The Complete Bach
August 18, 2007
One day towards the end of June I was in Folsom, California, wandering through the local Borders Books and Music. For no particular reason I headed to Music and began browsing through their boxed set collection. In a single instant my life was changed when I caught sight of a large box reading “Bach—The Complete Works. 155 CD set”. My eyes widened, my breath caught, my heart sped up. I’m not kidding. I’m not sure I’d felt quite so excited by a comparable discovery since I accidentally came across a mint condition Easton Press Paradise Lost in a used bookstore (also in Folsom!) almost ten years ago. Maybe when I stumbled across five volumes of the Biblioteca Auctores Christianos’ Obras Selectas de San Buenaventura for a measley ten bucks on eBay. Anyway, it’s been a while.
Even with tax the box was only a hundred and fifty dollars. Still, I didn’t want to get carried away, so I went home and took a day or two to mull it over: read the Amazon reviews, and some others etc, scraped together some cash. Then I went back and snatched it up.
In terms of sheer value per dollar I think this may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made in my life. Brilliant Classics (a label I’d never even heard of before) has commissioned or licenced recordings of every surviving piece of music J.S. Bach is known to have authored. Just what is included in the Complete Bach? 23 disks of orchestral and chamber music—this includes the Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, keyboard and violin concertos, works for various solo instruments (violin, cello, lute, etc.) 23 disks of solo keyboard music, all played on the harpsichord—The Well-Tempered Clavier, Partitas, French and English Suites, Goldberg Variations, Fantasies, Fugues, Inventions, and so on. 60 disks of religious cantatas—Short liturgically-themed cycles of instrumental preludes or sinfonias, chorales, arias, duets, and so forth. (This stuff was almost entirely new to me. I’d had perhaps two hours of the material already, mostly in excerpted selections.) 32 disks of other vocal music—The Mass in B Minor and other masses, the St John and St Matthew Passions, motets, secular cantatas, individual arias, 6 or seven disks of brief chorales. 17 disks of solo organ music. The organ music is all performed by one artist, Hans Fagius, and the religious cantatas are performed by a single ensemble with a uniform director and set of performers, recorded at breakneck pace in a single year especially for this set.
Since then, as can imagined, I’ve heard a lot of Bach. In fact as of today I’ve listened to all but the last five disks of cantatas. It has been quite the mind-blowing experience. (Clare has been fascinated by the run and it’s been an opportunity to teach her a few things about music, the difference between composition, performing, and recording, and even about life and death; Rachel [my wife] is getting pretty sick of hearing J.S.B. night and day, though.) Bach had already been my favorite composer since Freshman year at St John’s when I started listening to Glen Gould’s Well-Tempered Clavier pretty obssessively, but I’d never wholly considered the fact that I’d never heard probably 70-80% of his music before. Listening to it all at once, especially the scores of hours of new vocal and choral music, puts the familiar classics in a new and fascinating perspective. The St Matthew Passion, for instance, now sounds less like a colossal mountain standing off to the side of the more intimate and familiar keyboard and solo instrumental works—what I’d spent most of my Bach time listening to—than like a particularly high and spectacular peak in a vast range of more-or-less similar works. I’d listened to a lot of Baroque vocal music before, but with the exception of the St Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass most of it was Handelian-style opera and oratorio. The cantatas are a different beast and it will take a lot of time to get to know them well. After having been through (most of) them once, it still seems like the material to explore is endless and endlessly deep.
Especially as a teenager I’d bought a lot of bargain-priced classical music, and I was afraid that here too I would get the same familiar somewhat dubious quality. Not the case. A very few of the recordings were a bit of a disappointment: the sonatas and partitas for solo violin were … not great, and the WTC was pretty disappointing. Luckily I already have excellent versions of these. And one single disk of the cantatas refused to play in my CD player, though I didn’t try it in another machine. That leaves, however, a vast amount of great music obtained very cheaply.
Everyone reading this should buy a set immediately.