Complete Editions of His Works

Today is the 327th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, undoubtedly the most important composer in the history of western music. His work is vast and varied: it ranges from solo keyboard music to choral passions and oratorios; from concertos to organ works; from sacred cantatas to solo works for violin or cello.

Appreciating Bach’s output is complex, as his music fills from 154-172 CDs, depending on the recordings. A good way to plunge into his world of music is to buy a complete edition of his works. There are three such editions available (one of these is due out next week), and here is a brief overview of them.

Starting with the least expensive set, the Brilliant Classics Bach: Complete Edition contains 157 CDs. Reviewing an earlier version of this set in 2001 (a handful of recordings have changed since then), I wrote, “While many of the recordings are excellent, there are some which are mediocre. Nevertheless, the good ones do outweigh the lemons, and, if you like Bach’s music, you owe it to yourself to get this set – at its super-bargain price, even those recordings you don’t like will not cause too much disappointment, but the quality of the excellent ones is such that you will certainly be delighted.” It is a good set, not great, but the current price – as of today, it’s $131 on Amazon – it is the cheapest, at less than $1 per disc.

Next comes Haenssler Classics’ Complete Works of Johann Sebastian Bach on 172 discs. A bit more expensive – currently around $214 – I wrote that, “Comparing this set to the Brilliant Classics box, I would certainly give higher grades to Hänssler.” The cantatas are much better, though the style may not please everyone. However, there is an excellent collection of singers in the sacred works. To name but a few that stand out: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Augér, Helen Watts, Edith Wiens, Peter Schreier, Philipp Huttenlocher, Matthias Goerne, Juliane Banse, Thomas Quasthoff, Christoph Prégardien and many more. And Rilling’s choirs are always top-notch. The same can be said for the other sacred works, the passions, oratorios and masses.

Finally, Teldec’s Complete Bach Edition, on 154 discs, notably contains the first complete set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Revolutionary at the time, this set sounds a bit old-fashioned now; there are no female singers, for example, to replicate the way Bach performed these works, and the boy sopranos are a mixed bag. I don’t own this set, and didn’t buy the first version of it when it was released in 2000, but it contains many excellent musicians, including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Concentus Musicus Wien, Ton Koopman, Il Giardino Armonico, Andreas Staier, Christopher Hogwood, Musica Antique Koln, Reihard Goebel, Klaus Mertens, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson and many others. The current price of this set is about $325, making it the most expensive.

So, should you buy one of these sets? If you love Bach as I do, no amount of CDs is too many. The ability to compare different interpretations of these works is a great way to truly understand them.

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2 replies
  1. Karl Loog says:

    I was privileged to attend a performance of St. Matthew Passion at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on Bach’s 300th anniversary in 1985. How time flies!
    I still have great esteem for the Teldec Sacred Cantata cycle, which I purchased, volume by volume, in the early 1990′s [BWV 51 and199, both solo cantatas, have female singers, by the way]. Leonhardt (RIP) and Harnoncourt are often mentioned in one breath, but in reality they are very different characters with different approaches. Personally, I much prefer Leonhardt. Although the two men shared a number of singers (Equiluz, Esswood, Egmont), they worked on the project independently. During the twenty year period of recording, for Leonhardt this meant about one recording session per year in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Not that much, when you think. Surely, with the present large pool of competent period performers one could aim at a higher technical standard than in the 1970s – there is certainly some unevenness, especially with the boys and wind instruments. But I think the concept and approach is marvellous, with some excellent participants like Bylsma, Bruggen and Egmont. Most of the new generation of prominent Bach cantata conductors owe a lot to this man: Herreweghe (his former choir master), Kuijken (his colleague), Koopman (his student), Suzuki (Koopman’s student), not to mention here that almost every prominent harpsichordist has taken lessons with him. Since period Baroque performance has since gone mainstream, there seems to be a tendency to move away from the Klangrede (rhetorical) approach to seek a kind of compromise with the “romantic/modernist” style, in order to meet general public halfway [?]. In his book, Bruce Haynes has called this new style Baroque Lite. Despite the new trends, I still hold Leonhardt’s “uncompromising” approach as the golden standard. If I would call any of these cycles “old-fashioned”, it would probably be that of Rilling. Nobody seems to be interested to record another cycle using modern instruments. But such polemics and personal preferences/sensibilities aside, let us continue to admire this incomparable composer, whose output truly forms the ‘summa’ of Western music. Thank you Kirk for your wonderful and helpful blog.

    • kirk says:

      Yes, I guess I agree with your description of Rilling’s cycle being “old-fashioned,” with the exception of the use of boy sopranos in the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt recordings.

      I admit never really focusing on the cantatas that each one recorded. That’s a very good point.


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