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Bach: The Sacred Cantatas [Box Set]
Johann Sebastian Bach, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt
Bach: The Sacred Cantatas [Box Set]
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (18) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (21) - Disc #2
  •  Track Listings (20) - Disc #3
  •  Track Listings (25) - Disc #4
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #5
  •  Track Listings (19) - Disc #6
  •  Track Listings (22) - Disc #7
  •  Track Listings (21) - Disc #8
  •  Track Listings (26) - Disc #9
  •  Track Listings (21) - Disc #10
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #11
  •  Track Listings (15) - Disc #12
  •  Track Listings (27) - Disc #13
  •  Track Listings (24) - Disc #14
  •  Track Listings (25) - Disc #15
  •  Track Listings (19) - Disc #16
  •  Track Listings (19) - Disc #17
  •  Track Listings (23) - Disc #18
  •  Track Listings (19) - Disc #19
  •  Track Listings (21) - Disc #20
  •  Track Listings (29) - Disc #21
  •  Track Listings (22) - Disc #22
  •  Track Listings (27) - Disc #23
  •  Track Listings (3) - Disc #24


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CD Reviews

The Greatest of all Bach Cantata Recordings
Peter G. Watchorn | Cambridge, MA USA | 11/08/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I first wrote this review in 2003 for the previous incarnation of this set. I see that it is now down to under $250 in its new compact format. When I acquired the original LP sets (with scores) between 1971 & 1989 the cost was over $1,300. It is still the greatest and most powerful recording in existence of these works, for, with its various blemishes, it contains the most eloquent musicianship of the pioneers of the Early Music revival from Vienna and Amsterdam. The blemishes are important too, as they eloquently document the rapid development of skills necessary to realise one of the leading musical ideas of our time: attempting to get as close as possible to the actual sounds the composers heard when they wrote their music. As a next-generation member of this fraternity (I am a professional harpsichordist, organist and co-director of several ensembles specializing in Bach's music, and have worked with many of the people on these recordings. I have also written a major biography of one of the members of the generation before Leonhardt & Harnoncourt, the Viennese harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm), I can only reiterate even more strongly what I wrote five years ago and urge lovers of Bach to acquire this set immediately. Here is my original review:

Had this set not been made, then the history of performance practice in the last quarter of the 20th century and beyond would have proceeded very differently. Had this set not been made we would not have many of the current leading figures in the field of early music performance, nearly all of whom were in some way connected with the performance revolution which found its most profound expression in these recordings. For it was during the 14 or so years of this recording project (between 1971 and 1985) that three of the greatest musicians of our time, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Frans Bruggen forever altered the public's perception of the surviving remnants of Bach's fabled, but rarely heard, "Jahrgaenge", or yearly cycles of church cantatas. For this reason alone, this recording is of profound importance.
Leonhardt, with his consort in Amsterdam, and Harnoncourt, with his Concentus Musicus of Vienna shared the task of recording, with an unmatched team of vocal and instrumental soloists, Bach's roughly 200 surviving "concerti sacri", perhaps a further hundred being lost to us. It was a repertoire more honoured in the history books than experienced in performance. This enterprise changed that state of affairs for ever.

The arguments which are now sometimes made (chiefly by those who are unaware of the extraordinary and revolutionary step which these performances represented), decrying the slightly "raw" (I prefer "vocal") sound of original instruments, or the occasional shakiness of a boy soprano soloist, miss the point of this enterprise, which was to present the music in a new way using Bach's own contemporary resources. Leonhardt and Harnoncourt are the first to insist that using "historical instruments" makes sense because those are simply the best tools for the job. Re-constituting something old has never been their aim. Rather, their idea was to break free of the mindless tradition of performance which took no account of the sounds that Bach actually had in his head when he created his "well-regulated" music for the churches of Saxony. And how does this work in practice? We are left to marvel at an extraordinary level of accomplishment on the part of nearly everyone associated with this project, vocally and instrumentally.

