horizontal line

As the late Bernard Levin once so succinctly put it in The Times: ‘Who needs Bach?’ ‘You, me, everybody else, civilisation and the Jacques Loussier Trio’. Now we can have all of Bach’s music sitting in the palm of our hand. Over a decade ago Teldec issued its complete Bach edition on 154 CDs, drawing on recordings set down over a period of forty years. It was notable for using exclusively period-instrument performances, the earliest of which were some of the first ‘authentic’ readings committed to disc. Now this remarkable achievement has been made available on a single USB memory stick at an astonishingly low price (a little over £100 if you shop around online). It seems a marvel that some- thing so small, so portable, can contain the entire œuvre of one of the three or four greatest composers in history. The USB key is easy to use: simply plug it into your computer and start listening via the menu or, if you prefer, download it onto your desktop or into iTunes. Among the extras is a BBC documentary from its Great Composers series, and moderately useful search tools to find specific tracks. Notes on the music come in the form of serviceable pdfs.

But this project is no hollow triumph for 21st-century technology: on the whole, the performances are hugely enjoyable and enriching. While all of Bach is here, it is fair to say that the lion’s share of the edition is built around the magnificent complete sacred cantatas recorded by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt over 20 years. Using boy soprano and alto soloists, these recordings (which originally occupied 60 CDs) were in the vanguard of the period-performance movement and, some thirty years on, have come to occupy their own historical position in our understanding of these great works and how to perform Bach. In comparison with Gardiner’s or Herreweghe’s way with the cantatas, these readings can seem rather inflexible and four-square; nevertheless, there remains something entirely refreshing about these performances in which one can sense so keenly the pioneering spirit at work. The atmosphere of discovery is also strongly to be felt in Harnoncourt’s 1970 pioneering account of the St Matthew Passion, with Kurt Equiluz a compelling Evangelist; less so in his B minor Mass of 1986. The organ music is supplied by Ton Koopman’s fine series of recordings made in the 1990s. Idiomatic and stylish, using instruments entirely appropriate to the repertoire, they are as good as any currently available. The orchestral, other keyboard pieces and chamber music are just as compelling. An essential set and a magnificent work of reference.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Choir & Organ, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing