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The man from Parcelforce no longer greets me with a cheery smile. He recently delivered to me, holding his back and muttering, the Complete Edition of the Sacred Vocal Music of J.S. Bach – all 23 volumes of it in study score format. Unwittingly he has placed in my possession a fabulous treasure trove which is also an important update on the latest scholarship concerning these wonderful works.

The first thing to say about these scores in their three slip-cases is that they are elegantly produced, and the printed music on the page is beautifully clear. These editions bring together all that further research has revealed to us in the last 50 years, but in a completely practical fashion. They have taken decades to produce. All necessary performance materials are available, and choir members can choose between the vocal score and the chorus score. I wouldn’t normally recommend a chorus score, but since in many of the cantatas the choir’s contribution is only the first chorus and the concluding chorale, over a number of different pieces a considerable saving can be made. I also wouldn’t normally recommend singing in anything other than the original language, but I am bound to say that the English versions provided are very acceptable; and I believe that a special case can be made for the St Matthew and St John Passions.

I am impressed by the care taken in the editor’s notes to explain the choices to be made between one version and another without imposing any one choice on the reader. Ich habe genug (Cantata 82), for example, has a more than 20-year history, and its five different stages of composition can here easily be followed in words and music. There are many other fascinating examples of musical evolution described in these volumes.

It is good to have the incomplete music for the St Mark Passion in exactly that way – incomplete: that is to say, unencumbered by editorial guesswork, unnatural marriage with music from elsewhere, or bewigged ‘composition’. And it is interesting to note that volume 3 of this set, which contains all the music there is for the St Mark and the St Matthew Passions, is still slimmer than volume 4 – for volume 4 contains all there is to see and say about the St John Passion. And here there are so many different versions of the work, it is a wonder that the vast majority of our present-day performances use exactly the same material in every case.

I unreservedly recommend this to Bach lovers everywhere.

JEREMY JACKMAN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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