Pieter Jan Leusink, conductor of Holland Boys Choir and Netherlands Bach Collegium and artistic director of the Cantatas project, managed somehow, against all odds, to create a true best-seller out of what is arguably some of the finest music in the western world, but music which is generally considered to be "difficult".
The two other labels who released complete sets of Bach's works, Teldec and Haenssler, did indeed record new discs for their sets, but each of them already had the cantatas in the box. Teldec had the groundbreaking first complete recording of the cantatas by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicolas Harnoncourt, and Haenssler had the later set by Helmut Rilling. Yet the Brilliant Classics set is, oddly enough, the first complete digital recording of the cantatas. (It should be noted that two other complete sets are ongoing: one by Maasaki Suzuki, for Bis, and another by Ton Koopman, for Erato.)
The cantatas were initially panned by critics outside of the Netherlands, and some within, on their release. Of course, one just naturally assumes that such a quick recording schedule must lead to poor-quality work. In fact, I remember when I first heard about the set, on the Internet, and people were basically dismissing it as second-rate. But as time went on, more people discovered this set and found it to be not so bad; in fact, it really is quite good. Naturally, it has its weaknesses, but these weaknesses are no more apparent than in the other two complete sets, those by Rilling and Leonhardt/Harnoncourt. The former can be criticized for his hybrid approach between baroque music and modern forces and instruments; the latter is often criticized for the choice of boys to sing all the solo voices, leading to some very poor performances by boys whose voices are not up to the emotional intensity of the music.
But Leusink is not as dogmatic as Leonhardt/Harnoncourt, nor is he as free in his choices as Rilling. He manages to maintain a rare level of emotion and energy throughout the almost 200 cantatas; he used basically the same musicians, choir and soloists for each cantata. On the other hand, Leonhardt and Harnoncourt were unable to do so, because it took them nearly 20 years to record their set. While Leusink's cantatas may have some weaknesses due to the way they were recorded - they were not recorded in their entirety, for reasons of time; on certain days, only choral movements were recorded, on others arias, in order to not have the musicians sit around doing nothing. So, not one of the cantatas was actually performed completely for this set. There are occasional cantatas where this seems evident, where there is a lack of coherence among the different movements. Nevertheless, listening to the entire set, rather than focusing on individual cantatas, one is truly amazed by the quality of the music.
To choose just one cantata to look at more closely, I have selected one of the most moving cantatas, the Actus Tragicus (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit - God’s Time is the Best Time) BWV 106. This cantata opens with a slow, haunting sonatina, an instrumental movement played on two recorders against a lush background of viols and organ continuo. This is one of Bach’s most memorable instrumental movements among his cantatas, and is played well - the balance of the instruments is fine, though a bit rough. The second section of the cantata is a long vocal section opening with four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) singing together. Many recordings of this cantata use a choir for this section, but recent recordings have featured a one-voice-per-part strategy here, as does this one. The texture of this is excellent, although the balance between the voices wavers a bit. The tenor, bass and soprano each have ariosos within this section. Tenor Knut Schock enters a bit heavily, but his voice is quite appropriate for the melancholy tone of his section. Bass Bas Ramselarr has a slightly dark, yet clear voice. His section features a delightful accompaniment by the two recorders - in an interesting counterpoint with such a deep voice - and, again, the balance is slightly off, his voice sometimes drowning out the recorders just a bit. Soprano Marjon Strijk has an interesting voice - slightly airy, a bit weak, but very attractive in its naiveté. She sounds almost like a boy soprano, with a wispy voice that is nevertheless pure and even. While her tone wavers at times, she is very enjoyable. The third section uses the viols to their fullest, giving the unique texture this instrument brings to vocal music. Alto Syste Buwalda is a conundrum - at times excellent, at others weak, his diction is a problem. His voice does not always sound clear, although his tone is excellent. The final section of this cantata is a coro, with a lively, optimistic tone. Again, it is sung here in one-voice-per-part, giving a beautiful texture. All in all, this cantata is indicative of the entire series - with high points and low points, some singers are fine, others weak, it is a mixed bag, yet still maintains an excellent overall tone and feeling.
