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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.
Posted: 10/3/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music, Glenn Gould | 9 Comments »
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.” While there is no complete set available yet, these recordings have been issued in individual one- or two-disc sets. (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. 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 50; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.
Posted: 7/6/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | 1 Comment »
It’s fair to say that with these five excellent sets – and there is one other set of lower quality, along with hundreds of individual recordings of the cantatas – listeners have a wonderful number of examples of these great works. Personally, my favorites are the recordings of John Eliot Gardiner, closely followed by recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, who recorded many of the cantatas, but had no desire to record a complete set. Suzuki’s recordings are also excellent, and the starkness and originality of the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt recordings make those worth listening to from time to time. While I’m not a big fan of Rilling’s recordings, he does have some excellent soloists, notably the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
A recently released curiosity is this 9-CD set by Karl Ristenpart, from 1949-1952. This was to be the first recording of all of Bach’s cantatas, but never went far enough. These 9 discs show an interesting approach to the cantatas, well before the pioneering recordings of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. (And the MP3 version is currently very cheap, at only $20).
If you just want one disc of Bach cantatas to discover these works, I strongly recommend this recording of Actus Tragicus (BWV 106) and three other cantatas by Cantus Cölln. It is simply magnificent.
Since the cantatas are a huge self-contained sub-genre, it can be helpful to learn more about them. A book of translations of the texts by Richard Stokes can be helpful, as Bach sculpted the music around the texts with great care. And a huge book by Alfred Dürr gives detailed information about each cantata, along with translations of their texts. If you read French, a similar book by Gilles Cantagrel offers the same type of overview and texts of the works.
To learn more about the works, you can visit the Bach Cantatas website, maintained by a Bach fanatic, Aryeh Oron. This site, which contains information and detailed discographies of nearly every Bach cantata recording ever made, grew out of a mailing list which I created some 15 years ago. The Bach cantatas mailing list, itself an outgrowth of the Bach recordings mailing list, is a place where fans of these works can discuss them, and where a specific cantata is discussed each week. Finally, Julian Mincham’s The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach: A Listener and Student Guide offers in-depth commentaries of the cantatas.
And, if you’re a collector, and want to keep track of your Bach cantata collection, Alco Blom’s $4 Bach Cantatas iPhone app will help you. For now, it’s mostly for managing collections, but the developer told me he’ll be adding many more features to the app, including links to the websites I mentioned above.
If you’re not familiar with Bach’s cantatas, you should by all means discover these works which are, perhaps, the heart of Bach’s oeuvre. Some of his best music is in the cantatas, and you’ll find hours of wonderful music to listen to over and over. You may end up becoming obsessed by these works, as I am, and collecting recordings by different conductors and performers.
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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.
Posted: 6/11/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | 2 Comments »
No review of the Goldberg Variations would be complete without mentioning the 25th variation; the famous “black pearl”. Rannou uses what sounds like a lute stop on one keyboard, providing a nice contrast between the sounds of the two keyboards. She plays this slowly. At 9:38, it’s one of the longest in my collection; Barenboim plays it at 10:34, Dershavina 8:36, and Egarr only 8:05. Yet in the variation that seems to allow the most flexibility, Rannou is surprisingly restrained. There is some rubato, as in all the slow variations, but only a handful of improvised notes or ornaments, until the fourth part of the variation (the second part of the repeat) comes around. Even then, compared to the rest of the work, Rannou is sedate, and, with a few exceptions, generally follows the score, and tradition. This said, her performance of Variation 25 is scintillating in its beauty, and the sound she gets out of the harpsichord is beautiful.
And then we get to the Aria da Capo and which brings it full circle. Rannou plays this in a minimalist fashion. As she slows down at the end of the piece, a certain sadness overcame me, as if I wouldn’t be hearing this music the same way ever again.
Score fundamentalists may be up in arms reading the above. A performer who doesn’t follow Bach’s tempi, and who even injects their own notes into the work … Horrendous. But this may be exactly the way music was played in Bach’s time. It is known that he improvised on the organ; is it so hard to believe that he would be so inflexible with a work like the Goldberg Variations? I find it regrettable that the liner notes contain nothing by the performer discussing these choices.
In addition to the unique performance, the quality of the recording is exemplary. Rarely does one hear a harpsichord recorded this well. It is a beautiful copy of a Ruckers-Hemsch, by Anthony Sidey. The sound is neither too harsh nor too overwhelming, though at times, such as in Variations 6 and 14, it can be a bit heavy as so many notes and chords are played.
You will love this recording, or you will hate it. I think this is the type of interpretation that allows no middle ground. Blandine Rannou’s approach is unique and personal, and if you don’t buy into it – assuming you are familiar enough with the Goldberg Variations to realize what is so different – then it won’t be for you. By all means, sample this recording online before buying it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the freshest approach that I have heard to this work since Glenn Gould.
This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.
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.
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Posted: 5/24/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | No Comments »
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.
Posted: 3/21/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | 2 Comments »
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!
Posted: 3/20/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | No Comments »
The German label Haenssler Classics, which has released a box set of Bach’s complete works, has just released – or is about to release, depending on where you live – a box set of the complete cantatas. Unlike most cantata sets, this one includes both secular and sacred cantatas, on 71 CDs.
These recordings, led by Helmut Rilling, are not my favorite overall set, but they do have many good moments, notably the choir and some excellent soloists. One of my biggest gripes is the sound, which at times, features odd separation of instruments. For example, in a movement where a soloist is singing with violin obligato, you may have the violin way over on the left channel, the continuo far to the right, and the soloist in the center. While this is acceptable on speakers, it sounds very poor on headphones.
Nevertheless, given the price – it’s listed for a mere $78 on Amazon.com – it’s worth getting if you like Bach’s cantatas.
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Posted: 9/1/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music | No Comments »
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.
This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.
I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.
Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)
There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:
There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.
If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.
One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”
Posted: 3/5/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music, essential music | 2 Comments »