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It took a couple of days longer than I thought it would, but I have now posted a list of the contents for the Bach Complete Edition.  You can view the list on this site or download it in several formats.

The new documents summarize the works and performers that appear on each disc in a form that I hope is clear and concise while remaining virtually complete.  (Only the chorales from larger works are not listed in detail).  It is not an exhaustive list of the titles of every individual piece but it should provide a comprehensive overview of the entire set for anyone who is curious.

Also, nearly a week ago I posted an index of the BWV numbers sorted by the  CDs on which they appear.  It is not a terribly useful index, but it was one of the intermediate documents that I produced while working on the reverse index of BWV to CD number.  Maybe someone else will find it a useful starting point for creating another document.

This week, I hope to post a list of print and audio errata that I’ve noticed so far.  Then, maybe I’ll make some time to write another review soon.

That’s it for now.  Please comment if you find any of this useful.  Thanks!

Last night I posted the first of hopefully many useful indices for the Bach Complete Edition: a complete index of the pieces on every CD sorted by BWV number.  I thought this would be the most useful index to work on first since it can be a bit of a pain to locate some pieces, especially the cantatas and organ works.

Of course, then I noticed today that there were quite a few organ works missing from the index.  I had originally started my lists by editing the table of contents provided on the BCE DVD-ROM (really just a list of CD titles in most cases).  I thought the BWVs of the cantatas and organ works were listed in full in that document but it turns out that many of the organ pieces are not.  (I still haven’t verified the cantatas).  That list of CDs is nearly the same as the one on the inside of the box lid, so be aware that not all of the organ works are listed there either (presumably because there wasn’t room).

In any case, I’ve posted an updated index tonight and adjusted the schedule for when I hope to have the other indices finished.  Even though the index is now longer, I managed to shrink it down from 7 to 5 pages.  Please let me know if you find any more errors!

In 2010, Brilliant Classics published the Bach Complete Edition, a new version of their box set of the music of J.S. Bach.  It includes 157 CDs, 2 DVDs, and a DVD-ROM with notes, texts, and scores. This review was originally posted to Amazon on Jan. 28, 2011.  More information about this box set including a complete list of contents and various indices are available on my BCE pages.

Contents

  1. Prelude
  2. Overview
  3. What’s Included
  4. What’s Good
  5. What’s Not So Good
  6. Fugue

Prelude

This enormous box set is a veritable treasure trove of music by Bach!  I’ve been a devoted Bach fan since my teenage years and have owned recordings of most of the important instrumental works for awhile.  But I was still largely unfamiliar with Bach’s vast corpus of sacred and secular vocal works (filling 94 CDs or about 60% of this set).  I’ve long wanted to collect all of Bach’s works but the task of tracking down good recordings of every piece without too much overlap seemed daunting and expensive.  Now I have nearly all of Bach’s surviving music at my fingertips, and the feeling is indescribable!

The latest version of Brilliant Classics’ Bach Complete Edition (BCE) brings several new recordings and other new material together in an incredibly priced box set.  (Audio samples available on Amazon).  Not every recording in this set is a winner, but there are several really great discs and most of the rest are decent to good.  Nearly all of the recordings are good enough to serve as “reference copies” for Bach’s music. While most of the set is played on period instruments and using small to medium-size ensembles, there are recordings here for almost every taste in performance style.  People who strongly dislike an historical approach to Bach will probably want to consider the Hänssler Bach set instead, but note that it is about twice the cost of this one.

The BCE is reasonably comprehensive but there are some missing compositions and I doubt many people will be content with every recording included here.  So, you will still have some collecting to do after buying this set but don’t let that alone dissuade you.  At less than $150, if your Bach collection is missing at least half of the music in this set like mine was, then the BCE is by far the easiest and most affordable way to fill in the gaps with decent recordings.

The rest of this review presents a very detailed look at what is included in the Bach Complete Edition and gives my impressions of many of the individual performances.

Overview

This is at least the third version of Brilliant Classics’ Bach Edition and this Sept. 2010 release features a redesigned box and cardboard sleeves for the discs.  This release adds 2 CDs for the St. Mark Passion plus 2 DVDs of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions.  Most importantly however, BC has replaced several of the “lower quality” recordings with new ones (see below) making this the best version of their Bach Edition to date.

The 157 CDs include 3234 tracks covering about 1042 unique compositions plus a number of duplicates (see below).  All together, the set features 6 days, 16 hours, 19 minutes of music! (160 hrs.)

