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New Classical Box Set: Bach Masterworks, from Deutsche Grammophon

packshot-trans.pngDeutsche Grammophon has released a new Original Jackets Collection box set; Bach Masterworks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Containing 50 CDs, this is an impressive set of Bach’s music, covering his cantatas, other sacred music, organ works, keyboard music, chamber music and orchestral music. It’s far from being a complete works set – that would come to about 170 CDs – but for those who don’t have much Bach in their collection, it’s worth getting. Out now in the UK, this set is due for release on December 10 in the US. It’s currently around £85, or $157.

I haven’t yet found a full track list, but it contains a broad selection from the vast DG catalog, including recordings from Decca, Archiv, L’Oiseau-lyre and other Universal labels. It contains John Eliot Gardiners St. John Passion and Christmas Oratorio, and Paul McCreesh’s St. Matthew Passion, has harpsichord works by Trevor Pinnock (including his Goldberg Variations, the first recording I ever bought of the work), organ works by Helmut Walcha, Karl Richter and Simon Preston, and features many other well-known performers.

This set seems to be full of many recordings that aren’t easily accessible, and would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any classical music collector.

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

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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.com, 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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Bach’s Sacred Cantatas: Recordings and Resources

One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.

Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.

A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)

John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” Since I first wrote this post, a box set has been released. Limited to 3,000 copies, it’s more affordable on Amazon UK – less than £140 – than Amazon.com, where it’s just shy of $300. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. It’s worth noting that this set contains four discs of cantata pilgrimage recordings that were not released in individual volumes by SDG, but that are in the box set. (Also available from iTunes.)

Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas. Read more

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CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

While Glenn Gould was a pianist who performed the works of many composers, his name is inextricably linked to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. More than any other composer, Bach was Gould’s speciality. From his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 to his final recording, again of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, Gould recorded nearly all of Bach’s keyboard music.

This set groups all of Gould’s Bach recordings for around $115; not only those released on LP and CD, but also a number of previously unreleased recordings: outtakes from the 1955 Goldbergs recording session; a stereo mix of the 1955 Goldbergs; some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, from 1952 and 1954; and two live recordings, from 1957 and 1959, of the Goldbergs (Salzburg Festival, August, 1959) and the Sinfonias (Moscow, May, 1957). There are two discs of interviews with Gould – one with Tim Page, and another with John McClure – and a disc of Gould speaking about Bach in German. There are a total of 38 CDs.

This set also includes DVDs; 6 of them. Three of these are directed by Bruno Monsaigneon, featuring the Goldbergs on one, and two others with a variety of works. And three others are from the CBC, from 1957 to 1970, featuring Gould (and others) playing a variety of Bach’s works. Many Gould fans are familiar with the Monsaigneon films, as they have been widely circulated – especially the Goldberg Variations video, which was my first introduction to seeing Glenn Gould perform. The CBC videos are less common, though they have been released in a 10-DVD set Glenn Gould on Television. What we have in the Bach set is, naturally, the Bach performances taken from that set. If you’re a die-hard Gould fan, you’ll want to get the full DVD set as well.

Together with all these discs is a 192-page hardcover book, with some introductory essays, and with notes for each disc. Unfortunately, the notes are very succinct, and while the disc covers reproduce original LPs, the notes on them are too small to read without a microscope. (Is it that hard to include a CD or DVD with PDFs of these things?)

If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, you may already have the Complete Original Jacket Collection, on 80 CDs, which contains most of what’s in this set, but you won’t have the outtakes, live recordings and DVDs. This set, at a not-quite-bargain price, is worth getting for these extras alone, if you appreciate Gould. Especially since Bach is what Gould did best.

Nice packaging, a fair price, and a bunch of previously unreleased material makes this a good purchase for any fan of Glenn Gould. If you’re not familiar with his admittedly idiosyncratic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, this would be a good chance to discover one of the most original of performers. You may love Gould or hate him, but you can’t deny that, when he played Bach, he was channelling something transcendent.

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CD Review: Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Blandine Rannou

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Right off the bat, when you start listening to this recording, you know that there’s something different; several things.

