RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Complete Bach Edition
Alice Harnoncourt, Thomas Zehetmair, John Holloway (violin)
Herbert Tachezi (organ and harpsichord)
Zuzana RůěičkovŠ, Alan Curtis, Scott Ross, Glen Wilson, Bob van Asperen, Andreas Staier, Michele Barchi (harpsichord and lute harpsichord); Olivier Baumont (harpsichord)
Luca Pianca (lute)
Frans Brüggen (recorder and transverse flute)
Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute)
Jordi Savall (viola da gamba)
Jaap ter Linden (cello)
Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Paul Esswood, Tom Sutcliffe, James Bowman, Elisabeth von Magnus (alto)
Kurt Equiluz, Nigel Rogers, Gerd Türk (tenor)
Karl Riddersbusch, Max van Egmond, Michael Schopper, Klaus Mertens (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Wiener Sängerknaben; Chorus Viennensis
Regensburger Domchor; Kings College Choir, Cambridge
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cello)
Leonhardt Consort/Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir/Ton Koopman (organ and harpsichord)
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood
Concerto Amsterdam/Jaap Schröder
Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel
Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra/André Rieu
Kammerorchester Berlin; Staatskapelle Dresden/Peter Schreier (tenor)
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Fritz Werner
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne; Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Michel Corboz
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford; Academy of Ancient Music/Simon Preston
Ars Antiqua Austria/Gunnar Letzbor
Stockholm Bach Choir/Anders Öhrwall
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Robin Gritton
354-page pdf booklet included (but no texts: these are available at www.bach-cantatas.com).
[also available as 153 CDs plus one DVD: 2564 66420-2]
WARNER TELDEC 2564 66112-7 USB [equivalent to 153 CDs plus one DVD]
This USB is planned for special release on Record Store Day, 20 April 2013, at £120; thereafter it will be available from amazon.co.uk for £180. By comparison the CD box set of the cantatas alone costs around £170. That makes it very good value for money as well as encapsulating infinite riches in a little room, with apologies to the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. If anyone in Marlowes time had even imagined that we might have such fine performances of such great music on a memory stick the size of a pencil eraser they would surely have been burned for witchcraft.
Warner issued these recordings with a different catalogue number as a 153-CD set in late 1999 with the title Bach 2000, in preparation for the Millennium celebrations and the 250th anniversary of the composers death. At the time comments were made about how surprised Johann Sebastian would have been to have seen recordings of his complete extant works much, of course, has been lost fitted easily onto a single library shelf. That set remains available as a limited edition with the catalogue number which Ive listed above target price £250 in the UK.
Since then we have had the complete works from Hänssler in performances directed by Helmut Rilling, first in a 172-CD set, currently on offer for around £200 Bargain of the Month: review and on a limited-edition iPod review; now Warner goes one better still in issuing their Bach 2000 set in 320kb/s mp3 sound in even smaller space on a single USB memory stick. They score thereby over Hänssler in that the latter have encoded the music at a mere 128kb/s, an odd decision when they used only 10GB of the iPods space: at least 32GB, up to 160GB, depending on the edition purchased.
Warner have taken a leaf out of the book of Chandos, who some time ago made available a number of their recordings in collected form on USB. Ironically, Chandos have just abandoned the project and deleted all their USBs. Whereas Chandos included both lossless (wma or flac) and 320kb/s mp3 files, for the Complete Bach Edition that would have required a very large-capacity USB, so Warner have inevitably compromised with best-quality mp3.
The Teldec Complete Bach Edition takes up 25.3 GB of a 30GB USB stick so, in theory, theres room to add more music the excellent new Linn (Dunedin Consort/Butt) or Hyperion (Polyphony/Layton) recordings of the St John Passion, for example, or even both: the Linn takes up 2.47GB in 24/96 format and the Hyperion 1.89GB in 14/88.1 format. The music can be played direct from the USB simply plug it into a suitable slot on your PC or you can drag and drop the music to your hard drive or auxiliary drive. Most recent DVD and blu-ray players and television recorders also have one or more USB sockets on the front or back for reproduction of pictures and music.
You wont expect me to have listened to every note on this massive undertaking but I have sampled it pretty thoroughly and can confidently confirm that its excellent value. Inevitably when the recordings were made over such a large time-span, there are one or two individual cases where the performances are less than ideal or where I imagine that others may find them so, but overall the standard maintained is very high. What I have done is to give you some idea of the strengths of the edition and suggest alternatives where I think them preferable. Ive also made some suggestions as to the best way to play this USB edition.
I found it inconvenient to have each of the Brandenburg Concertos, for example, housed in a separate file on the USB, necessitating a return to the PC every time I wanted to play the next one, so I created a file on my external hard drive Teldec/Bach Brandenburg Concertos and dragged the relevant files onto it. Ditto with the Orchestral Suites, the Violin Concertos and Keyboard Concertos.