The DVD-ROM contains 500+ pages of program notes and texts for the vocal works in PDF format. The CDs are now numbered 1-157 instead of being grouped into “Volumes”.  The program notes have not been updated since previous releases so they still use the old numbering scheme and there are no translations of the German or Latin texts, but they are still very informative.  Another new addition is the inclusion of 16,800 pages of music scores in PDF format on the DVD-ROM.  This is a digitized copy of the Bach Gesellschaft Ausgabe scores in 46 volumes, published from 1851-1899 and now in the public domain.  These are extremely nice to have but buyers should be aware that pieces discovered since that time are not included.

The set is very well organized into sections for orchestral & chamber works, keyboard, sacred cantatas (in two 30 CD sections), other vocal works, and organ.  CDs vary in length from about 38 to nearly 80 minutes in length, so they could have squeezed the set onto fewer discs, but I am very glad that they didn’t! In the first five sections, each disc (or 2-4 discs) contains all of the tracks for a work or set of related works (Brandenburgs, Violin Concertos, Goldberg Variations, etc.) so you don’t have to hunt for things and only works longer than one CD are split across discs.  In the organ works, important collections like the Orgelbuchlein and Leipzig Chorales are grouped together but otherwise they are organized into nice “programs” of several different types of pieces (eg. an opening Prelude & Fugue, some chorales, a concerto or trio sonata, more chorales, and a “big finisher”).

The box is sturdy enough in my opinion if you treat it gently.  The new sleeves are much more uniform in appearance than previous versions and feature a simple background pattern (in a different color for each section) without artwork.  Complete track listings and performing credits appear only on the sleeves (not on the DVD).  The inside lid of the box does contain a helpful short title for each disc (although the organ CDs only list BWV numbers here).

Probably the most useful addition to this set would be several indices of the entire contents by title, BWV, and CD & track numbers.  I am in the process of creating some of these indices myself and I will post the documents on this site as I finish them.

What’s Included

Naturally, all of Bach’s major instrumental and vocal works are included in this set.  The vast majority of these are performed with “period instruments” and many were recorded specifically for this set.  Most of the performers were previously unfamiliar to me but there are a few that I recognized like Jaap ter Linden (Cello Suites), Bob van Asperen (English Suites), Michel Corboz (Motets), and Hans Fagius (organ works).

Many familiar names also appear in the St. Matthew and St. John Passions which are directed by Stephen Cleobury leading the Choir of King’s College (Cambridge) and the Brandenburg Consort with Roy Goodman.  Roy Goodman directs the European Union Baroque Orchestra and Ring Ensemble of Finland for the St. Mark Passion.  Rogers Covey-Crump is the evangelist for Ss. Matthew and Mark, and John Mark Ainsley takes that role in the St. John.  Michael George, Stephen Richardson, and Gordon Jones are the three “Christs”.  Other soloists include Emma Kirkby (Matthew), Catherine Bott (John), Michael Chance (Matthew & John), etc.

The spurious St. Luke Passion which was included in Bach Edition: Complete Works (160 CDs) is not included in the 2010 Bach Complete Edition.

As far as I can tell from online information, replacement recordings since the original Bach Edition include the B minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio (Diego Fasolis: Coro Della Radio Svizzera, 1997 & 2003), the Magnificat (Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra, 1957), the violin concertos (Dmitry Sitkovetsky: English Chamber Orchestra) and cello suites (Jaap ter Linden, 2006).  Also, there are new 2006 recordings by Pieter-Jan Belder and Musica Amphion of the Brandenburg concertos and the concertos for two and three harpsichords as well as 2008 recordings by Belder of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  Based on samples from the earlier Editions that I’ve been able to listen to here on Amazon, some of these replacements are definite improvements!

Jed Wentz and Michael Borgstede replaced Preston/Pinnock/Savall for the flute sonatas which also resulted in some changes to the contents of the set.  The Preston recording included BWV 1031 and 1033 (considered doubtful by some scholars) but the new recording does not.  The new recording also adds a second copy of two Trio Sonatas (1038 & 1039 on two flutes) and the Musical Offering.  While I am glad to have alternate interpretations of these pieces, I am a little disappointed that 1031, 1033, and 1020 are not included in the set.  You can find all three of these pieces on a recording by Janet See: Bach: Flute Sonatas, Vol. 2.