The secular cantatas included are a recording made by Peter Schreier in the 1970s. Schreier is perhaps the finest evangelist in Bach's sacred vocal works, and has proved to be a very competent conductor of these works as well. His secular cantatas are very well-performed, and feature excellent soloists, such as Schreier, sopranos Edith Mathis and Arleen Augér, bass Theo Adam among others. The choirs on these recordings is not, perhaps, the best, but the overall sound is quite good.
Sacred Vocal Works
Here, again, Brilliant Classics has licensed recordings of the passions, masses and other works. The St. Matthew and St. John passions are good recordings by the Brandenburg Consort and the King's College Choir; I find these two passions to be a bit weak, and this is a shame.
The B Minor Mass is a fine performance by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, which is subtle and well-sung. The choir, which is fairly large at 26 singers (whereas some recordings in recent years have used much smaller groups) is nevertheless of a size that allows the individual voices to stand out in the choral melange. The instrumentalists also play in perfect balance with the choir - the obbligato instruments fit perfectly with the vocal texture, and the overall sound of the orchestra is excellent.
Among the other vocal works - a total of 37 CDs - are some interesting works which are not recorded often: a collection of chorales, based on hymns, and Bach's "sacred songs". Most Bach lovers are unfamiliar with these works, which, while not being masterpieces, are fine music.
Many of the works in this set were licensed from other labels; a total of about 35% of the 155 CDs were obtained in this manner. Naturally, Brilliant Classics could not afford to get the best baroque performers - this is a super budget set - but one thing that the listener discovers in this set is that there are many fine, even excellent "second tier" performers of Bach's music. Many of the instrumental ensembles whose recordings are in this set are excellent. The Consort of London, for example, is a pleasant surprise. They perform the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites. Their Brandenburg set is an excellent performance of these concertos; the tempi are excellent; this is no staid, boring performance, as is too often the case, where the concertos are played far too slowly as though they are monuments rather than living music. The musicians here have found the right rhythms and give these pieces energy and emotion. The Orchestral Suites come across with the same vigor and energy, and these two sets of orchestral music are, in my opinion, among the best available on disc.
Bach's "chamber music" includes a variety of works, from sonatas for violin and harpsichord to trio sonatas, from flute pieces to sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. One disc that stands out is the Trio Sonnerie’s recording of the violin sonatas BWV 1021 and 1023, on a CD that also includes trio sonatas BWV 1038 and 1039 performed by two other ensembles. The performance of the violin sonatas sparkles, with the musicians, Monica Huggett on violin, Sarah Cunningham on viol, and Mitze Meyerson on harpsichord, clearly enjoying every second of this music. The two trio sonatas on the same CD, played by the Ensemble Il Quadrifoglio and the Bach Ensemble Heidelberg, are good recordings, but nothing special.
Solo Instrumental Works
Some of Bach's finest music is for solo instruments (other than the keyboard). His suites for solo cello, his sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and his lute works are among the most poignant and moving music he wrote.
The recording of the cello suits, by Robert Cohen, is a magnificent version of these amazing works. He these suites at relatively slow tempi, and plays all repeats. His reading of these works is highly personal, and his flexibility concerning tempi can be a bit disturbing at first - in some movements he plays the repeats much slower than the first expositions. Nevertheless, this gives this version a unique individuality that many other cellists lack. Cohen plays the music without showing off; it is clear that he is interested in the inner music that lies under the surface of these works.
The lute works are an excellent recording by Jakob Lindberg, recorded for Bis. He is a fine performer, and his playing is crystal-clear, though occasionally lacking in emotion; at times, his playing is a bit hesitant - something often heard on this instrument - but this does not mar the overall tone of these recordings.
