Jackson K. Eskew
2007-05-10 22:47:38 UTC
less than $1/CD:
Notice that you can buy it even more cheaply, brand new, from other
Lest you think this is a poor quality collection, read the glowing
reviews there. Also, read this from a pro music critic:
Robert R. Reilly
This month I will be reviewing 155 CDs because I received a boxed set
of the complete works of Bach from the Brilliant Classics label,
distributed by Koch Entertainment. This year marks Bach's 322nd
birthday; these recordings, including new digital ones of all the 200
sacred cantatas on period instruments and sung by a boys' choir, were
mostly made to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death, which
was observed in 2000.
This edition was first issued in 23 installments and, believe it or
not, offered in grocery stores in the Netherlands at very modest
prices. Bach cantatas with your cantelope? The Dutch said yes. More
than 100,000 copies of each box were sold within the first two years
in the Netherlands alone. Now Brilliant Classics has updated the
series with a few new recordings, put the CDs in space-saving slip
covers, and collected them in a foot-long box.
I remember when, at the time of the 250th anniversary, another
complete set of recordings of Bach's 1,126 compositions was offered by
the Hanssler Classic label. I did not leap at the special, limited-
time offer, because it was still a hefty $1,360. Now I see a surviving
Hanssler set offered on Amazon.com for $2,409 by some entrepreneur.
The price may be worth it for Bach devotees, but it is daunting for
those who are only just setting out to explore the master, or whose
children eat regularly.
So here is the good news. You may have thought that you could not
afford the musical luxury of a Baroque prince, but you can. In fact,
you can surpass it. The Brilliant Bach box lists for around $140, but
can presently be purchased through Amazon for $108-somewhere near 70
cents per CD. That is a staggering bargain, even if you were just
buying the plastic. (I mean that literally. Blank recordable discs
cost almost as much.) However, you are obtaining priceless treasures
in more than
adequate-in fact, some wonderful-performances that will fill you with
humility and wonder that God ever created such a being as Bach to give
The recordings that Brilliant Classics did not make itself were
licensed from top-flight labels such as ASV, BIS, CRD, and Meridian
and include performances by artists like lutenist Jakob Lindberg,
harpsichordist Bob van Asperen, and organist Hans Fagius. Fagius
recorded all of Bach's organ music for BIS between 1983 and 1989. BIS
CDs retail for around $20 each. By themselves, the organ discs, in
their initial incarnation, would cost far more than this entire set.
In fact, some of these recordings are still available at full price in
their original form.
This leaves unaddressed the inevitable question of how these
performances stack up to the competition, which, in the masterpieces,
is substantial. The unsurprising answer is that, in any single work,
there are most likely preferable performances, and overall there is
some unevenness, as there would have to be in any enterprise this
massive. However, no sane person will obtain this box thinking it will
surpass everything that went before it.
Nothing, for instance, will shake my allegiances to Henryk Szeryng's
and Nathan Milstein's sublime performances of the Sonatas and Partitas
for Solo Violin. And I vastly prefer Bach's keyboard music played on
the piano, sometimes by Glenn Gould, sometimes by Murray Perahia,
depending on my mood. Yet here, all of it is performed on the
harpsichord, the twangy sound of which is not my favorite. However,
Bach wrote for the harpsichord, so I am happy to have it in this
version as a reference.
No apologies are necessary for the recordings of the orchestral works.
The Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites are very finely
done by Musica Amphion and La Stravaganza Köln, respectively. The
chamber music receives some very spirited performances by groups like
Trio Sonnerie in the Violin Sonatas. The Magnificat gets a ripping
performance by the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, under
Of course, these are notes from only having sampled the collection.
The release close to trebled my Bach collection, so I have not come
close to listening to all 155 CDs. However, I have already learned
some new things. For instance, I am not sure I have heard Bach's lute
music on the lute; it is often performed on the guitar. The two CDs
here offer some of the most soothing music for late-night listening
you could wish for.
Displaying my own ignorance, I did not know Bach's four Lutheran
Masses at all. They have been so overshadowed by the great B Minor
Mass that you may have missed them as well. Like the B Minor Mass,
they are "parody" works, in that they draw upon music Bach composed
earlier for his cantatas. There is nothing particularly Lutheran about
them. They use Latin rather than German texts, and are missing only
the Credo-in other words, what a Catholic would call a Missa brevis.
Hardly negligible in length, each lasts about half an hour. They are
glorious, stunningly beautiful, exciting works that would have made
Bach's reputation had he never written the great B Minor. They are
dances before the Divine.
The recordings offered by Brilliant Classics are the oldest of the
set, hailing from 1972. Some may find the style not quite up-to-date
in period performance practices, but I love it, particularly as sung
by the great Bach tenor Peter Schreier and bass Theo Adam. (Schreier
both conducts and sings, along with the great sopranos Arleen Auger
and Edith Mathis, in the secular cantatas.) Conductor Martin Flaming
directs the Dresden Choir and Philharmonic with the requisite level of
energy to bring these works bounding to life. I confess to listening
to these two CDs again and again when I should have been delving into
other works for this review. For introducing me to these gems, I will
be forever grateful to Brilliant Classics.
In other words, it really is worth having everything. I am sure other
discoveries await me. The program notes and texts are contained on a
CD-ROM that comes with the set (though, alas, there are no
translations of the German libretti).
The munificence of this collection incites some reflections on the
munificence of Bach. What is the meaning of his extraordinary
outpouring? His compositions are like metaphysical dances that engage
with reality at so deep a level that the source of that reality comes
shining through. You may try to listen to Bach as a connoisseur, but
it won't work. At some point in the process, unaccountably, tears
start to form. This man had a way of kneading reality with music,
patiently, persistently, until it revealed itself. What is revealed is
reached through an astonishing sense of musical order that reaches up
to a divine order that is not so much order as it is love.
Bach is like a natural theologian in the world of sound; that is why
even his secular music is sacred. With his incomparable counterpoint
and fugal genius, Bach explores the potential of a theme until it is
exhausted-not in the sense that it is tired or becomes tiresome, but
in the sense that it is complete, in that you know more fully what it
truly is, as every facet of it has been shown. This is why Bach can
start with the most ordinary thing, examine it in what may seem a
prosaic way, and continue until, all of a sudden, the tears begin
because something of such tremendous beauty has been revealed out of
the ordinary. Fugues may seem the least likely form of music to
provoke such profound emotion, but Bach does this with his art.
One Bach biographer, Christoph Wolff, suggested that the ultimate goal
of Bach's musical science was perhaps to find "an argument for the
existence of God." Bach's first biographer, J. N. Forkel, wrote that
Bach "considered his parts as if they were persons who conversed
together in a select company. If there were three, each could
sometimes be silent and listen to the others till it again had
something to the purpose to say." This is indeed the impression his
extraordinary fugues create, but what are these persons conversing
about? That committed non-Christian Goethe came closest to the matter
when he said of Bach's music: "It is as though the eternal harmony has
a conversation with itself." Through the beneficence of Brilliant
Classics, you can now eavesdrop.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for Crisis magazine. He can be
reached at ***@msn.com.