As a nice bonus, a couple of the speculative concerto reconstructions are included:  1064R for three violins and two recordings of 1060R for violin and oboe.  The second copy of 1060R is incorrectly labeled as the Concerto for Oboe d’Amore, 1055R which is not included in this set, but was perhaps intended to be.

Regarding the “completeness” of the BCE, there are a few caveats to be aware of.  First, don’t expect this set to simply contain every piece in the Schmieder catalog, from BWV 1 to 1128.  Some of those pieces are lost or incomplete and an increasing number of them are now attributed to other composers or are considered of doubtful authenticity by modern scholars.  Some of the doubtful pieces are included but many are not.  There are also variant versions available for many pieces and this Brilliant Classics collection includes about 13 of them such as Cantatas 36c and 82a, but this is nowhere near exhaustive.  However, don’t worry, about thirty-odd, well-known spurious works such as the Eight Little Preludes & Fugues for organ (553-560) and the ever-popular Minuets in G from the Anna Magdelena Notebook were not left out.

Second, even considering the above, this “Bach Complete Edition” is still missing a few authentic Bach compositions.  The first Bach Edition was assembled between 1998 and 2000, so pieces discovered since then are not included (BWV 1121 to 1128 and several without numbers).  These are mostly 4-part chorales and organ pieces.  You can find the new organ pieces on the Block M Records website. (They offer very good recordings by James Kibbie of Bach’s complete organ works for free!)

Among the minor works that are included are the songs and arias from the Schemellis Gesangbuch, the Anna Magdelena Notebook, etc.  Only a few of these are missing.  Additionally, 304 of Bach’s four-part chorale harmonizations are collected together on 6.5 CDs and mostly grouped by melody for handy reference.  138 of these are taken from Bach’s cantatas and passions, so there are two recordings of each in the BCE set, but it is very nice to have them in both places.  Unfortunately, about 26 of the independent chorales with their own BWV numbers are not included for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

Bach arranged or augmented a number of pieces by other composers.  Included here are the complete transcriptions of concertos for harpsichord or organ, plus most of the sonatas and trios Bach transcribed for keyboard. The Suite in A major for violin & harpsichord after Weiss (1025) is not included.  Bach’s “parody” of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (1083) is included but not the Credo (1081) or Suscepit Israel (1082) that he composed to augment music by Bassani and Caldara.

Most of the canons are here including the 14 canons on the Goldberg Aria (1087) but the “Canon concordia discors” (1086) is missing.

Also missing are Gloria in excelsis Deo (BWV 191), three Sancti (237, 239 & 240), the four German motets from the earlier version of the Magnificat (243a), the Fugue in G minor for violin and harpsichord (1026), the Trio in F (1040), an aria for bass (1088), a few keyboard and organ pieces (896, 921, 956, 1085) and a few others depending on what you consider “authentic”.

What’s Good

I’ve had this set for about a month now and have listened to just over half of the material.  There are several really great recordings, a couple of mediocre ones, and the balance are decent to good.  Overall, I’d give 3.5 stars for the quality of the performances.

Note: Since opinions vary widely on what constitutes a “good Bach performance”, let me tell you what my biases are.  I prefer Baroque instruments except that I probably slightly prefer the piano to the harpsichord.  I like both historic organs and modern ones if they are voiced clearly.  Boys choirs or mixed choruses are fine.  Regardless, I am very picky about tuning and vibrato.  My ideal Bach vocalist has a light, lyrical voice with just a hint of vibrato.  I can accept moderate vibratos if they don’t affect tuning or clarity but Bach with heavy “operatic” vibratos is not for me.

The first thing I listened to was the Christmas Oratorio (Diego Fasolis: Coro Della Radio Svizzera) and I was very impressed from the first lightning fast chorus through to the last jubilant chorale.  The medium-size choir sounds full while remaining nimble and the female sopranos and altos sing in-tune.  The instrumentalists and soloists are all pretty good too, with Klaus Mertens and an uncredited trumpetist giving a rousing Grosser Herr.  I doubt I’ll need another recording of this piece.  Most of the same performers give an excellent rendition of the Mass in B minor too.