The solo violin works are one of the major weak points in this set. It is quite a shame, because these are some of Bach's finest compositions. Mark Lubotsky suffers from an overuse of vibrato, making some of the movements sound like Gypsy music, and from a very poor rhythmic feel for the pieces. In some of the faster movements, it sounds as if he is rushing so much that he totally loses the flow.
The 17 CDs of organ music included in this set are by Hans Fagius, a set that was originally released by Bis records in Sweden. This is a fine set, indeed one of the best complete recordings of Bach's organ music. Fagius demonstrates a magnificent understanding of Bach's organ music, and the instruments used are excellent. One work, however, is lacking: the Art of Fugue played on the organ. It is included here only in a harpsichord version, although it is often played on the organ. (There is also no orchestral version of the work, either; but, you can't have everything!)
One work that stands out is the huge Partite diverse sopra "Sei gugrüsset, Jesu gütig", BWV 768. This long work, at over 19 minutes, is a series of variations of a choral prelude. After an initial presentation of the chorale, Bach takes off in his most brilliant set of variations for the organ. Using every resource available for the organ, he displays an incredible variety of styles, from simple two-part sections to elaborate counterpoint. Fagius’ performance of this piece is excellent, and he uses a wide range of registrations.
One of the advantages and disadvantages of this set as compared to the Teldec and Haenssler sets is that all the keyboard music is recorded on the harpsichord. This is an advantage because Bach wrote most of his keyboard music for the harpsichord - the piano was only invented near the end of his life. Not that there is anything wrong with playing Bach's music on the piano; I am instrument-agnostic. But there is a certain coherence here that arises from the constant use of the harpsichord.
Yet, this is also a disadvantage. The Haenssler set, in particular, features some unique, little-recorded instruments - there is a magnificent disc of music for the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord; there is a fair amount of music recorded on the clavichord; and, Robert Hill's masterful recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier - one of the finest on disc - is recorded on several instruments: harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano and organ.
In any case, the keyboard box in this set is excellent. On 23 CDs, some wonderful performers are present. Joseph Payne's French Suites (originally recorded for Bis) are among the finest recordings of these popular works. Payne's approach to these suites is intimate and reserved, yet he does not hesitate to play somewhat more freely in the repetitions of the various movements. His interpretation is clear and unambiguous; firm in, say the first suite, more delicate, almost dainty in the sixth suite. Under Joseph Payne's fingers, these works take on a new feeling.
Pieter-Jan Belder's Partitas are sensitive and moving, though they do not approach the excellent recording by Trevor Pinnock, which is part of the Haenssler set. Belder has a judicious approach to the Partitas, though it could be considered a bit conservative.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is arguably Bach’s greatest collection of keyboard pieces. The recording here by Leon Berben is a mixed bag. The sound of his harpsichord has both good and bad points - it is an attractive instrument, but it suffers from a bit too much reverb. His playing is adequate, but his interpretation of the works ranges from inspired, in some of the pieces, to confused in others. It sometimes sounds as if he is right at home with the music, but, at other times, he seems to be unfamiliar with it, playing hesitantly.
Pieter-Jan Belder’s Goldberg Variations are quite good. He has a light, delicate touch in the opening aria, which starts this work out in a very attractive tone. His harpsichord, a Ruckers copy, sounds magnificent - just the right level of presence and strength. It sounds as though the instrument was miked very closely, giving a crisp sound, with each string’s plucking being heard very clearly. Often, such recording leads to a bad sound, but here it works very well. His playing is lively in the faster variations, and sensitive in the slower ones. This is indeed a fine performance.
How can one conclude such a review? With a simple yes or no recommendation? Well, if it were that simple, I would give a resounding "yes"; I do, indeed, highly recommend this set. I have recordings of all of Bach's works, and did before receiving this set - I have some 700 Bach CDs - yet I was delighted and surprised as I listened to the many pearls that I discovered in this set.
If only to have the 60 CDs of sacred cantatas, and to discover what is an incredible collection of moving and memorable music, this set is worth having. Treat yourself to 155 CDs of Bach, then, take a few weeks off to enjoy this music.
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