Is any single composer’s output more overwhelming in its intensity and depth than that of Johann Sebastian Bach? True, he wrote no opera (though many would hold the St Matthew and St John Passions and some of the secular cantatas to achieve that sense of drama), but the scope of his inspiration is dauntingly wide. Surveying his entire output over a concentrated period for my Faber Pocket Guide to Bach was an almost frightening experience because of the sheer sustained quality of Bach’s inspiration across his decades of tirelessly creative work. Bach shows every sign, in the continual revisions he made to his scores (even after they were published), of having a quite exceptional level of self-criticism; as Forkel wrote in his early biography of the composer: ‘I have often felt both surprise and delight at the means he employed to make, little by little, the faulty good, the good better, and the better perfect.’
Now here is all that perfection, issued by Teldec and contained on one flash-drive – nourishment for a lifetime’s listening. It is not the first ‘complete’ Bach set (there are other sets from Hänssler Classic and Brilliant Classics), and this one was first assembled for the Bach year, 2000, issued then in elaborate 12-volume packaging. This set is vital because it reflects a recent period in Bach interpretation and performance which is now of key historical importance. At its heart is the pioneering set of complete cantata recordings made on period instruments under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt from 1971 onwards. It is perhaps difficult to recall, now we have the wonderful variety of old-instrument cantatas from Herreweghe, Gardiner, Suzuki and many others, the full impact of that Telefunken series: a whole new world of transparent sounds and dancing textures, skating strings, quirky oboes and burbling bassoons was opened up, with boys’ voices that were sometimes insecure but always pungent and beautiful.
Do they stand up today? There is certainly a sense of unevenness and rawness in these recordings but their urgency reflects the creative ferment of new discovery, and there are pearls here from performers who went on to dominate their field – the countertenor René Jacobs duetting with the flute of Frans Brüggen in Cantata No 45, Barbara Bonney outstanding in Cantata No 199 and Leonhardt’s unsurpassed traversal of the early Actus tragicus. The boys’ choirs – King’s College, Cambridge was briefly used on the earliest discs – were complemented by Herreweghe’s light-voiced Collegium Vocale, Ghent, but boy soloists continued to be used. The styles diverged as the series continued, Harnoncourt veering towards the over-dramatic while Leonhardt became more introverted; Harnoncourt’s later recordings of the B minor Mass and Passions are included (he has never recorded the short Masses, which are inadequate here), while the secular cantatas are then mostly supplied by Ton Koopman. Koopman provides typically individual accounts of the organ works, while Leonhardt shines soberly in the Goldberg Variations, though there are real weaknesses in some of the other keyboard works. There are occasional guest appearances by non-Warner artists to fill in the gaps: Christopher Hogwood, Reinhard Goebel and (bizarrely in this old-instrument context) Jean-Pierre Rampal; Thomas Zehetmair plays the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, and Harnoncourt’s classic 1965 recording of the Cello Suites is included. Indeed it is Harnoncourt’s protean personality, in both the vocal and orchestral works, that dominates and characterises the set.
For anyone who wants to encounter the whole of Bach, this single collection is an ideal place to start a uniquely enriching journey – and perhaps I can modestly recommend a small paperback to keep you company.
Nicholas Kenyon is managing director of the Barbican Centre, London, and author of The Faber Pocket Guide to Bach.