The three Passions are also very good.  The Choir of King’s College sounds “bigger” but the DVDs reveal them to be about the same size as the Holland Boys’ Choir.  In the St. Matthew, Rogers Covey-Crump is a perfect evangelist and Emma Kirkby and Michael Chance blend beautifully on their duet.  The boys choir is occasionally out of tune but it is not too distracting.  I don’t really care for Michael George as Christus in the St. Matthew: he is much more dramatic than the other soloists and sounds a little out of place.  I guess I didn’t really like most of the basses in all three passions, but the other soloists are quite good (especially Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott).  All three passions utilize countertenors for the alto parts and the St. Mark has a boy “treble” for the soprano solos, but it also has a smaller chorus with women.

All of the sacred cantatas plus the Ascension Oratorio and Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (BWV 1083) are performed by the Holland Boys’ Choir and the Netherlands Bach Collegium under the direction of Pieter Jan Leusink.  These are small-scale performances and, overall, I think they are very successful and listenable.  The bulk of the cantatas are made up of arias, chorales, and simpler choruses which all receive respectable performances.  The soloists are also generally very good.  In one notable exception, I find countertenor Sytse Buwalda, who sings all of the alto solos, to be rather disappointing due to problems with tone and intonation.  Marjon Strijk is occasionally unsteady but she sounds like a decent boy soprano much of the time.  Ruth Holton (soprano) and Bas Ramselaar (bass) are very solid and the three tenors pass muster.  The variety of authentic instruments used is astounding and a real pleasure to hear.  The only real problems are in the more difficult choruses (see below).

One of the surprises of the BCE is how good the chorale collection is.  There is lots of variety in the instrumental and vocal forces used and some interesting programming choices regarding texts and the ordering of the chorales.  You still may not want to listen to an entire CD of these at once but they are far from boring and make great material for shuffling or programming your own playlists.

Among the new Brandenburg concerto recordings, nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 are good, especially no. 6.  Some people complained about the use of a natural horn in the original Bach Edition to play the trumpet part of Brandenburg no. 2 an octave lower.  This new Musica Amphion version has a real natural trumpet, but the trumpet playing doesn’t always sound clean to me.  Most of the non-Brandenburg concertos are decently played but certainly not definitively.  Sound quality is a little variable.

One of the true gems of the BCE is Jaap ter Linden’s excellent interpretations of the Cello Suites (especially no. 6).  His playing is expressive and sensitive to the subtleties of the score.  You will never need another copy of the cello suites but do yourself a favor and check out Janos Starker and Anner Bylsma too!

The Wentz/Borgstede flute sonatas are exciting and perhaps even better than the Preston, Pinnock and Savall recording that used to be in the Bach Edition.  I’ve enjoyed most of the other included chamber music too although I have favorite recordings for much of it already.  The lute works, canons, both versions of the Musical Offering, Viola da Gamba and Trio Sonatas in this set will probably see a lot of play.

The Goldberg Variations, Well-Tempered Clavier, and Clavierubung II (Pieter-Jan Belder) are all played and recorded very well.  Bob van Asperen’s English Suites are pretty good.  The seven Toccatas played by Menno van Delft are very thoughtfully performed and sound excellent on the harpsichord.  The Art of Fugue is OK on the harpsichord but I think it would have been more successful as chamber music or on the organ.  There were so many unique keyboard instruments in the Baroque that I was thinking it was a shame all of the works in this set are played on harpsichord until I discovered that a few of the pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook are played on clavichord!

An an organist, I already had two cycles of Bach’s organ music plus many miscellaneous recordings.  In my opinion, Hans Fagius’ organ performances are top notch!  They are recorded well too and the selection of six historical Swedish instruments is fantastic.  Though the program notes discuss the instruments, they will not satisfy organ buffs who will want each instruments’ specifications too.  A few of the organ works are the only place in the BCE that I have clearly heard the unequal temperament (keyboard tuning) that would have been common in Bach’s day.

I haven’t watched the Passion DVDs completely yet, but they are well done, presenting both pieces as straightforward performances without commentary.  Multiple cameras appear to have been used and they cut to and from the various soloists and instrumentalists at well-cued times.  The St. John DVD presents the 1725 version of the work.  This confused me at first because the opening chorus is different and the DVD menu had the usual Herr, unser Herrscher listed for the title.  In the end, being able not just to hear, but to watch some of the music being performed adds yet another way to experience Bach to this set that some people may find illuminating.

