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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
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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).

What's "missing"?

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.
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on 6 November 2013
It's great that we now have so many versions of this wonderful music, where previously there was very little. We tend to forget how forgotten this music was - virtually nobody knew BWV147's "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" (Jesu, joy of man's desiring) until Dame Myra Hess started using it as an encore in her concerts in the 1930s. Now we have Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Rilling, Koopman, Leusink, Gardiner and most recently Suzuki. Something for every taste and pocket, traditional, HIP, modern instruments, "old" instruments, contraltos, counter-tenors, boy sopranos, the works.

I collected this entire set as individual sets as they were released by SDG. SDG meant "Soli Deo Gloria" (to the glory of God alone), which was how Bach signed off his cantata scores, but it was also apparently "sod Deutsche Grammophon", after the famous falling out with Gardiner over its refusal to issue the set, which led to Gardiner doing it himself. I'm pleased to see that there seems to have been an element of kissing and making up, because this set includes four non-SDG pilgrimage releases, which DG Archiv issued. So, everything that was recorded on the pilgrimage (plus Vol.28, the Ascension Day cantatas, which were recorded later) is available.

So, what commends Gardiner over the competition? Nothing really - this will always be a matter of individual taste, and the dedication of the others to this wonderful body of music is no less than Gardiner's, and their approaches no less valid. And of course there will always be individual cantatas where one will prefer someone else's version over Gardiner's. Bach is said to have liked brisk tempi; Gardiner, with a choir that appears to be able to perform miracles on command, seems sometimes to take it to extremes and not allow the music to breathe properly - one example is the wonderful opening chorale of BWV137 (the hymn still sung in churches as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation"), which is, to my ears, taken far too fast. However, these instances are overshadowed by all the times that Gardiner (to my ears) gets it dead right - the marvellous BWV140 ("Sleepers, awake") is done to perfection. Overall, the standards of performance and recording are extremely high, and Gardiner's thoughtful analytical essays on the music are a pleasure to read. Bach's deeply-felt Lutheranism was at the core of his very being, and therefore of this music; Gardiner understands this completely and seeks to bring this out in performance, and in general succeeds admirably.

In short, this is an outstanding set available at an outstanding price, and it belongs on the shelves of every Bach lover.

P.S. Here's a sample - Gardiner and his merry (wo)men doing BWV11 "Lobet Gott in seinem Reichen" (the Ascension oratorio) at the 2013 Proms:

[...] [Sorry miserable Amazon gits won't allow the link, but you can find it on YouTube]
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on 22 December 2013
I could just add my words of praise to those of most of the other reviewers here, but if you are a prospective purchaser it might be more useful to explain how I have tackled the set from a practical standpoint. The effort I have put into getting the most out of these recording is, in itself, an indicator of the high esteem in which I hold them.
If you're a dedicated audiophile you will play your CDs again and again on your components. If on the other hand you prefer the convenience of a portable player, where you can easily reference individual cantatas and with the minimum downgrade of audio quality, here's one way to get the most out of your investment (Warning: some further investment may be necessary):
First rip the entire set to a new library in iTunes, preferably using Apple Lossless format. Then create a playlist for each individual cantata, titling each playlist BWV 001 CD12, and so on. This keeps the cantatas in correct numerical order and helps with matching the sleeve notes and so forth. If, like me, you are OCD-inclined when it comes to organising your music collection, you will also want to scan - or download if available by the time you read this - the artwork from each slipcase so you can immerse yourself in the complete product. It took me 3 or 4 evenings to accomplish all of this; time thoroughly well spent in my view (sorry, my artwork scans are too large to upload for sharing). Finally sync the whole lot to an iPod Classic, since it's unlikely they will all fit onto an any other kind of portable player, even in the leanest of file formats.
If you want to follow the scores, you can download them in PDF format (to read on your tablet or whatever) using a link from SDG's Cantata Finder website at [...] an excellent companion resource to the recordings, or from the Bach Cantata Website. The only other thing you may need is a decent set of over-the-ear headphones, such as Bose QC15 noise-cancelling model. No in-ear buds will do justice to the recordings. It's hard to imagine what the great Cantor of Leipzig would think if he knew that future generations would be able to turn on his vast output like a tap to bring them closer to Heaven.
This is a very special item for a music lover to own, a musical treasure trove to last a lifetime. Grab it while you can; being a limited edition, it may not always be easily affordable. I took useful advice from Amazon Customer's review. He (or she) helpfully lists the few works that are omitted from the set, but I must correct him/her on one point: BWV 41, for New Year's Day, is not missing. It's on CD2, and very fine it is too.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 December 2014
I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio, Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the DVD of the Christmas Oratorio discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

One note on the box set (I bought the volumes individually as they were first released). It is claimed that this is a limited edition, yet it has been on sale now for quite some time. I'm surprised that they didn't sell out the limited edition; or, it's just not limited, and they have repressed it. It's not a big deal, but too many labels release sets that they say are limited editions to try and get people to buy them, thinking they'll disappear quickly, only to repress them when they are successful.
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on 24 October 2013
Please be aware that this is NOT a complete set of Bach's sacred cantatas. It is the complete recordings from the Gardiner Bach Cantata pilgrimage.

There is no doubt about the quality of the performances and recordings. Pick any CD at random from the set, pop it into your stereo and you'll be delighted. However, the card sleeves in which the discs are housed are rather thin and I wonder how well they will stand up to repeated handling.

Don't hesitate to buy if you want all of Gardiner's Bach and you can put up with the flimsy CD sleeves, but if you are looking for the COMPLETE cantatas you will need to look elsewhere.
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on 31 December 2014
My comments on this are:

Excellent collection but I find this a bit pricey. I am looking forward to the Japanese chap releasing his set in SACD format.

It would be great to compare but I hope its not going to cost £150 or more.

Downgraded to 4 stars as its very dear, dear.
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on 2 May 2014
Well worth waiting for, and excellent value at the price. Good to have a cycle recorded in the modern digital era alongside the earlier cycles such as Teldec's cycle originally recorded 40 years or so ago (which I would still listen to).
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on 28 January 2014
Firstly I have no problem with the music which is wonderful, or with the paper sleeves which I think are practical - I shall probably digitize the set twice in different formats and then not touch the disks again.

But the ID3 tags are a nightmare. Clearly these discs have been included in other sets or as individual discs but the tags have not been updated. So, where both sets have the same material on each disk just the title is different and the cover art. But some are completely screwed up, with tags that aren't even close to the actual material on the disc.

I think this is very poor in a set of this quality and it turns the pleasure in hearing a new recording for the first time into a fight with the media player to get a semblance of the right information against the right track.

Not happy at all with this.
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on 2 October 2014
Whilst I have the Suzuki collection and thoroughly enjoy that, this collection well worth exploring for its different and direct approach. Some tempi are faster and I feel Gardiner is more ridged where Suzuki has a softer more subtle approach. I'd still listen to both having either way, it is all glorious music.
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on 28 April 2014
I have some of the original double-cd releases and they are wonderful.

Re the full boxed set: Are the cantatas ordered according to the Lutheran Church Calendar (as in the original double-CD releases) or according to BWV number ?
I prefer Bach cantatas to be grouped according to the relevant days in the Church Calendar. It is then much easier to listen to them week by week in the correct order.
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