Number of Discs: 154 CD box set
Format: APE (image+cue)
Size: 41.5 GB
The Bach renaissance–which began in earnest in the early 19th century thanks to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn and others–inspired an endeavor of far-reaching significance. It led to the founding of the Bach Society in 1850, with the goal of gathering and publishing the composer’s complete works, and thus set into motion one of the great projects of musical scholarship. That effort has continued and been refined throughout the 20th century, ultimately influencing not only our perception of how to perform early music but fundamental ideas of musical history, evolution, and reception as well.
Teldec’s mammoth Bach 2000 box set represents a kind of culmination of that original attempt to come to terms with Johann Sebastian Bach’s unparalleled legacy. This set brings together performances recorded over the last several decades–a small percentage of the recordings are previously unreleased–of all the extant works determined by modern scholarship to be authentic. There are also some pieces the authorship of which is still in question and a few now deemed “inauthentic” but familiarly associated with the composer. Bach was a prodigious reviser of his compositions, and alternate versions of a particular work have been included “where the changes seemed sufficiently important,” such as the glorious Magnificat. No doubt manuscripts will continue to be unearthed here and there in various archives (Bach 2000 contains, for example, the “Neumeister chorales,” which were rediscovered in 1984), but the set does not represent the many fragments of music that consist of just a few bars; however, there are some reconstructions of lost concertos (such as one for three violins reconstructed by Christopher Hogwood from an extant concerto for harpsichords).
Of course a truly comprehensive recorded edition of every note Bach wrote remains a utopian impossibility–about one-third of his cantatas, for example, have not survived. Even so, the dimensions of Bach 2000 are staggering. With its 12 boxes comprising 153 CDs, the set can be compressed into fewer boxes to save shelf space yet is still about ten times as long as the Ring cycle. (It should be noted that the packaging–using thin cardboard sleeves for the CDs–is distinctively unattractive.) That adds up to just under 160 hours of music–but a lifetime of discovery. Each box (grouped according to genre) contains a booklet with excellent notes on individual works and–for all the choral works–texts and translations. Tracking indexes are useful and thorough. Also included is a profusely illustrated hardbound volume of 24 Inventions, in which journalist Wolfgang Sandberger uses the composer’s biography as a peg for some enigmatic and fascinating musings on the meaning of Bach today.
The presiding philosophy behind this project and its approach to musical interpretation can be largely ascribed to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a true musical pioneer and galvanizing force of the “period performance” movement. Harnoncourt’s epoch-making recordings of the sacred cantatas (using, for instance, boy sopranos and choristers according to the practice in Bach’s time) with the Concentus musicus Wien and colleague Gustav Leonhardt comprise the first four volumes here (those who already own them can turn to the Bach 2000 Light edition, which contains everything sans the cantatas). These recordings–which were not remastered for this set–have long been controversial and are notably uneven, embracing some magnificent accounts as well as others that lack fire and seem clearly underrehearsed. But Harnoncourt is one of the most fascinating conductors of our era, and his interpretations amply bear out his assertion: “I have never felt that Bach worked in a routine manner, that he repeated himself in his works.” Harnoncourt–who has articulated many of his ideas in his book The Musical Dialogue–displays his gifts as a cellist in a remarkably probing performance of the Cello Suites (originally recorded in 1965) and in his concertizing for a number of chamber works. For the St. Matthew Passion, you get Harnoncourt’s groundbreaking earlier account from 1970, while his 1986 recording of the sublime B Minor Mass is also represented here (the St. John Passion included is Harnoncourt’s 1995 acount).
Other artists included are colleague Gustav Leonhardt, whose thoughtful if occasionally dry harpsichord artistry is heard in the Goldberg Variations as well as in the concertos and chamber music. The harpsichord is in fact used throughout in preference to piano for the keyboard works. Ton Koopman (himself the conductor of an ongoing complete cantata series and of the Easter Oratorio included here) performs the organ works, including some newly recorded offerings, while Il Giardino Armonico’s well-known high-energy account represents the Brandenburg Concertos. Violinist Thomas Zehetmair is exceptionally compelling in the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, and the Concentus musicus Wien–again under Harnoncourt–perform a superb Musical Offering that richly repays frequent listening.
The result of Bach 2000 as a whole is an aptly encyclopedic grappling with the infinite legacy of this most compendious of composers, whose works are on one level a summation of all the styles available to him. Bach was once thought to represent a “terminal point” (to use Albert Schweitzer’s famous formulation), the end of an era; today he is at least equally recognized as a fertile source of inspiration for composers since. To be sure, individual recordings of particular works will be found to be preferable, and it would be misguided to consider Bach 2000 any kind of “final” or “definitive” word. Instead, it’s an indispensable starting point that represents a monumental achievement for our own contemporary understanding of Bach. –Thomas May
Concentus Musicus Wien
Il Giardino Armonico
Bob Van Asperen
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
The Academy of Ancient Music
Ars Antiqua Austria
Musica Antique Koln
Thomas Hampson etc
Volume 1, 15 Discs: Sacred Cantatas Nos. 1-14, 16-47; 15 CDs
Volume 2, 15 Discs: Sacred Cantatas Nos. 48-52, 54-69, 69A, 70-99
Volume 3, 15 Discs: Sacred Cantatas Nos. 100-117, 119-140,143-149
Volume 4, 15 Discs: Sacred Cantatas BWV 150-159, 161-188, 192, 194-199
Volume 5, 11 Discs: Secular Cantatas App. Sacred Cantatas
Volume 6, 14 Discs: The Sacred Vocal Works Masses, Magnificat, Passions, Oratorios
Volume 7, 7 Discs: The Motets, Chorales & Songs Kirnberger Chorales, Schemelli Songs, Quodlibet
Volume 8, 16 Discs: The Organ Works
Volume 9, 11 Discs: The Keyboard Works (I) The Well-Tempered Clavier, English & French Suites, Partitas etc
Volume 10, 11 Discs: The Keyboard Works (II) Goldberg Variations, Toccatas, Fugues, Italian Concerto, etc
Volume 11, 13 Discs: The Chamber Music Violin Sonatas & Partitas, Flute Sonatas, Works for Lute, Art of Fugue, Musical Offering
Volume 12, 10 Discs: The Orchestral Works The Concertos & Orchestral Suite
147 out of 153 ain’t bad!
Having listened to the complete set, I can confidently recommend it, if you would use a complete set of Bach’s works.
If you really like Bach, it is well worth getting. You will read disparaging reviews which will tell you that there are better performances of individual works. But this is a great opportunity for a Bach lover to get very good versions of his entire oeuvre.
In the set of 60 CDs of sacred cantatas, there are about 6 duds, which feature out of tune boy sopranos! If you are not crazy about sacred cantatas, you can buy a set which omits them, which may be advised!
I love the version of the Mass in B minor, though it is very different from our set by Munchinger [which we really enjoy].
The Brandenburgs are great. THe first movement of the first concerto is a knock out! Very brassy and bombastic: quite different from the 3 or 4 other versions I have previously enjoyed.
We are a piano family and have many CDs of Bach keyboard works played on piano [though we also have the Well Tempered Clavier on harpsichord and clavichord] The keyboard performances in the set are all on harpsichord and are lively and very enjoyable.
It takes some getting used to the authentic Baroque flute performances: especially occasional out-of-tuneness. But these are also interesting and musically played.
If you would use a set of all of Bach’s extant works, it is a great choice. It is competitively priced and I love the packaging.