Music: Brilliant Bach

This month I will be reviewing 155 CDs because I received a boxed set of the complete works of Bach from the Brilliant Classics label, distributed by Koch Entertainment. This year marks Bach’s 322nd birthday; these recordings, including new digital ones of all the 200 sacred cantatas on period instruments and sung by a boys’ choir, were mostly made to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death, which was observed in 2000.

This edition was first issued in 23 installments and, believe it or not, offered in grocery stores in the Netherlands at very modest prices. Bach cantatas with your cantelope? The Dutch said yes. More than 100,000 copies of each box were sold within the first two years in the Netherlands alone. Now Brilliant Classics has updated the series with a few new recordings, put the CDs in space-saving slip covers, and collected them in a foot-long box.

I remember when, at the time of the 250th anniversary, another complete set of recordings of Bach’s 1,126 compositions was offered by the Hanssler Classic label. I did not leap at the special, limited-time offer, because it was still a hefty $1,360. Now I see a surviving Hanssler set offered on for $2,409 by some entrepreneur. The price may be worth it for Bach devotees, but it is daunting for those who are only just setting out to explore the master, or whose children eat regularly.

So here is the good news. You may have thought that you could not afford the musical luxury of a Baroque prince, but you can. In fact, you can surpass it. The Brilliant Bach box lists for around $140, but can presently be purchased through Amazon for $108—somewhere near 70 cents per CD. That is a staggering bargain, even if you were just buying the plastic. (I mean that literally. Blank recordable discs cost almost as much.) However, you are obtaining priceless treasures in more than adequate—in fact, some wonderful—performances that will fill you with humility and wonder that God ever created such a being as Bach to give Him praise.

The recordings that Brilliant Classics did not make itself were licensed from top-flight labels such as ASV, BIS, CRD, and Meridian and include performances by artists like lutenist Jakob Lindberg, harpsichordist Bob van Asperen, and organist Hans Fagius. Fagius recorded all of Bach’s organ music for BIS between 1983 and 1989. BIS CDs retail for around $20 each. By themselves, the organ discs, in their initial incarnation, would cost far more than this entire set. In fact, some of these recordings are still available at full price in their original form.

This leaves unaddressed the in-evitable question of how these performances stack up to the competition, which, in the masterpieces, is substantial. The unsurprising answer is that, in any single work, there are most likely preferable performances, and overall there is some unevenness, as there would have to be in any enterprise this massive. However, no sane person will obtain this box thinking it will surpass everything that went before it.

Nothing, for instance, will shake my allegiances to Henryk Szeryng’s and Nathan Milstein’s sublime performances of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. And I vastly prefer Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano, sometimes by Glenn Gould, sometimes by Murray Perahia, depending on my mood. Yet here, all of it is performed on the harpsichord, the twangy sound of which is not my favorite. However, Bach wrote for the harpsichord, so I am happy to have it in this version as a reference.

No apologies are necessary for the recordings of the orchestral works. The Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites are very finely done by Musica Amphion and La Stravaganza Koln, respectively. The chamber music receives some very spirited performances by groups like Trio Sonnerie in the Violin Sonatas. The Magnificat gets a ripping performance by the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, under Harry Christophers.

Of course, these are notes from only having sampled the collection. The release close to trebled my Bach collection, so I have not come close to listening to all 155 CDs. However, I have already learned some new things. For instance, I am not sure I have heard Bach’s lute music on the lute; it is often performed on the guitar. The two CDs here offer some of the most soothing music for late-night listening you could wish for.

Displaying my own ignorance, I did not know Bach’s four Lutheran Masses at all. They have been so overshadowed by the great B Minor Mass that you may have missed them as well. Like the B Minor Mass, they are “parody” works, in that they draw upon music Bach composed earlier for his cantatas. There is nothing particularly Lutheran about them. They use Latin rather than German texts, and are missing only the Credo—in other words, what a Catholic would call a Missa brevis. Hardly negligible in length, each lasts about half an hour. They are glorious, stunningly beautiful, exciting works that would have made Bach’s reputation had he never written the great B Minor. They are dances before the Divine.

The recordings offered by Bril-liant Classics are the oldest of the set, hailing from 1972. Some may find the style not quite up-to-date in period performance practices, but I love it, particularly as sung by the great Bach tenor Peter Schreier and bass Theo Adam. (Schreier both conducts and sings, along with the great sopranos Arleen Auger and Edith Mathis, in the secular cantatas.) Conductor Martin Flaming directs the Dresden Choir and Philharmonic with the requisite level of energy to bring these works bounding to life. I confess to listening to these two CDs again and again when I should have been delving into other works for this review. For introducing me to these gems, I will be forever grateful to Brilliant Classics.

In other words, it really is worth having everything. I am sure other discoveries await me. The program notes and texts are contained on a CD-ROM that comes with the set (though, alas, there are no translations of the German libretti).

The munificence of this collection incites some reflections on the munificence of Bach. What is the meaning of his extraordinary out-pouring? His compositions are like metaphysical dances that engage with reality at so deep a level that the source of that reality comes shining through. You may try to listen to Bach as a connoisseur, but it won’t work. At some point in the process, unaccountably, tears start to form. This man had a way of kneading reality with music, patiently, persistently, until it revealed itself. What is revealed is reached through an astonishing sense of musical order that reaches up to a divine order that is not so much order as it is love.

Bach is like a natural theologian in the world of sound; that is why even his secular music is sacred. With his incomparable counterpoint and fugal genius, Bach explores the potential of a theme until it is exhausted—not in the sense that it is tired or becomes tiresome, but in the sense that it is complete, in that you know more fully what it truly is, as every facet of it has been shown. This is why Bach can start with the most ordinary thing, examine it in what may seem a prosaic way, and continue until, all of a sudden, the tears begin because something of such tremendous beauty has been revealed out of the ordinary. Fugues may seem the least likely form of music to provoke such profound emotion, but Bach does this with his art.

One Bach biographer, Christoph Wolff, suggested that the ultimate goal of Bach’s musical science was perhaps to find “an argument for the existence of God.” Bach’s first biographer, J. N. Forkel, wrote that Bach “considered his parts as if they were persons who conversed together in a select company. If there were three, each could sometimes be silent and listen to the others till it again had something to the purpose to say.” This is indeed the impression his extraordinary fugues create, but what are these persons conversing about? That committed non-Christian Goethe came closest to the matter when he said of Bach’s music: “It is as though the eternal harmony has a conversation with itself.” Through the beneficence of Brilliant Classics, you can now eavesdrop.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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