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Complete Bach Edition Box set, Limited Edition

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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

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Amazon.com: 13 reviews
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
147 out of 153 ain't bad! 29 April 2001
By Gontroppo - Published on Amazon.com
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.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
A Treasure Trove 7 Mar. 2004
By Jason Hurd - Published on Amazon.com
This set is the culmination of several decades of work on the part of the West German record label Teldec (formerly known as Telefunken-Decca). With their early-music subdivision Das Alte Werk (similar to DG's Archiv or Decca's L'Oiseau-Lyre), Teldec have been in the forefront of exploring the world of period instruments and authentic performance practice, with special emphasis on the works of J.S.Bach. The lion's share of recordings here was originally made for Das Alte Werk, with the odd exception here and there licensed from other labels in order to fill in the gaps. The centerpiece of the set is the famous recording of the 199 church cantatas by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. If you're not familiar with the cantatas, there's a whole world of drama, color and expression right here waiting for you. You'll also be surprised to learn how many of the "tunes" you know from popular arrangements, like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and "Sleepers Awake" are actually movements from cantatas. The names of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt pop up again and again; they were both mainstays of the Teldec roster. Leonhardt gives us his 1965 Goldberg Variations on a Dulcken harpsichord whose every tone is like a bell, and Harnoncourt's "home" recording of the Cello Suites (never intended for general release) shows the ferment of a great musical mind. Ton Koopman gives us his provocative and controversial re-thinkings of the organ works, and Thomas Zehetmair's performances of the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas are like dramatic scenes spoken by a solo violin. Here are the uniquely bizarre Brandenburg Concertos by Il Giardino Armonico; the rhetorical and transparent performance of the motets conducted by Harnoncourt (perhaps his best-ever recording); Leonhardt's relaxed and smiling versions of the harpsichord concertos; Alice Harnoncourt's tawny, leonine performances of the sonatas for violin and harpsichord; Harnoncourt's chiaroscuro-filled performance of the Christmas Oratorio, and so on. This set is one of the most worthwhile CD buys you could make. You will never be bored with this to dip into over the years.
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
A wonderful collection - including WONDERFUL organ works 19 Dec. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
In contrast to the review by "A Bach Lover", I assert that Ton Koopman's performance in this set is wonderful. I do encourage you to buy the sampler and listen to Toccatta and Fugue in Dmin. This is the only performance of the piece I've ever heard where the performer actually tried to recreate not just the notes on the page, but the SPIRIT of the music--Koopman tries to actually get inside Bach's head. There are many nuances and articulations that performer-composers leave unwritten in a piece, especially Bach. The question then arises "Given what's written, what would he have actually played?" A particular trill articulation may have different meanings to different people, and perhaps have even been played differently every time Bach himself performed the piece. That single little trill mark at the beginning of Tocata and Fugue in Dmin may have just been a note Bach made to himself to play "some embelished series of notes"--or it may have indicated the precise A-G-A triple note series traditionally played--we will never know. While you may disagree on precisely what interpretations Bach may have used, there is no right or wrong in music--it is about the spirit. For the spirit and effort of trying to answer the question "Now what would Bach have actually played?", Ton Koopman should be applauded. Besides that, the organ works are very clear recordings on wonderful Baroque Dutch and German instruments which are just a thrill to listen to.
47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
It is beautiful music. Its not only for experts. 5 Feb. 2000
By Cheshire - Published on Amazon.com
I grew up trying to play a guitar, adoring the Beatles and The Doors. Now jazz and classical music has my attention. I love good music. This is good music. I don't think Bach ever did a crummy song. You don't have to be an expert ear to enjoy Bach. This HUGE CD project takes a year to hear...I'm almost half through it. If you plain love Bach, this is a fabulous collection. Some of the critics must have the type of ears that hear minute faults. Or they actually learned to play an instrument. I didn't. I just can't get enough of Bach! This music covers religious singing (in German, that adds to the mystical quality) that is definitely cathedral choir quality- it sends shivers through me - and operatic music, grand organs, polyphonic and counterpoint orchestral melodies that sound intelligent and clever and miraculous to me (I had to ask someone who knew about music about what the parts that I love are called). I'm one of the musically ignorant, but I'm glad I bought this. It is GRAND music. Turn it up and enjoy.
26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Treasure chest of great music 30 Nov. 1999
By Bach fan - Published on Amazon.com
This complete Bach edition from Teldec really is an event of epic proportions. It goes back to the beginnings of the "original instrument" movement. And it comes right up to the present, with some new performances by exciting names in Bach performance today. There's no way this could be the "definitive" version of Bach's music--no matter how great a "Hamlet" you;ve seen, there's always another great interpretation waiting in the wings. But it's amazing just to have the works at your fingertips like this, and with some real highlights (especially in the choral music and keyboard volumes), this will delight you for years to come.
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