What’s Not So Good

The Magnificat (Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra) is easily the worst recording in the set.  The chorus and soloists are too operatic (in a bad way) and their “Germanized” pronunciation of Latin is irritating (the Missae Breves have similar pronunciation).  A couple of movements feature prominently an untuned or unmaintained pipe organ that is definitely not “period” (nor do the other instruments sound like they are except possibly the trumpets which “splat” like bad natural trumpets).  Listening on headphones reveals inconsistencies in equalization between tracks, odd mixing effects, and even a couple of tracks that sound like the left and right channels are out of sync.  The entire effect can be quite dreadful at times.  But since this is one of Bach’s best works, you’ll probably want to own a couple of other recordings anyways.

The instrumental playing on the Easter Oratorio is quite good but the soloists shriek, “huff and puff” unmusically, and are generally too operatic for my taste.  In contrast, the soloists for the secular cantatas are also very operatic, but they are still very musical most of the time.  Even if the singing is not my cup of tea, I cannot deny that it is good.  And after all, these pieces are the closest that Bach wrote to opera.

In the sacred cantatas, the Holland Boys’ Choir is OK much of the time for simple parts but more difficult passages can be a mess.  Both the sopranos and the altos are occasionally very flat throughout a movement to the point that it almost sounds like they are singing parallel minor seconds.  Thankfully, Bach knew the limitations of boy’s choirs too and he generally writes parts that they can handle.  But these performers fill 62 CDs of the BCE, so if you don’t care for what you hear in the samples, you may want to look elsewhere.

A few of the solo harpsichord recordings were not engineered very well and the instruments can sound a little bright and harsh at times.  The French Suites have the poorest sound quality in this regard, bordering on painful to listen to.  Their performances are rather uninspired much of the time too.

A few other recordings, such as the motets and 3rd orchestral suite, have less than ideal sound quality but they are not unlistenable.  Even though the violin concertos in this set replaced the ones in the original Bach Edition, the performances are still just so-so.  And the Schemellis Gesangbuch gets a little repetitive with the same soloist and organ on every song, but the performances themselves are thoughtful.

Which brings me to a few production errors (or bad judgements?) in the set.  The two Schemellis Gesangbuch discs group multiple works onto each track.  There are 68 distinct works on these CDs and they are numbered correctly on the back of the sleeves, but the music is really only divided into 18 tracks.  Unfortunately, the same problem afflicts the Orgelbuchlein: 36 chorale preludes are combined into only 13 tracks making it very difficult to listen to just one.  I also found that two of the chorale tracks on discs 135 & 138 contain identical audio.  They are labeled the same, but I suspect a different chorale was supposed to be on one of those tracks.  For a set of this size, I’ve noticed very few misprints in the track listings and there are no major errors such that any of the CDs could be considered defective.  (There is some silence in the middle of disc 14, track 5, the Flute Sonata in A BWV 1032 – 1. Vivace, but I think that may be intentional because part of the original score for this piece is missing).

Fugue

In conclusion, the Bach Complete Edition contains an incredible wealth of decent recordings of music by (arguably) the most profound composer in Western music history.  I plan on thoroughly exploring the cantatas, passions, and oratorios over the coming months.  And I mix in appropriate chorales and organ works to enhance my experience of the sacred choral works.  Nearly all of the instrumental works will certainly find themselves in the daily rotation of my listening.  Out of 157 CDs, I would say that only about 4 of them are bad enough that I will avoid listening to them.

There are several alternatives to this Brilliant Classics set for building a library of Bach, but this is by far the most affordable method.  I can imagine that someday, I might possibly invest in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Sacred Cantatas or John Elliot Gardiner Sacred Masterpieces sets to get different versions of some of the vocal works.  But the newer cantata series by Ton Koopman or Suzuki are way out of my reach, as is the out of print Bach 2000: The Complete Bach Edition.  Many other people may consider The Hänssler Complete Works of Johann Sebastian Bach – Bachakademie 10th Anniversary Special Collection which is also very reasonably priced and possibly more complete than the BCE.  But I am not really interested in Helmuth Rilling’s cantata recordings which use modern instruments and choruses.

So, is the Bach Complete Edition for you?  Listen to some samples now that they are available and use the information here to help you decide.  Personally, I am thrilled to have this set. Continue Reading »

Getting started …

Well, I’ve finally broken down and created a blog for myself.  I’m going to post things here like music and book reviews; databases with information about recordings, composers, and their music; and my thoughts on music, life, the universe, and everything.  I’m not expecting anything profound to appear here: just a place for me to collect the tangled and, yes, thorny thoughts that I want to share. Continue Reading »

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