Do you need 172 CDs of Bach's music? Well, some of us do; some of us need even more. This Bach-itis has led me to collect more than 1,000 discs of Bach, and, while I've slowed down on purchases in recent years, I do pick up some new Bach recordings every now and then, notably the recently concluded set of cantatas recorded by John Eliot Gardiner (review
But do you really need all this music? Perhaps you're a casual fan of Bach's music and you want more. You could buy individual CDs, filling your collection slowly, looking for the best versions of each work. This is time-consuming and expensive. Or you could buy a complete set of Bach's music, offering you the ability to sample all of this great composer's works, then, if you find affinities with specific works and want to seek out other versions, do so.
I've long been a fan of the latter approach, especially since Brilliant Classics has shaken up the classical music business with their very low priced box sets of complete (or collected) works of various composers. In fact, the first big Brilliant Classics box I got was their set of Bach recordings, released back in 2001. (review
). This is a mixed bag, with some excellent recordings, but quite a few mediocre discs. While I initially felt the cantata recordings to be good, more recent recordings (by Gardiner, Suzuki and others) have put them near the back of the pack.
This brings me to the subject at hand:, the Hänssler set of Bach recordings, which the label organized around 2000, during the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. At first, Hänssler set out to fill out their Bach recordings, which were built around Helmuth Rilling's set of the sacred cantatas. They enlisted Rilling to oversee the set, and came up with a wonderful collection of 172 CDs in 140 volumes (a number of the volumes contain 2 or 3 discs). After releasing them individually, they then sold a box set, at what was then considered a normal price, but since the advent of Brilliant Classics pricing, seemed expensive. Hänssler has now re-issued this set in a space-saving box at a "nice" price, or €299. The set is currently available for around $300 in the US, less than £200 in the UK, and around €225 elsewhere in the EU.
Let's start by looking at what you get in the box. It's a big box, sleek and well-designed, and, as you can see in the illustration to this review, opens to show the CDs in three sections. Each CD is in a paper and glassine sleeve, and is well labelled. The CDs have colour coding for the different types of works (cantatas, sacred music, organ, keyboard, instrumental), and each bears a large volume number and a title. The discs are therefore easy to find and choose from the box.
There are also two booklets: one is a full catalogue of the set, by disc, with track-listings; this runs to nearly 300 pages. The second is an index by BWV number, which then points you to specific discs. Finally, there is a CD-ROM with complete texts of the vocal music, extensive notes and detailed track and artist information. These are provided in 14 PDF files that you can view on any computer. They contain the full notes that you would expect to receive with CDs, in German, English, French and Spanish, and total some 5,000 CD-sized pages. Hänssler has clearly not scrimped on the documentation, and one should actually expect this with any big box set. In reality such high-quality documentation is, alas, rare.
There are nearly 178 hours of music in this box, which is a daunting prospect for anyone. Even fans of Bach will find some works that don't interest them much - perhaps the eight discs of chorale settings, which have not been recorded often, yet contain some gems - but choosing either to traverse the set in order, or at random, yields many excellent recordings. Back in 2000, during the wonderful Bach year, I bought a number of the individual Hänssler discs to fill out my collection. This was in part because, at the time, there were not a lot of choices for some of the less common works, but also because of the excellent quality of these recordings. I notably purchased many of the keyboard recordings, and some of them have become my favourites. I'd note especially Trevor Pinnock's superlative recording of the Partitas; Peter Watchorn's great Toccatas disc; and the Well-Tempered Clavier recorded by Robert Levin in a unique manner, with different works played on harpsichord, clavichord, organ and fortepiano.
Naturally, at nearly one-third of the box, the sacred cantatas are form the biggest chunk here. They are arguably Bach's finest works, together with the secular cantatas (eight discs) and the other sacred vocal works (passions, masses, motets and oratorios) which cover 16 discs. This is where this box is simply a bargain. Helmuth Rilling is an excellent conductor and interpreter of Bach's sacred music. While I have a preference for John Eliot Gardiner's cantata recordings, because of his forces and his more HIP choices, there is no doubt that Rilling's recordings are excellent. Recorded from 1969 to 1985, over a longer period of time than most other sets, there is a lot of change throughout the series. Rilling's recordings are more dense and lush than others, and his tempi are often slower than HIP recordings - no "original instruments" for Rilling. But he creates such a detailed sound-world that any fan of these works should want to hear Rilling's versions to compare with others. This said, Rilling often uses a technique that I find a bit disturbing. He'll have one instrument or group of instruments sequestered to one track, and others on the other track, giving a sound similar to that of early Beatles' stereo mixes, where vocals were on one track and instruments on the other. This is something you never hear in live performance; while one instrument may be on one side, you still hear it on the other side. This tends to make some of the movements sound as though there's no blend among the singers and musicians.
It's worth noting that, in some cases, re-takes were made months after initial recordings of some movements of the cantatas, and the sound can vary from one part of a cantata to another. But this doesn't detract from the overall tone. One more point: the actual recording quality of these works varies, and is generally not as clean as that of more recent cantata recordings using newer technology. While this is a minor detail, it can be obvious if you compare different recordings of a given cantata.
Rilling notably has 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.
So far I've barely scratched the surface, even though the sacred vocal works are the heart of the collection. The organ works fill 20 CDs, the keyboard works 32, 11 discs of chamber music, 11 discs of orchestral music, and 4 discs of alternate versions of cantatas. There's a very attractive recording of the Musical Offering, on a variety of instruments: fortepiano, harpsichord, viola da gamba, flute and violin. Robert Hill's recording of The Art of Fugue on harpsichord is brilliant, and includes early versions of some of the fugues; the notes explain the different versions, and tell you how you can program the tracks in such a way as to listen to the two different versions of the work. One disc contains reconstructed violin concertos performed by Isabelle Faust. Another fine recording, again by Robert Hill, shows off the rarely recorded lute-harpsichord. Hille Perl and Michael Beringer play the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. And the Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra, led by Helmuth Rilling, plays the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites; certainly not my favourite versions, but fine ones nevertheless. One of the only elements I find missing is versions of The Art of Fugue for organ and for chamber orchestra.
Some criticisms are in order, though. Boris Pergamenschikow's cello suites are ponderous; Dmitry Sitkovetsky's solo violin recordings are a bit better, but not up to the competition. These are two of my favourite groups of Bach's works, and I turn to other recordings when I want to listen to them. The organ works are performed by seven different organists, playing in different locations. Organ recordings often try to vary their sound by using different organs, and the sound is different from one to another, as is the style. In some ways I would have preferred a single organist, even at different locations, but this isn't a deal-breaker.
So, back to my initial question: do you need this set? It depends on how Bach-obsessed you are. If you're familiar with Rilling's cantata recordings, and appreciate them, then this set is worth getting if only for those discs - which do make up more than a third of the set. If you have a lot of Bach and want more, then the answer is obvious. And if you don't have a lot of Bach, and want to discover all of his works in recordings that range from very good to excellent you can't go wrong. Comparing this set to the Brilliant Classics box, I would certainly give higher grades to Hänssler. It is more expensive, but I think it's a much more worthwhile investment than the more uneven Brilliant Classics set. No matter what, at about $1.50, £1 or €1.30 a disc, if you care about Bach enough to want this much music, you owe it to yourself to get this set. Add it to your Christmas list, perhaps, or buy yourself a present.