Another option is to use a programme like iTunes to make mp3 CD-Rs of favourite works: the Brandenburgs and the Orchestral Suites together easily fit onto such a disc for playing in the car. Since the music is not continuous across tracks, the fact that in-car and portable players and DVD/blu-ray decks leave a short gap between tracks when playing back such mp3 CD-Rs doesnt create a problem, though you may find the low-level pop that some players make between tracks annoying. Be warned, however, that even on mp3 CD-Rs the collection would run to something like forty discs.
In the case of the organ works, however, you may find it convenient to leave matters as they are on the USB, where they are organised by BWV number thats fine as long as you know the number that you are looking for, which you can find in the pdf booklet.
Musical archaeologists would find among the deepest, oldest strata of these recordings the complete Sacred Cantatas which Telefunken recorded, alternating between Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, on their das alte Werk label in the early 1970s. In many ways these recordings, ground-breaking in their day in the use of original instruments and treble soloists, remain the glory of the catalogue of Teldec, as Telefunken are now called.
Avoid these very fine recordings only if you strongly object to period instruments by no means obtrusive here or of boys voices, which, after all, constituted the sound which Bach had in mind. For all my strong appreciation of the complete series by John Eliot Gardiner (SDG, a handful also on DG Archiv), that nearing its completion from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS a couple more volumes to go), less complete offerings from Sigiswald Kuijken (Accent) and Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi and PHI review of most recent release), and the few remaining DG Archiv CDs of Karl Richter*, its to these Harnoncourt and Leonhardt versions that I return most regularly.
* Just one single CD and one double CD which, between them, duplicate three cantatas. The multi-CD box sets which were on sale till recently remain available as reasonably-priced downloads (mp3 and lossless) from deutschegrammophon.com; otherwise look out for remainders and second-hand. Warner/Teldec still offer Richters recordings of Cantatas 67, 108 and 127 (256469766-6). Berlin Classics have revived some worthwhile recordings by Kurt Thomas these too are of much more than historical interest: see my review of Nos. 71 (not 110 as stated there), 111 and 140 in my Christmas 2010 Download Roundup. Ignore the Passionato link no longer viable purchase on mid-price CD or download from amazon.co.uk.
As I was writing about the wonderful bargain of having all Bachs music on a single USB and enjoying the chance to listen again to performances of all the sacred cantatas directed alternately by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, BIS produced their latest and one of the last volume in their strongly competitive series: Cantatas Nos. 97, 177 and 9 on BIS-SACD-1991 see Download News 2013/5. My only complaint, as with earlier volumes, is that the cantatas included there are connected by only the slenderest of links but thats no more tenuous than Teldecs run of BWV numbers.
These Teldec cantata recordings disappeared some time ago from separate availability on CD, but they remain available as downloads, either separately, often for as little as £2.79, or on ten 6-CD sets, each of the latter available from amazon.co.uk in 256kb/s mp3 for £13.49 or from sainsburysentertainment.co.uk in 320kb/s for £14.99. Ive reviewed a number of these in various Download Roundups and they remain recommendable if you dont want the rest of the Complete Edition. Please note, however, that Volumes 1-6, 9 and 10 which I recommended in my August 2012/1 Download Roundup as 320kb/s downloads from classicsonline.com seem to have dropped out of availability, though still available in that form from Amazon and Sainsburys, while the single albums remain available from classicsonline.com, some at £2.79, some at £4.99.
It doesnt take a brilliant mathematical brain, however, to work out that if you purchase all the sacred cantatas as downloads youll soon find yourself having paid out a considerable sum which you could have put towards the Complete Edition.
The b-minor Mass is included in Nikolaus Harnoncourts 1986 recording, still competitive in its own right despite excellent recent alternatives, especially those directed by John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, most economically purchased in the 9-CD Collectors Edition with the Passions and Christmas Oratorio), John Butt (Linn CKD354 July 2010 Download Roundup) and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-SACD-1701/2 review).
The short Lutheran Masses are in the hands of the Ensemble Vocal and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and Michel Corboz, Erato recordings from 1974, when they ran to three LPs. They now fit on two discsí, together with the spareí settings of the Sanctus. Though much of the material is borrowed from cantatas, these masses are still genuine Bach and well worth hearing and the performances, though a trifle less than authentic, do them justice. There are more recent versions, notably from Ton Koopman on Channel Classics (Recording of the Month review) but you wonít go far wrong with Corboz, though their appearance separately on a budget-price Apex twofer 2564 69046-8 received a more lukewarm response from Robert Hugill than seems to me to be warranted.
The St Matthew Passion is presented in Nikolaus Harnoncourtís 1970 recordings generally regarded as superior to his remake. Choosing one definitive version of this great work is impossible for one thing, there isnít such a thing as the St Matthew or the St John, as Bach revised both but this recording would certainly be on my own shortlist, perhaps slightly lower down than John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv), John Butt (Linn: Recording of the Month review review and March 2010 Download Roundup) or Masaaki Suzuki (BIS review). Dipping into Harnoncourtís recording for this review has convinced me that I shall certainly be listening to this recording again in full during Holy Week a busy schedule for which is already planned, with new recordings of the St John Passion on Linn and Hyperion already pencilled in (Recordings of the Month see 2013/4 Download News). Not the least of the virtues of the Harnoncourt St Matthew is the employment of Kingís College Choir and the involvement thereby of Sir David Willcocks.
By a small margin I prefer the St John Passion to its mightier cousin and here the two new Linn and Hyperion recordings which Iíve mentioned provide very strong competition alongside Masaaki Suzuki an even stronger challenger here than in the St Matthew, as Kirk McElhearn points out in his review of the 5-CD set of both (above) Jos van Veldhoven (Channel Classics March 2012/2 Download Roundup), Frans Brüggen (Glossa May 2011/2 Download Roundup) and John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv). For the Complete Edition Teldec have chosen Harnoncourtís later (1995) Harnoncourt recording the earlier version having been released at budget price on 2564696444.
I wouldnít now make this St John a top choice in preference to the versions that Iíve listed above and which I intend to listen to in Holy Week the Gardiner is particularly excellent value for as little as £22.50 from some online suppliers in the 9-CD box set with the St Matthew, Christmas Oratorio and b minor Mass anyone buying the Complete Edition should, nevertheless, rest satisfied with their purchase. Itís just that, whereas Harnoncourtís Bach once seemed ground-breaking even shockingly so to some listeners by comparison with those versions that Iíve mentioned he now sounds just a little conventional and even a trifle heavy, but I donít want to make it seem too much of an issue. By the time that I came to the two final numbers, Ruht wohl and Ach, Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein, all my small reservations had been willingly forgotten.
Probably wisely, there is no attempt here to reconstruct the lost St Mark Passion, though the libretto for that work survives and much of the music can be convincingly reconstructed from the various cantatas for which Bach re-cycled it, as on the CD conducted by Michael Willens (Carus 83.244 review).
The Easter Oratorio is performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir directed by Ton Koopman, a 1998 recording. There is strong competition in this work from the period-instrument Harmonia Mundi CD directed by Philippe Herrewghe, coupled with Cantata No.66 on HMC90.1513 and the modern-instrument Hänssler CD directed by Helmut Rilling (94.024, 4 CDs with other cantatas for Palm Sunday, Eastertide, Ascension and Pentecost) see March 2010 Download Roundup for my views on both of these. Whilst either of these or the Linn recording directed by Matthew Halls, coupling the Easter and Ascension Oratorios (CKD373: Recording of the Month review and May 2011/1 Download Roundup), depending on your tastes regarding period instruments, might be the top recommendation, the Koopman recording is certainly no also-ran.
If I found it inconvenient to have the Brandenburgs and other concertos offered singly, thatís an advantage with the cantatas, given that I some time shy away from playing the Rilling performances which I purchased in 2000 in multi-CD packages because one cantata follows the other too closely. Thatís not a problem with Hänsslerís single-CD releases.
The Christmas Oratorio was recorded under Harnoncourtís direction in 1972. You must excuse me for only dipping into that, since it seemed something of a sacrilege to get immersed in the whole work at Easter. Ground-breaking in its time, this recording has been overtaken by Gardiner (in that 9-CD box again), Suzuki (BIS) and Harnoncourtís own later recording for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, but is still among the most recommendable versions.
Nor did it seem appropriate to linger too long over the Magnificat with the Christmas additions, BWV243A, here provided in a recording made by Simon Preston and the Academy of Ancient Music for Decca in 1979, with Judith Nelson and Emma Kirkby among the soloists, a sound choice, even in the use of two superb female sopranos as against the trebles of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. The unadorned Magnificat in D comes from Harnoncourt and his team (from 1984).
The three arias from the 1725 St John Passion are tacked onto the recording of Psalm 51 on CD (No.84 in the complete set) and they are numbered there consecutively with the tracks of that folder, though included in a separate folder. For the purposes of the USB version, it might have been better to have renumbered these as an appendix to the St John recording, though they have a different provenance Peter Schreier as soloist and conductor, with Olaf Bär and the Dresden Staatskapelle, licensed from Universal.
The Motets remain one of my very few blind spots within Bachís vocal music. I own these 1980 performances directed by Harnoncourt and Anders Öhrwall on CD, so they are no more likely to persuade me on USB than they did on disc Iím sure itís not their fault. Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-SACD-1841), downloaded in 24-bit sound from elcassical.com, comes closer than any recording that Iíve ever heard to persuading me I hope to include that recording in a future Download News. I wonder why BIS used the cover shot of a Bible in Dutch.
The Fifty Chorales edited by Kirnberger and CPE Bach are performed by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, directed by Robin Gritton, and these are followed by sacred songs from the Schemelli Gesangbuch, three Wedding Chorales (Koopman) and other lesser works all enjoyable, though you would hardly be likely to buy the Edition for these.
