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Bach Cantatas (Box Set)
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53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2013
It's great that we now have so many versions of this wonderful music, where previously there was very little. We tend to forget how forgotten this music was - virtually nobody knew BWV147's "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" (Jesu, joy of man's desiring) until Dame Myra Hess started using it as an encore in her concerts in the 1930s. Now we have Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Rilling, Koopman, Leusink, Gardiner and most recently Suzuki. Something for every taste and pocket, traditional, HIP, modern instruments, "old" instruments, contraltos, counter-tenors, boy sopranos, the works.

I collected this entire set as individual sets as they were released by SDG. SDG meant "Soli Deo Gloria" (to the glory of God alone), which was how Bach signed off his cantata scores, but it was also apparently "sod Deutsche Grammophon", after the famous falling out with Gardiner over its refusal to issue the set, which led to Gardiner doing it himself. I'm pleased to see that there seems to have been an element of kissing and making up, because this set includes four non-SDG pilgrimage releases, which DG Archiv issued. So, everything that was recorded on the pilgrimage (plus Vol.28, the Ascension Day cantatas, which were recorded later) is available.

So, what commends Gardiner over the competition? Nothing really - this will always be a matter of individual taste, and the dedication of the others to this wonderful body of music is no less than Gardiner's, and their approaches no less valid. And of course there will always be individual cantatas where one will prefer someone else's version over Gardiner's. Bach is said to have liked brisk tempi; Gardiner, with a choir that appears to be able to perform miracles on command, seems sometimes to take it to extremes and not allow the music to breathe properly - one example is the wonderful opening chorale of BWV137 (the hymn still sung in churches as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation"), which is, to my ears, taken far too fast. However, these instances are overshadowed by all the times that Gardiner (to my ears) gets it dead right - the marvellous BWV140 ("Sleepers, awake") is done to perfection. Overall, the standards of performance and recording are extremely high, and Gardiner's thoughtful analytical essays on the music are a pleasure to read. Bach's deeply-felt Lutheranism was at the core of his very being, and therefore of this music; Gardiner understands this completely and seeks to bring this out in performance, and in general succeeds admirably.

In short, this is an outstanding set available at an outstanding price, and it belongs on the shelves of every Bach lover.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2013
For those who already know of these, I will be brief about the general quality. The music itself is one of the great treasures of western music. The live peformances and conducting give some of the most vivid renderings of these works. Of course others are good as well, but I've found I prefer Gardiner's recordings over all the others. For example, BWV 88 "Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden". After hearing Suzuki, Harnoncourt, Koopman, Richter, and even Herreweghe, Gardiner is the only one who nails the excitement and exuberance of the "hunt" metaphor after the peaceful lull of the "fishing" metaphor. Now imagine moments like this happening thousands of times. At least for me (one who is easily swept up in Bach's music even in a midi file), this set is completely deserving of all the praise its received, even amongst other great recordings.

This is 5 stars for people who don't own a large number of the individual albums. Look elsewhere to see the individual double albums if you don't know what I'm talking about. You can save maybe 600-800 dollars buying this instead of the 28 individual releases. It is a bargin deal, not the high-end collector's deal. You would get a lower rating if you compared the previous packaging to this. But I think that is a mistake in rating, since what I'm concerned about is the music you get for the price for this item, not packaging for some other items. For a box set at a substatially lower price, I was actually satisfied with the way they kept the original photography and simplified sleeves.

That being said, if you are really a materialist and care for the packaging of the originals, then go ahead collecting each one and skip over this. Having the notes all printed out with a picture on each double album, with the nice texture and thickness, makes them feel like little books. For this box set, all of the text from Gardiner's notes, the cantata translations, and the musician's interview are on a single CDROM, not with the cd at all, so you won't have that tactile experience that Apple also does with their packaging.

This set has just individual sleeves for each of the 56 items, so obviously the numbering and images for the volumes don't correspond to the older, individual releases. That might throw you off if you have built up mental associations from the individual releases like "oh the girl in blue on volume 2 has my favorite soprano aria". If it was on disc one, then you are in luck as they will still match, but if disc 2, now its a different image.

Do act fast, as there is a limited number and some retailers I've talked to said they have sold out.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2013
Oh damn, the whole thing for much, much less than I have paid all these years collecting - and there are just three more sets and I will have them all individually... When it comes to Bach cantatas, of which I have loads, this set is by far my favorite. Where others make Bach sound like a chugging misfiring Rube Goldberg (Reiner in his RCA), here there is spring, joy and grace. Based primarily on these recordings, Gramophone magazine gave the Monteverdi Choir its #1 choir in the world ranking. They have sung so much together, and John Eliott Gardiner is so in love with the music, I think the distinction is quite deserved. I was lucky to hear them live in San Francisco some years ago and they were clean, sleek, warm, human. Yes, there are a few of the cantatas that I know of other performances here and there move me more, but this is absolute pride of place on my shelves. I adore them all. I listen to them perhaps more than any other recordings I own.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2013
The contents of this box set are one of the world best J.S. Bach church cantata performance. There are only a few conductors achieve complete set recording of Bach's church cantatas. Even among them, this work shines. I had chances to listen to some of individual disks. (set 1 and 15) The performance is the best I have ever heard. Sir. Gardiner's recoding label, SDG did great job in term of recoding quality. All are from live performance of Bach Pilgrimage at year 2000. Although it is live recording, sound is as good as any of studio performance or even better. I have been waiting for a long time to get this set since I saw this cantata series in Amazon.

