J.S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Box set
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Audio CD, Box set, 10 Nov 2014
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Between 1999 and 2006, the legendary baroque music specialist Ton Koopman brought together a stunning array of singers to record the complete cantatas of J.S. Bach alongside his own Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. Released originally mostly in 3-CD sets, this wonderful cycle is available in its entirety. The 67 separate CDs have now been gathered together in a box with a booklet that includes a complete tracklisting and information about each recording.
Along the way these releases were acclaimed throughout the world, and received many major music prizes, including a BBC Music Magazine Award in 2006 for Volume 22. Featured soloists include most of the great modern day interpreters of the music of Bach's time.
Soprano: Barbara Schlick, Caroline Stam, Ruth Holton, Els Bongers, Anne Grimm, Lisa Larsson, Sibylla Rubens, Ruth Ziesak, Dorothea Röschmann, Johannette Zomer, Sandrine Piau, Marlis Petersen, Deborah York
Alto: Elisabeth von Magnus, Kai Wessel, Andreas Scholl, Peter de Groot, Bogna Bertosz, Bernhard Landauer, Michael Chance, Annette Markert, James Gilchrist, Franziska Gottwald, Nathalie Stutzmann
Tenor: Christoph Prégardien, Guy de Mey, Paul Agnew, Jeremy Ovenden, Gert Türk, Jörg Dürmüller
Bass: Klaus Mertens, Donald Bentvelsen
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So now to the recordings themselves. Koopman signed a contract with BMG to record the complete cantatas on the Erato label, but the record company pulled the plug on him halfway through the project. He remortgaged his home to raise the money to buy back the copyright and reissue them on his own label, continuing the cycle to its conclusion. This in itself illustrates the level of his commitment. But was it a success? Yes it was, but in a recording project so large, taking several years to complete, it has to be a qualified yes in that some of the recordings are better than others. On the whole, however, both artistically and technically, this is a fine set. I have sampled some of the Gardiner and Suzuki recordings and whilst I don't wish to denigrate any honest attempt at such an immense recording programme, for me Koopman has the edge.
There is so much to enjoy here and for me Koopman scores over his competitors in his inclusion of several additional and alternative movements for many of the cantatas. This makes it for me, the most complete set available. But I must emphasise "for me", others may well have a different view and I support and celebrate their right to an opinion - what a monotonous world we would live in if everyone thought the same!
So yes, I am happy with my set of these works, arguably some of the most important vocal compositions of the last 300 years. I chose this set to have a unified picture of these wonderful works. But if you prefer Rilling, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Gardiner or Suzuki, that's your right.
Let me start by pointing out the fantastic reviews of all four sets mentioned here by Mark Sealy on classical.net. Sealy is, no doubt, a much more competent, insightful, and eloquent commentator than I can hope to be. His enthusiasm for all four recordings inspired me to add Koopman’s set to my collection, and I am glad I did.
Out of these four sets, Rilling’s is the one most different. It has been called romantic by some reviewers, but I don’t think it is. Rather, Rilling keeps one foot in the great tradition of first generation German Bach specialists, Fritz Werner and Karl Richter. The music manages to be festive and deeply felt at the same time, conveying a unique sense of extroversion that fails to feel superficial at any times. While I find myself listening to any one of the other sets more often than to this one, some of Rilling’s renditions are personal favorites, including BWV 198 and 199. On 71 CDs and a CD-ROM, all sacred and secular cantatas are included.
Reading his book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, I was not surprised to hear Gardiner state he had learned early on to approach Bach through his rhythms, first and foremost. It shows. The so called Pilgrimage stands out for its emphasis on rhythm, and clarity of structure. (Choir, soloists, and orchestra are fabulous on the other sets, too.) No other set conveys quite as much sense of large scale structure, as this one. On the downside (for me, that is), there are moments when Gardiner has so much bounce in his step, as to border on the involuntarily comic, and I lose all sense of listening to church music. Needless to say, some listeners will love this set for this particular quality. The cantatas are arranged by the Sunday (or holiday) they were written for, so you can have Bach’s music accompany you through the year.
While Gardiner talks about music in the castle of heaven, Suzuki is the one who sounds like he is making it. That is not just due to the incredible sound quality of his set on hybrid SACD (playable on all ordinary CD-players, too). While his tempos are rarely slow, there is a sense of almost otherworldly calm serenity to the music, which I find entrancing. Listen to BWV 4 (disc 1): Yuriko Kurisu’s soprano has a crystalline clarity, which almost makes her voice resemble a silver bell. I like the presentation of this set best of all: the CDs are color coded (by the place they written, and the yearly cycle), going from earliest to latest. As in Gardiner’s and Rilling’s set, you get indexes by BWV number and by title.
Koopman’s set receives the lowest ratings here – please note that those ratings concern the packaging or the price, not the music! In fact, the comments concerning the packaging and price tend to contain false information: it is not true, that there is no index: the booklet (yes, there is one, stating the titles and duration of all individual tracks) includes an index by BWV number on the final pages. Since many non-German listeners will have a hard time remembering the German titles anyway, this will probably be sufficient for a lot of buyers. Also, it is not (that) expensive anymore: I got my copy on Amazon Italy for 270 Euros. No small change, to be sure, but nowhere near extortion either, given you get 67 CDs of all the cantatas, including so called appendices, different versions of individual arias. Shopping at amazon.it is no different from shopping at other amazon stores. You log in as usual. After that you don’t have to know the language to shop, and the parcel arrived within a couple of weeks.
Koopman’s set quickly became my personal favorite (with Suzuki in a very close second place). Of all four sets, Koopman’s rather understated cycle is the one that most clearly transports me into a church, listening to sacred music, rather than to a performance of works of art. While I am not religious myself, I find this adding to the impact, and credibility, of Bach’s music. There is an overwhelming sense of immediate communication, of an expression of the human condition, as experienced by Bach. I love every moment of it, and will probably favor this set during the dark winter months. The cantatas are arranged form earliest to latest, though it must be pointed out that his sequence is not identical to Suzuki’s: there is still research to be done.
My preferences, no doubt, say more about my personal taste, than about the quality of the music, which is stellar in all four cases. I recommend each set for its individual qualities.
(Please excuse use of American spelling. English is not my native language, and American spelling is what I am used to.)
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