Though I know the Teldec recordings of the sacred cantatas very well, I hadnít heard any of the secular cantata recordings and turned to that of the Coffee Cantata, BWV211, expecting to find it inferior to the Kirkby/Covey-Crump/Thomas/Hogwood recording which I treasure (Decca Oiseau-Lyre E417 6212). It is, but by a far smaller margin than I had expected and the recording, though dating from 1968, still sounds well.
The Coffee Cantata, Zerresisset, Zersprenget (BWV205), the Hunt Cantata (BWV208) and the Peasant Cantata (BWV212) are performed by Harnoncourt and his team, while Leonhardt and his ensemble perform BWV203 and 209 (rec. 1965 and 1967), but the other secular cantatas are provided by Ton Koopman (borrowed from sister Warner label Erato), Jaap Schröder, Reinhard Goebel and André Rieu (the last two licensed from DG). The Secular Cantatas series also contains some variants and appendices, such as Cantata 36C, the birthday adaptation of Schwingt freudig euch empor, contributed by Peter Schreier (licensed from Edel).
These are all good or very good performances, but the lack of texts* is even more of a problem here than with the sacred cantatas, passions and masses, where the words are much better known and easily available with translation online. Even fluent German speakers would have quite a problem with the imponderable dialect of the Peasant Cantata, Mer Hahn en neue Oberkeet (weíve got a new master), especially as the singers lay the accent on thick. Youíll find the original text here. The version included is not the 1968 recording which first appeared with the Coffee Cantata but one which dates from 1990.
* Though not included in the pdf booklet, texts and translations of all the vocal music can be found at www.bach-cantatas.com, a fact buried in the small print.
That performance of BWV212 is coupled with the Hunt Cantata (Was mir behagt, BWV208), as on its first appearance. The well-known aria Schafe können sicher weiden from this cantata (Sheep may safely graze), which, from its association with school assemblies, especially in the Walton arrangement, many wrongly assume comes from a sacred cantata the good shepherdí is not Jesus but the birthday boy Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels receives a particularly beautiful performance.
The recordings of the Orchestral Suites come from Concentus Musicus, stylish performances from 1985 which still sound well. Warner could also have included one of the Harnoncourt recordings of the Brandenburgs, but neither the 1981/2 version, included among the 21 CDs released for the Concentus Musicus 25th anniversary in 1985, nor the earlier 1964 set has remained free from criticism.
They chose instead a much later Teldec recording by Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini from 1997, castigated in some quarters as too fast at times and generally too forceful, but thatís not a criticism which I share, though Iím glad that their unfocused accounts of the Orchestral Suites were not chosen. Apart from some rather squally horn playing in No.1 and John Eliot Gardinerís horns (SDG) are pretty ripe here, too I like them rather more than their rivals from the Hänssler complete recording, recently reissued on a 2-CD set (94.615 review). As my DRM-limited download of these recordings from the now defunct warnerfreshdigital.co.uk will no longer play and was at 192kb/s only, I was very glad to replace it with the new 320kb/s tracks.
Those who still think Antonini too fast should try the recording which first made the Brandenburgs famous and introduced them to me, Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (Decca 1950). That version, a best seller when it was reissued on Decca Ace of Clubs, can be downloaded for curiosity in a transfer from Past Classics for £2.52 or less from emusic.com; thereís what is probably a better transcription for £3.98 from classicsonline.com or Naxos Classical Archives and better still in mp3 or lossless for $18.73 from eclassical.com. Münchingerís tempi now often sound unbelievably slow, though I was pleasantly surprised to hear how well he keeps the rhythm going and more pleased than I expected to hear him again, but compare the third and fourth movements of No.1 (5:01 and 9:17 from Münchinger; 3:52 and 7:03 from Antonini) and the advantages of Antoniniís approach should be clear. There are times in that concerto where Münchinger seems almost to grind to a halt.
Tempora mutantur, or things ainít what they used to be, but I was surprised to find no less perceptive a reviewer than Lionel Salter welcoming Münchingerís LP of Nos. 4 and 6 (LXT2501 thatís all you got on one LP in those early days) with words such as brillianceí. True, he did say that some of the tempi were too Teutonically deliberateí, but when he came to review the separate 78 rpm release of No.4 a few months later he thought the finale of No.4 lively. Surprisingly, Münchinger is actually marginally faster than Antonini in this movement, but his Brandenburgs taken as a whole serve to reveal how much livelier more recent recordings like the Teldec are.
The more truthful modern recording helps, but I donít think thatís the only reason why I prefer Antonini. With an almost bewildering array of excellent recordings of the Brandenburgs John Eliot Gardiner (SDG*), Trevor Pinnock (Avie and DG Archiv) and Rinaldo Alessandrini (Naïve) spring immediately to mind, to name period-instrument performances alone itís unlikely that you would be buying the USB set solely for the sake of these works, but you may well find them an attractive adjunct to whatever other version(s) you may have.
