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Excellent Complete Cantatas
on 27 October 2013
The Gardiner cantatas come in an attractive cardboard box. Each CD is enclosed within that box in its own cardboard slipcase, with very attractive photographic portraits by Steve McMurray on the covers (a different portrait for each CD). The overall effect is of thoughtful beauty, but it's marred a little by the ease with which the cardboard is damaged. Mine came with a 'roller mark' along the entire set, in the middle of the top border, which disappointed a little. In short, nice 'set aesthetics', marred a little by the choice of materials and the packing implementation.
But we're here for the music not the packaging, so what to say about that? First, let's get factual. There are 187 different BWV numbers included: obviously, you get most of the BWV 1 to 227 series (the cantatas proper), but you also get 668, 1044 and 1048. You also get two recordings of BWV 150 (on CDs 15 and 21).
BWV 15 - not by Bach at all
BWV 29 - By Bach
BWV 41 - By Bach
BWV 53 - Probably not by Bach anyway
BWV 106 - By Bach
BWV 118 - Not a cantata as such, really
BWV 119 - By Bach
BWV 120 - By Bach
BWV 142 - Not by Bach
BWV 157 - By Bach
BWV 160 - Not by Bach
BWV 189 - Probably not by Bach
BWV 193 - By Bach, but incomplete
BWV 201 - 224 - Secular Cantatas
So there are about six genuine omissions, and other apparent 'missings' are down to the fact that the cantatas concerned are not by Bach, not wholly by Bach or by Bach but not intended for church performance. The omissions are, it seems to me, relatively trivial. I certainly wouldn't mark the set down a whole star in consequence!
Each of the cantatas that are present were recorded live, with recorded dress rehearsals being used to cover up any disasters or audience coughing fits. I think you would be hard-pressed to tell that audiences were present: I've yet to hear an intrusive cough, shuffle of feet or other intrusion. However, the performances definitely have that 'live' quality -a heightened intensity, a vibrancy that speaks of adrenaline!
I have the Leusink and Suzuki cantata cycles to compare with, and Gardiner knocks the spots of Leusink, whose choir frequently sounds awful, with a tendency for the Sopranos to 'hoot' or 'bloom' excessively. Leusink's soloists are also often sub-par. Suzuki and Gardiner are a more interesting comparison: I sometimes find Gardiner a bit plodding where Suzuki is exciting, but I often find Gardiner's performances more consistent than Suzuki's. In BWV 130, for example, Gardiner doesn't sound much like he's attending the war in heaven between Michael and Satan. A tea-dance might be more his thing. Suzuki, by comparison, is much punchier, zestier, faster... and much more satisfying as a result. That said, Suzuki's tenors and basses in that particular performance are less prominent than the Gardiner equivalents, so the double fugue is much harder to hear properly. Overall, it's difficult to choose between them!
Another favourite of mine is BWV 127. Gardiner's sound is much richer than Suzuki's, partly because he has the choir sing the chorale tune in the first movement which everyone else just has played by the violins. It's unorthodox, and I can't decide if it's the right thing to do or not... but the effect is undeniably lovely.
Gardiner's soloists sound very good: I've yet to hear a dud performance. Leusink's bass, in particular, not infrequently sounds not up to the technical task, but none of Gardiner's sound out of their depth.
Suzuki's and Gardiner's orchestras sound about equally as good, in my view. I wouldn't like to have to choose between them, anyway!
The price of this set might seem a little on the high side, but that's probably because we're spoiled these days with dirt-cheap boxed sets everywhere you look. You'd have to be a real curmudgeon to begrudge paying about £3 per disk. Additionally, a lot of those 'everything composer X wrote' boxed sets tend to include performances from different performers at different times and of highly variable musical quality. This set, on the other hand, presents a coherent, cohesive and consistently-excellent vision of Bach's cantatas.
So, I'd unhesitatingly recommend it. Niggles about packaging aside, any reservations I may have about it are simply those you'd be bound to have when comparing 180+ performances of one impressive conductor with another. If you have the Suzuki, I'd still say get the Gardiner anyway: the differences in interpretation are interesting and enthralling, and will provide hours (weeks/months!) of interest. Meanwhile, Suzuki isn't available (as far as I know) as an all-in-one boxed set, so you're looking at spending up big to get his equivalent.
Here, then, you get excellent performances, thoughtful and intelligent interpretation, fine musicianship... and all boxed up in one relatively cheap and highly convenient package. You can't really go wrong here, I feel.