John Eliot Gardiner’s Complete Bach Cantatas Released as Box Set


One of the most exciting performance and recording projects of recent years was John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In just over a year, Gardiner, together with The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, toured the world, performing all of Bach’s sacred cantatas in dozens of venues. The performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, who released only four CDs before throwing in the towel. With all of this music recorded, Gardiner set up his own label, SDG, and released the remaining recordings.

I bought all of these releases on subscription, and this is one of the finest sets of cantatas I know. Now, finally, SDG is releasing a box set of the complete cantatas. (, Amazon UK) This limited edition set will contain 56 CDs: the 28 volumes from the SDG series (some were one disc, most were two), and the four CDs that Deutsche Grammophon released, so it will contain the entire set of cantatas. There will also be a CD-ROM with an index of the cantatas, sung texts, and full notes.

I have all the individual volumes, including the DG recordings, so I won’t be buying this, but if you like Bach, don’t miss this set. It’s currently listed at £139, which is a bargain, compared to what I paid for the individual discs, or $283, which is a bit more, but still a fair price. Of all the sets of Bach cantatas, it’s my favorite; perhaps it will be yours as well.

Read more about Bach’s cantatas.

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4 replies
  1. Terence Ollerhead says:

    Not my favourite. I can’t understand wh, in an age of historically informed performances, Gardiner chose to use female sopranos, and a mixed adult choir. That changes the textures of the music, and had Bach these forces available to him, he would have written different music. Moreover, I find the performances rather breathless, and strangely heartless. I am rarely moved by them, in the way I can be by the flawed but more authentic Harnoncourt/Leonhardt performances, on Teldec, also available at an excellent price, with their soloists drawn from the various boys’ choirs used over the project: Tolz, Vienna, King’s. They bring a kind of spontaneity to the performances that, for all its polish and professionalism, Gardiner doesn’t. No set is perfect, but if I were to have one, and I have them all, I would go with Harnoncourt. It’s Bach all ironed out, pressed, and dressed in a tux. Harnoncourt gives us a performance that Bach would have recognized. There is a huge argument in Bach circles about one-voice-per-part, for exampe, and some conductors have recorded these versions. Apart from begging the question about what the other boys were doing when only four were singing – these boys were being educated and trained at great expense to sing – but one thing we do know for certain: if there were only one voice per part, they would definitely not be a modern female soprano and a mezzo.

    • Terence Ollerhead says:

      Spelling errors, Kirk: why not wh; the ‘it’s after Harnoncourt refers to Gardiner, and example, not exampe

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Well, I think he chose women because pretty much everyone does. Has anyone since Harnoncourt and Leonhardt used boy sopranos for more than a handful of cantatas? I don’t think so.

      I find his performances vibrant, and the H/L set weak. But that’s personal taste. We’re in a golden age for Bach cantatas, with so many choices for recordings and even complete sets.

  2. Karl Loog says:

    I have been in love with Bach cantatas for at least three decades. But having listened to more than twenty of Gardiner’s recordings since they were first released, I have to confess that I would not want to keep this new set even if I get it for free.

    My personal favourites are Leonhardt, Herreweghe and Kuijken. None of them have performed all the cantatas, and each of them has a slightly different approach. But what is common, is the centrality of the word. The musical approach is radically text-centered, rhetorical, even in any purely instrumental movement.
    Gardiner, on the other hand, chooses to emphasize the dramatic element over all other aspects – I can almost hear his conducting. Some critics and audiences may applaud longer – but is this truly the best for Bach’s music?

    As you have indicated before: de gustibus non disputandum est.

    In some of the latest Suzuki recordings, I much admire the soprano Hana Blažíková. Peter Kooy remains inspirational. And Jean-François Madeuf on a true natural trumpet (without holes) adds an immediacy and crispness never heard before in our time.


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