* In addition to the mp3 version from classicsonline.com which I recommended in the January 2010 Download Roundup, eclassical.com also offer these recordings in lossless sound; at $16.64 for the 2-CD set, thatís less expensive than classicsonline.com charge for mp3 only, as well as representing a useful saving on the CDs. Thereís no booklet, but thatís available from Naxos Music Library.
If Antoniniís version of Brandenburg No.4 is a bit too much, try the recording of its adaptation as a keyboard concerto, BWV1057, in a 1960s recording with Gustav Leonhardt directing from the keyboard and Frans Brüggen and Jeanette van Wingerden on recorders. The first movement is just as fast, but less furious, and the other movements are slightly slower as well as more relaxed in manner. That doesnít mean, however, that I agree with Lionel Salter who, reviewing the three LPs on which the keyboard concertos were released in 1967 thought the performances stylish and lively but a little lacking in grace and variety of tone. Bear in mind that period performance was then in its infancy and weíre a little less inclined now to criticise such performances. Incidentally, the date in the booklet, 1968, must be incorrect: the LPs could hardly have been released and reviewed a year before they were to be recorded.
As well as the seven regular solo concertos, Leonhardt reconstructed the incomplete d minor, BWV1059, from Cantata No.35, which shares material with the extant fragment of this eighth concerto. The result is convincing here I do agree with Lionel Salterís 1967 review; like everything else itís stylish played and the recording still sounds well, though the imbalance between the over-prominent recorders and the keyboard in BW1057 persists.
Though I enjoyed these performances of the keyboard concertos without serious reservation, they are not the last word as with some of the other items on the USB, you may well wish to supplement them. Lovers of the piano will wish to turn to Angela Hewitt on Hyperion recordings which Iím glad to make the outstanding exception to my dislike of Bach on the modern instrument.
Youíll find in my forthcoming Download News 2013/6 my reasons for preferring the new recording by Petra Müllejans, Gottfried von der Golz and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi HMC902145) to the Harnoncourts in BWV1041-3. The Harmonia Mundi recording also includes the 3-violin reconstruction of BWV1064R, which the Teldec Edition includes on CD153 in a performance borrowed from Decca and directed by Christopher Hogwood; here honours are about even, with both offering sprightly outer movements and a sensitive but not over-sentimental slow movement. The Hogwood recording sounds lighter than the Harmonia Mundi but I could be more than happy with either.
I have been very impressed by Café Zimmermanís 6-CD set of Concertos avec plusieurs instruments, interweaving the Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, Violin and Keyboard Concertos. (ALPHA811 review and April 2012/1 Download Roundup: also available separately). Only the Keyboard Concerto BWV1058 is missing from the collection thatís available with BWV1052, 1055 and 1056 on Mirare MIR085 reviewed in the same April 2012/1 Download Roundup. More recently Volume 1 has appeared of a very promising set of the keyboard concertos from Æolus with Aapo Hakkinen and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra (BWV1052, 1053 and 1056, AE-10057 see 2013/3 Download News.) Thereís also a very fine selection of four of the keyboard concertos from Matthew Halls and the Retrospect Consort (Linn CKD410: Recording of the Month review and review).
The Musical Offering comes from a 1970 recording made by Harnoncourt on tenor viola and cello with a group of distinguished instrumentalists. Thereís no disguising the fact that this was primarily a musicological exercise designed to impress Frederick the Great, the employer of Bachís son, but the small-scale performance here is very enjoyable. This time itís not Münchinger but Milan Munclinger who introduced this music to me, on Supraphon, a recording which Iím sure I would find too large-scale now alongside Harnoncourt and his team.
This stylish Harnoncourt recording has been around the block a few times itís deservedly still on offer on a separate Teldec release, listed at the end of this review but it still sounds as well as any of the more recent versions that I know, especially as Davitt Moroneyís version on Harmonia Mundi is not currently available. The fact that the performance runs to less than 47 minutes matters much less than if you were considering buying it on a single CD. If you prefer a fuller-toned version on modern instruments not that the Teldec sounds austere you should consider as an adjunct the ASMF/Marriner recording, now on an inexpensive Double Decca set with the Art of Fugue (442 5562). See also my review of Trio Concertante of Londonís Somm recording (SOMMCD077).
Herbert Tachezi in a set of notes on The Art of Fugue points out that itís no longer possible to regard the work as an academic exercise and his performance on a smallish North German (Ahrend and Brunzena, Bremen) organ (1977) is certainly far from pedantic. My own feelings are that the music is best performed in organ form and my benchmark is Helmut Walcha on DG (1956, but good early stereo), sadly no longer generally available on CD, though amazon.co.uk still seem to stock it (two left when I checked), and it can be obtained as a download from deutschegrammophon.com in mp3 or lossless sound (DG Original Masters 477 6508 see July 2009 Download Roundup). If Tachezi is not quite as compelling as Walcha, thereís little in it and his slightly faster, though never rushed, tempi and his omission of the incomplete 4-part final fugue mean that he gets though in 72:36 on one CD whereas Walcha, who includes the 4-part fugue (8:42 of his total 83:47) runs to a second disc, albeit one filled with some other fine performances.