First, and most apparent, is the length of the recording. At nearly 90 minutes, it spans two CDs. Among the nearly thirty recordings of the Goldbergs in my collection, only Richard Egarr’s recording on Harmonia Mundi is that long – it’s actually 45 seconds longer. The vast majority of recordings fit between 60 and 80 minutes, or sit comfortably on a single disc. At the other extreme are exceptions such as Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording – 38 minutes – or Gustav Leonhardt’s 1965 recording, at 47 minutes. It’s fair to say that the LP format limited what one could do with a work like this. The length of the recording here is more about playing all the repeats, rather than very slow tempi. While the opening aria is indeed played very slowly, most of the variations are played at tempi that are more or less standard, with some being more rapid than what one is used to. Rannou tends, however, to play the slower variations more slowly than most.

Second, there is rubato. Lots of rubato. Rubato on top of rubato. This is no metronome-enslaved recording of Bach, no follow-the-beat-no-matter-what recording, but one where a performer improvises the tempo, plays with it, adapts it to her vision.

The third difference here is that there is, indeed, improvisation. Rannou is not wedded to the notes. She takes liberties – and very extreme ones. This is not only in her ornamentations, but in certain melodic lines, where she allows a jazz-like variation to intrude into the music. This is notable in the opening aria which Rannou caresses lovingly for nearly 7 minutes, as an overture to the work, showing what is to come. You can also hear it in the flowing Variation 13, Variation 21, and others. Rannou tends to improvise more in the slower variations, where there is more flexibility, though the sprightly Variation 23 gets a work-over as well.

Read more

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Music Notes: Café Zimmerman’s Bach Concertos

Over the past 10 years, Café Zimmerman has recorded Bach’s “concertos for multiple instruments” on the Alpha label. These works include the harpsichord concertos, the Brandenburg concertos, the orchestral suites (overtures), as well as the many concertos for violin, oboe, flute or other instruments. Last year, they released this in a 6-CD set: Concerts avec plusieurs instruments.

I hadn’t bought any of the individual volumes of this set previously, but when the box came out, I listened to some samples on line and bought it immediately. The 24 works included – four per disc – are all performed with a wonderful lightness and joy, making these some of the most attractive recordings I know of these works.

Each disc is organized as a concert: rather than grouping, say, all of the Brandenburg concertos on two discs, there is one on each of the six CDs. No disc has two of the same type of work; there are not two orchestral suites or harpsichord concertos on any of the discs. This makes each of the CDs a 60- to 70-minute concert that provides a variety of instrumentations.

The sound is excellent, the performances full of vigor, and, while the tempi are on the fast side, nothing sounds hurried. This is a wonderful set of Bach’s “orchestral” music. If you like Bach, you should check this out.

Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon UK or Amazon FR.

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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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John Eliot Gardiner Seeks Funding to Record and Release Bach’s Ascension Cantatas

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach cantata pilgrimage, a Quixotic yet successful year-long concert tour performing all of Bach’s sacred cantatas (and some other works).


(Photo: Anima Mundi Festival, Pisa)

Well, there’s news from Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. They are planning to perform and record these cantatas, and release them on CD in 2013, but they need our help. From the Monteverdi.org website:

Throughout Millennium year they performed and recorded Bach’s liturgical cantatas in dozens of churches around Europe. Salisbury Cathedral was the venue for the Ascension cantatas, but logistics ruled out a recording, leaving a gap in the landmark cantata cycle released on the SDG label between 2005 and 2010. Now the plan is to record the Ascension concerts at St Giles’ Cripplegate and release a 28th and final CD for the set.

The group needs £50,000 – or £20 each from 2,500 fans of these works – to be able to perform, record and release them. I’ve given my share already; as a subscriber to the wonderful series of CDs that came from the 2000 tour, I’ll be happy to fill in this gap with these six cantatas.

If you’d like to help, visit this page, where you can make a donation. For £20, you get the CD when it’s released; that’s about what it will cost, so you’re essentially subscribing in advance. If you can afford more, different bonuses are available, including signed copies of the CDs, being credited as part of the production team and more. (Alas, they’re not offering a lunch with Sir John…)

If you appreciate this music, make a donation, or, if possible, get tickets for the one of the two concerts, that will take place in London on May 10, 2012.

Update: As of March 22, 15% of the amount needed has been donated. Help them out; remember, £20 gets you a copy of the recording!

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