Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan On The Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time, not long ago, when JS Bach's 199 church cantatas occupied two full shelves of long-playing record space. Today's CD collector is rather more fortunate. As from last week, Teldec Classics has been marketing a cardboard carrying-case that includes not only the sacred cantatas (60 discs' worth), but the entire surviving works of Bach. It's called "BACH2000" and one London record dealer (MDC) is even offering delivery by taxi. 153 budget-priced discs are distributed between 12 square boxes, though if space is a problem, you can transfer the whole set - discs and the accompanying booklets - into just four of the boxes, fit them along two feet of shelving, then throw the rest of the packaging up into the loft.

And if you've already acquired Teldec's complete sacred cantatas (which is a distinct possibility, given that they've already been twice released on CD), then there's an optional set that omits them. Promoting Bach's work to a knowing musical public amounts almost to impertinence, and yet do we really need absolutely everything? Granted, there are four discs' worth of Protestant chorales that not everyone will want to hear more than once, but as for the rest - yes, I think it probably is all worth owning.

The two completed Passions, B minor Mass, Christmas Oratorio and Magnificat head the list of choral works, but a good proportion of the sacred cantatas are virtually as great.

There are the secular cantatas, some of them using material that we already know from more familiar instrumental works; and the shorter Masses, which again re-deploy movements from elsewhere - though nearly always with amazing originality. Bach's creative imagination knew no bounds. He could take the simplest ideas and work them into a frenzy of colourful counterpoint, or conjure the most profound mood by the simplest means.

The sacred cantatas and Passions are presented in audacious period-instrument performances under Nikolaus Harnoncourt or Gustav Leonhardt. They were ground-breaking productions in their day, and still retain a certain healthy shock value. Ton Koopman tackles the majority of "secular" cantatas (mostly composed for specific occasions), taken from his own on-going cantata series for Erato, and his flamboyant Teldec set of the complete organ works is now available in its entirety for the first time.

The keyboard masterpieces involve the harpsichordists Gustav Leonhardt (Goldberg Variations), Glenn Wilson (the "48"), Alan Curtis (the French and English Suites), Bob von Asperen (Toccatas), Zuzana Ruzickova (various shorter works) and the late Scott Ross (Partitas). You can sample head- spinning canons that sound like modern minimalism or pungent keyboard miniatures that, until now, no one but specialists has known about, or exalted chamber works such as The Musical Offering (Harnoncourt), the unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and Partitas (Thomas Zehetmair) and the six Cello Suites (Harnoncourt).

Il Giardino Armonico breathes new life into the six Brandenburg Concertos and Harnoncourt directs the orchestral Suites (in the second of his two recordings). Bach delivers on all levels - spiritual, visceral or sensual - and the standard of performance featured by BACH2000 is consistently high. And while other worthy Bach editions will doubtless crop up during the course of next year (at least one - from Hanssler - is currently in progress), none is likely to re-enact a more urgent sense of musical discovery.

BACH2000 (complete) Teldec 3984-25704-2 (153 discs) BACH2000 (without the sacred cantatas) Teldec 3984-25705-2 (93 discs)

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