Gustav Leonhardt was well aware (and hopeful) that subsequent generations would likely improve upon aspects of performance which still remained to be sorted out. But, as he said, it was a start. Indeed, when he and Harnoncourt were jointly awarded the Erasmus prize in the Netherlands in 1980, he remarked, with singular modesty and self-awareness: "It was not done well, but it is remarkable that it was done at all". This tells us more about Leonhardt's famous humility, than it does about the standards of these performances, which are usually (with few exceptions) very high indeed. In many instances they will never be surpassed. What we have here is a glimpse of one of music's "golden" ages captured forever on disc. What the listener will marvel at is the extraordinary assuredness of technique and style which is evident in every one of these cantata performances.

The solo vocal contributions of Kurt Equiluz, Max van Egmond, Paul Esswood, Marjanne Kweksilber (BWV 51) are simply without equal, and the current generation of fine Bach singers would be the first to concede their enormous debt to the participants in this great enterprise (their teachers, in many cases). The choirs should also be singled out for attention: Wiener Sangerknaben, Tolzer Knabenchor, Hannover Knabenchor, Choir of Kings College, Cambridge as well as directors Heinz Hennig, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, Philippe Herreweghe, David Willcocks and Hans Gillesberger. So Europe's finest were all involved in this.

The instrumental soloists: Frans Bruggen, Walter van Hauwe, Kees Boeke, Anner Bylsma, Jurg Schaftlein, Lucy van Dael, Sigiswald, Wieland and Bart Kuijken, Ton Koopman, Bob van Asperen, Lidewij Schiefes, Alice Harnoncourt, Herbert and Herwig Tachezi, Erich Hobarth, Friedemann Immer - to list only the more familiar names - have created a whole world of intelligent and vital performance which has transformed musical thought in our time. No-one in any area of musical performance has remained untouched by the ideas which are so forcefully presented here (even those who'd be the last to admit it). The fundamental idea of treating each period's music as a vital and representative product of its time is one which now extends to music of all periods, signaling the fulfilment of one of Leonhardt's and Harnoncourt's chief aims: to eliminate the artificial distinction between mainstream and "early" music, and, instead, to treat all music with proper respect for its origins and context.

What this recording continues to offer the listener is the experience of hearing the music for the first time, which the technical polish of subsequent surveys cannot quite match. For the young person wishing to learn about music, there is no better starting point than investing in this set, now available at a fraction of its original cost (unfortunately, minus the scores, which were one of the hallmarks of this series in its first incarnation on LP.

It seems pointless to list highlights, but one might start with the following: BWV 1, 6, 8, 11, 13, 19, 23, 29 and so on. The list is endless. Better still, buy the set and begin a life-time's voyage of discovery instead. Bach, Leonhardt and Harnoncourt: you can't do better than that. Oh, and we should also acknowledge the contribution of the founder recording producer for this project, Wolf Erichson (even though he didn't stay with Teldec to the end of it). Without him, the revolution in informed and intelligent music performance on recordings would never have happened.

2008: At its new price and in its new format, this set is now within reach of everyone who loves Bach's music, eloquently performed by the greatest specialist musicians of our time. One of the pinnacles of recording.

Peter Watchorn (2008 & 2003)
There's Now No Excuse Not to Own This Set
N. Chevalier | Regina, Sask. Canada | 02/05/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Like Peter Watchorn, I also reviewed this same set in its $550.00 incarnation, and bought, over a period of several years, all 10 of the six-CD volumes. Each purchase only confirmed for me what I initially believed: that the apparent roughness of these performances actually enhanced rather than diminished the value of the music. Bach's cantatas are not musical bonbons, but serious works of religious art. Serious, of course, doesn't mean stuffy or boring, and every cantata in this set offers at least one movement--and frequently several--of profound, exquisite beauty. There is the full range of human experience here: joy, sorrow, terror, despair, and--perhaps most often--deep, mature, boundless love.