I compared the Violin and Keyboard Sonatas, BWV1014-1019, dating from 1976, with the recent Manson/Koopman recording on Challenge Classics (CC72560 review). Tempi are very similar and I didnít think the Teldec performances in any way inferior to the new Challenge Classics recordings. These works share a good deal of the nature of trio sonatas, so Nikolaus Harnoncourt on viola da gamba joins Alice Harnoncourt (violin) and Herbert Tachezi (harpsichord) in some of them thatís especially effective in the opening movement of BWV1015. The second CD containing these sonatas is complemented by performances of BWV1019a, 1021 and 1023 from John Holloway (violin), Davitt Moroney (harpsichord and chamber organ) and Susan Sheppard (cello), licensed from Virgin Classics (1989).
A number of strange hybrid instruments are associated with Bachís music, notably the pedal-harpsichord a sort of organistís domestic practice instrument and the lute-harpsichord or Lautenclavicymbel, a keyboard instrument, commissioned to Bachís own specifications and designed to emulate the lute. The modern copy of an eighteenth-century instrument on which Michele Barchi plays the Suites in e minor and g minor, BWV996-7 sounds exactly like a large lute, complete even with what sounds like fingering noises, combined with a harpsichord. Thereís some potential confusion in that the folder labelled as BWV997 begins with a track labelled as part of BWV996. Ignore what the track says; the folder does contain BWV997 and only BWV997 BWV996 is contained complete in the folder labelled as such.
Itís perfectly feasible to play these two suites on the lute, as on Jacob Lindbergís very fine BIS recording (BIS-CD-587/8) but itís interesting to hear the lute-harpsichord in action. The guitar, too, especially one with an extended bass range, has also been used to good effect in these works. Segovia and John Williams spring to mind, yet, though Segovia performed the allemande and bouréé from BWV996 and the lute Prelude, BWV999, and John Williams has recorded BWV995-7 complete, some of the Bach transcriptions that both have performed have come from elsewhere than these lute suites. Even Julian Bream, who recorded BWV996 and 998 on the guitar, raided the Violin Partitas for the programme on EMI 5551232 and his RCA recordings, solo and with George Malcolm seem, sadly, to have disappeared without trace, though they remain in my mind and, happily in my CD collection as my benchmarks for this music.
Luca Piancaís performances in the remaining suites on the lute are not quite in the same category as Julian Bream or, indeed, of Barchi on the lute-harpsichord but they are satisfying, if slightly lacking in colour. Hes perhaps at his best in BWV1006a, the borrowed lute version of the Violin Partita BWV1006, another work associated in guitar format with Segovia, John Williams and Julian Bream, especially the third movement gavotte en rondeau. Though a lover of the lute, I have to admit that, while Pianca does his best here, the greater sonority of the guitar makes the music sound more colourful.
Turn to Stephan Schmidts recording of BWV1006a, coupled with BWV995-1000 on a 10-string guitar with extended bass and youll see what I mean about the extra sonority. This 2-CD set (Naïve V4861) is about as good as it gets for a complete set on the guitar. Subscribers to the valuable Naxos Music Library can listen to it there and it can be downloaded in mp3 and lossless sound from eclassical.com. With a lossless copy for domestic playing and an mp3 CDR for use in the car, Ive earmarked this very enjoyable programme for a review in a future Download News. (See Download News 2013/5).
The Violin Sonatas and Partitas, BWV1001-6, are performed by Thomas Zehetmair (P 1983), a recording formerly available on a competitive Ultima budget twofer. Purists who are attracted to the Complete Edition by the preponderance of period performances, however, may find these interpretations a little too ripely romantic for their taste.
The Cello Suites, BWV1007-12, come from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a classic recording made for the Musical Heritage Society as long ago as 1965. If the works for solo violin are likely to offend outright purists, the opposite is true of these solo cello performances, which some have found a little too unyieldingly dry and austere. I do think his playing a little uncompromising and the brightly-lit recording set off my mild tinnitus to the sort of level last experienced when I used to sit on trainee teachers giving a lesson in a echoing gym acoustic.
The best modern alternative would be Steven Isserlis on Hyperion CDA67541/2 (Recording of the Month review also CDA30001/2 October 2010 Download Roundup). I had some issues with Angela Easts recording on Red Priest RP006 review but I also found its challenge to some accepted performance conventions, ably elucidated in an email which she sent me, stimulating.
The Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV1027-29, are performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Herbert Tachezi (P 1969) and the Trio Sonata, BWV1025 and Fuga in g, BWV1026, by Werner Erhardt (violin) and Gerald Hambitzer (harpsichord) (P 1999). Harnoncourt and Tachezi are joined by able partners in the sonatas for flute (violin) and basso continuo, BWV1038/9. Those able partners include Leopold Stastny who also performs the solo flute sonatas, BWV1030-35. All in all, then, the chamber and instrumental music is in safe or very safe hands.
If you know any of Bachs organ music its likely to be the Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV565, one of the fillers on that Walcha Art of Fugue recording, even though scholarly opinion now doubts the attribution to Bach, so thats where I turned first to sample Ton Koopmans recordings of the complete uvre, a series which was actually completed by the 1999 release of the Complete Edition. I dont think that you will be disappointed with that or any of the other recordings here, made on a variety of suitable instruments, all listed with complete specifications in the pdf booklet. BWV565 was recorded on the Schnitger organ of Sankt Jakobi-Kirche in Hamburg, dating from 1689-93. It boasts two 32-foot pedal stops but Koopman doesnt over-employ these to produce the kind of big organ sound which sometimes sinks this piece under its weight.
Just at random I also tried the Fantasia and Fugue in g minor, BWV542, performed on the slightly later (1729-32) organ in the Grote Kerk at Maasluis, and thought that equally impressive; again its powerful without being too massive. Ton Koopman is currently working through the whole Bach opus in a set of fine recordings for his own label, Challenge Classics I currently have his 2-CD recording of the Keyboard Partitas, BWV825-30 awaiting review (CC72574) and recently reviewed his 2-CD set of the Violin and Keyboard Sonatas with Catherine Manson (CC72560).
So far Koopman has wisely mostly avoided re-recording material which he recorded for Erato, but I doubt whether his new recordings when they appear will replace these, made in the late 1990s. There is, indeed, a strong case for considering these organ recordings, the contents of 16 CDs, as much the bedrock of the whole set as the cantatas. There are, of course, highly recommendable alternatives, not least on a rival set of mp3 recordings from Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus NI1721 (Bargain of the Month review), an 8-CD set for which the tracks need first to be dragged onto your hard drive.
Thats available from MusicWeb International for £23 post free, so would serve as an inexpensive supplement to the Teldec USB. You may also wish to consider supplementing Koopmans performances with some of the volumes of the excellent Hyperion series recorded by Christopher Herrick details from hyperion-records.co.uk. These can also be downloaded in mp3 or lossless sound for £7.99 each.
Koopman is the only begetter of all the organ music but the other keyboard works are spread around a number of fine performers: in addition to Gustav Leonhardt, theres Zuzana R?i?ková, Herbert Tachezi, Alan Curtis, Scott Ross, Glen Wilson, Bob van Asperen, Andreas Staier, Michele Barchi and Olivier Baumont.
All these performances are historically informed. Normally I dont like Bach on the modern piano, even from as eminent a performer as András Schiff, but I make three exceptions and you may wish to add them to your library to supplement these harpsichord performances. Glenn Gould, wayward and incorrect as he was, brings the music to life, especially the Goldberg Variations see my review and review by Geoff Molyneux of his first recording, reissued on Alto (ALC1164). Better still in the Goldbergs and elsewhere in Bachs keyboard music are Murray Perahia (Sony single CD or in the recent bumper 65-CD/5-DVD collection, The First 40 Years) and Angela Hewitt (Hyperion CDA67305 review).
The performance of the Goldberg Variations on the Teldec USB is one of the oldest recordings included, played in 1965 with tasteful decoration by Gustav Leonhardt on a 1962 copy of a 1745 instrument. Thats the equivalent of the Neolithic period in terms of historically informed practice, when the likes of George Malcolm were playing monster harpsichords, so Leonhardt must have sounded unbelievably gentle by comparison; indeed, Lionel Salter (1967), though praising the performance commented on the restraint of the registration. That doesnt mean that he doesnt bring variety of approach to the different variations; I found the performance as enjoyable as any that Ive heard and the recording hardly show its age. Even if you decide not to buy the Complete Edition, the separate release of this performance of the Goldbergs (details at end of review) should be on your shopping list.
At 47:41 Leonhardt doesnt include repeats for those you need Matthew Halls recent version from Linn, which runs over to a second CD (CKD356). My only doubt about that very impressive recording was whether most listeners would want a version which runs to 91 minutes March 2010 Download Roundup.
The English and French Suites, here shuffled in order and interspersed, were recorded by Alan Curtis in 1980 (though not released in the UK till 1989) on a 1728 Zell harpsichord. I compared them with a new recording of the English Suites by Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi, downloaded in 24-bit sound from eclassical.com, where its also available less expensively in mp3 and 16-bit lossless (HMU90 7591/2). Ive had time only to dip into the Egarr recording look out for a full review in a forthcoming Download News.