I'll avoid commenting on the performances again--see my review of the old box set for details--and what others say on this site pretty much matches my own view of this set. But I will comment on the price, which is both a delight (for those contemplating getting a set of Bach's cantatas) and a frustration (for people like me who paid twice as much to own the same music). Bach's cantatas are not nearly as well-known as they should be--now there's no reason everyone can't own their own set of first-rate recordings.

One more piece of advice: Since this set is so reasonably priced, I'd highly recommend that you take some of the cash you have saved and invest in Alfred Durr's The Cantatas of JS Bach, now in paperback from Oxford University Press. Durr wrote many of the notes for the original Telefunken vinyl recordings, but this book offers the complete German texts and a parallel English translation that is superb (better than the often-ridiculous translations supplied with the Teldec CDs, by the way). Plus, you get a thorough, yet accessible commentary for each cantata, a short history of the form, and other helpful essays--an excellent companion to these works. For those, like me, who miss the loss of the scores in the LP-to-CD transfer, you can download for free electronic scans of the old Bach-Gesellschaft versions (which were reproduced with the Telefunken sets)--these are far from perfect, I know, but they will provide the listener with at least a decent score to follow. Just Google "Bach Gesellschaft" and follow the first link.

So what are you waiting for? There are 60 CDs of some of the most sublime music ever written ready for you to explore!"
Logic on Fire, hundreds of hours worth....
Thomas Plotkin | West Hartford CT, United States | 10/28/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This is the landmark 60-CD set of the complete Bach sacred cantatas recorded by period instrument pioneers Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt with their respective original instrument ensembles Concentus Musicus Wein and the Leonhardt Consort between the early '70's and the late 80's for Teldec. I bought this in its previous incarnation, the most expensive single recorded music purchase I ever made at $400, it takes up what seems like three feet of space on my shelf, and I have never regretted it, out-of-tune boy sopranos, scratchy violas, an oboe d'amore player who seems to be learning his instrument over the course of several discs, and all. This is not period Bach delivered with the swing and polish of John Eliot Gardiner, this is raw, immediate, intimate and from the gut. And it just got hundreds of dollars cheaper. I don't know if this means a reduction in the copious annotation (hundreds of pages of commentary and translation) that accompanied my older edition, which would be a pity, because this set was both a labor of scholarship and a labor of love. But there is music enough here to last a lifetime, the very heart of Bach's oeuvre.

The aforementioned occasional failures of intonation and the deliberately scaled-down instrumentation and choral forces only serve to heighten the sense of direct communion with God; this is honest, not pious, and the rawness of the peformances convey a sense of fear, trembling, awe, and humility in the face of the Almighty. Other recordings may be smoother, but none are as powerful and direct. I may be indulging in special pleading for technical lapses (which disappear over the course of the set as the players and singers get a firmer grip on the tiller, but these recordings moved me in the same elemental fashion as my first hearing of such similarly raw, "mistake-prone" works as Robert Johnson's delta blues recordings, Hank Williams' I Saw the Light, and John Coltrane's Village Vanguard recordings.

These cantatas were written to elucidate the minister's sermon for every Lutheran holy day on the calendar; within a restrictive framework, in a 20 minute span, Bach delivered a hymnal chorale, a fugal burst from the chorus, recitatives, and solo arias. With these simple elements, though, he recombined instrumental groupings and explored a range of spiritual moods from exalted, to celebratory, to desolate, to consoling. The polyphony is staggering, the solos heartfelt, the orchestra simultaneously rangy and lush. This is the musical equivalent of Dante's Commedia, something to explore, meditate upon, music to both pray and dance to. There is absolutely nothing like it, anywhere.

If you wish to hear the workings of Enlightenment logic intertwined with "irrational" faith, two elements polemicizing atheists always claim are incompatible,so that the listener cannot tell where one starts and the other ends, check this out. Bach could not have written these pieces (on a weekly basis, over decades!) if he could not so marry his huge brain and his huge heart."