These suites are often regarded as small beer by comparison with the Goldbergs but both Curtis and Egarr, by not trying to make the music sound greater than it is, present very enjoyable performances. Ideas of tempo vary quite widely between the two players if, as Ive seen suggested, Egarrs timings are canonical, those of Curtis are not; in fact, however, I very much enjoyed both recordings.
Some of the Teldec recordings are less than top recommendations. I wouldnt, for example, go for these versions of the Violin Concertos as a first choice (Nikolaus and Alice Harnoncourt et al, from 1982 in the regular BWV1041-3 plus 1056R and 1060R on Volume 144), though they are much more than adequate and they would make a good period-instrument foil to any modern-instrument version which you may have.
As I was considering the alternatives, Harmonia Mundi released a new recording from Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Golz, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (HMC902145) to which I listened in a 24-bit download from eclassical.com; could this newly-released album be the ideal period-instrument alternative for these concertos?
In fact, it isnt a direct replacement: both include the three standard concertos, BWV1041-3, but the Teldec concludes with BWV1054R and BWV1060R, the latter a reconstruction for violin and oboe, both convincing alternative versions of works which exist only as keyboard concertos. The new recording instead offers the putative three-violin original of BWV1064R, less commonly performed but another convincing reconstruction of a concerto which survives for three keyboard instruments. In hard economic terms, that would give the Teldec at 73 minutes the advantage over the new releases 61 minutes if we were comparing two single-disc versions.
Performance-wise, however, the new recording has all the energy that I thought slightly wanting from the Harnoncourts on Teldec. Theres sensitivity, too, especially in the slow movements, without making these sound sentimental, and the recording has the advantage of modern sound, with the download available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless and for a little more in better-than-CD 24/96 lossless. I see that Im not alone in regarding this new release very highly: one magazine has already awarded an outstanding accolade and Simon Thompson has made it a Recording of the Month.
Teldec include elsewhere BWV1064R in a performance by Christopher Hirons, Monica Huggett and Catherine Mackintosh with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood, a 1985 recording borrowed from Decca on CD153 of the Complete Edition. The latter sounds lighter in tone than the new recording not entirely a matter of recording differences: the Freiburgers tend to have a fuller sound than other period ensembles. Both are enjoyable, with sprightly outer movements and full weight slightly more, but not too much weight, from the Freiburgers in the slow movement.
You may find yourself wondering why some of the folders on the USB are empty. The Mass in A, BWV234, is actually contained in the folder for its predecessor in F, BWV233 it would have been better to have labelled the folder with both numbers and omitted that for BWV234 and the three settings of the Sanctus, BWV239-241, are regarded as spurious, which begs the question why folders for them were included; they are not listed in the pdf booklet, so you wouldnt think of searching for them.
Several of these recordings have recently been reissued separately, mostly as part of Teldecs das alte Werk 50th anniversary celebrations and some have been reviewed here on MusicWeb International:
2564611372: Double concertos (with concertos by Bachs sons): Leonhardt and Harnoncourt review and review of earlier release;
2564694575: Orchestral Suites: Harnoncourt;
2564694757: Musical Offering: Harnoncourt;
2564698534: Art of Fugue: Tachezi;
2564608162: Cello Suites: Harnoncourt;
2564698532: Goldberg Variations: Leonhardt;
2564692817: Complete organ Music: Koopman;
2564679404: Selection of organ toccatas and fugues: Koopman;
2564698540: Christmas Oratorio: Harnoncourt;
2564696467: Magnificat (with Handel): Harnoncourt;
2564698538: b minor Mass: Harnoncourt;
2564690571: Missa (1733): Harnoncourt review;
2564696444: St John Passion: Harnoncourt;
2564692592: Cantatas 208 and 212: Harnoncourt
2564690468: Lutheran Masses: Corboz
Though these reissues are at budget or lower middle-price, typically around £5-7, with 2-CD sets around £8, as with the downloads of the cantatas you wouldnt need to purchase too many to be approaching the price of the Complete Edition.
Ive mentioned the comprehensive track-listing 354-page booklet with performer details and dates, which you can use as an index to the programme, but there is another pdf index where the music is listed by BWV number as well as an Excel spread-sheet which works in the same way. In addition there are very useful shorter booklets of notes for each of the major works: Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, Art of Fugue and St Matthew Passion.
All in all, then, I cannot imagine any lover of Bach not thinking this an excellent bargain. With very few exceptions the performances are among the best available, the 320kb/s mp3 sound is much more than acceptable and the presentation is comparable to that offered with the physical box set. Even if you already have a considerable library of Bach recordings and even if you own some of these works in these Teldec performances this merits a strong recommendation. There isnt a category for USB of the Month; if there were, this would be it. Even sampling this wonderful set has taken me several weeks youll see from some of my comments that I started before Holy Week and Im completing this review a week after Easter but I have found the whole experience very enjoyable.
A splendid bargain; if there were a category for USB of the Month, this would be it.