The box is quite small even though it has 56 CDs. Maybe the size is 2/3 of Glenn Gould Bach box set. As other complete box set, CDs are in individual paper sleeve. The bonus CD contains all original booklet articles. For me, it is not as luxury as I expected, it is still nice and easy to use. (The original, booklet like CD box is absolutely beautiful, but it is not that sturdy and practical.)

But, I put only 3 stars on this great product, because I experienced some quality control issue on this product. My first one was delivered with fully dented outer box. I could not find any serious damage on the Amazon shipping box. Amazon did good job as usual. The damage may happen before shipping. I returned it and placed a replacement order. My second one has a good outer box, but half of CD sleeves inside of the box are totally damaged. I will return that and be waiting for 3rd one. If I get a decent one next time, I will adjust the star point.

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Update

I got my 3rd one, which is in decent shape. I still have concern the outer box and CD sleeves are not very durable. CD sleeves easily develop scratch and crack on folding edge. The outer box is also not very sturdy and easily get damaged. I just started to listen to the CDs and as expected the performance is superb. I revised my star rating from 3 to 4. Highly recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2014
Stated baldly: If you acquire only one recording of Bach's church cantatas, this is the set to purchase. And for all you Bach freaks (like me) out there: Get this recording anyway, even if you were not planning on it.

Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage demonstrates, among other things, just how far historically informed performance on period instruments has come in the past 30 or so years. This is most obvious when compared to the venerable, pioneering cycle jointly produced by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Though this is not the proper forum to discuss how that project has, over the years, come to sound somewhat "dated"-- and I'm sure Harnoncourt himself has newer things to say when it comes to Bach's cantatas -- I find that Gardiner's broader range of tempi, expressive (some might argue over-expressive) use of dynamics, and imaginative variety of articulation certainly make his cycle more accessible, perhaps more amenable to early 21st-century ears.

It's ridiculous, really, to try and prove just how excellent Gardiner can be. Still, I'd like to mention a few favorites selected from 1208 tracks of music spread over 58 hours and 40 minutes. All are meltingly beautiful (though I should admit that I've always had a weakness for fine singers paired with fine oboists):
"Ich habe genung," the opening aria from BWV 82 (disc 8 track 6)
"Es ist vollbracht," the last aria from BWV 159 (disc 11 track 18)
"Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind," the first aria from BWV 42 (disc 15 track 17)

Gardiner's ensemble consistently projects a beguiling freshness behind their performances -- could this be a function of their insanely swift turnover rate, rehearsing and recording a new set of cantatas every week for an entire year? Yet the potential for disaster was somehow averted, and the results never sound under-rehearsed or (even worse) over-planned.

It's already been noted elsewhere that this box set includes all of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage originally released by Soli Deo Gloria in 27 volumes, plus the Ascension cantatas and oratorio that were recently added as "volume 28" (and thus slightly out of liturgical sequence). More importantly, the four discs issued by DG Archiv before they bowed out of the project have been finally reinstated -- a total of 14 cantatas that were excluded from SDG's 28-volume series. (The cantatas in question were for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Purification, the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, and Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.)

Therefore, the appearance of the entire, newly reconstituted cycle in this compact package makes this a better buy than the incomplete original set of 27 (no, 28) individual volumes. Note also that the discs are more logically ordered than the original volumes, appearing in strict chronological order. (And volume 28, recorded in 2012, has now been inserted in its proper liturgical position as disc 20.)

Although one may object that the liner notes are no longer present, an additional CDR provides a separate file (or "booklet") for every disc. These include all of the original introductory essays -- Gardiner's keenly observant journal entries, with Ruth Tatlow's notes from the DG Archiv discs -- with the cantata texts and translations. Unfortunately, all photos from SDG's original notes, which always included a vignette of the church where each disc was recorded, are no longer present. Nonetheless, aside from the occasional interior shot -- such as one of the stunning nave vaulting of Sherborne Abbey, or of the visually magnificent (if mechanically unreliable) Trost organ at Altenburg's Schlosskirche -- photos were never a major feature of SDG's presentation.

Of course, completists (like me) will want to know what Gardiner did not include in his cycle:

1) Obviously, he omits cantatas that are too fragmentary or incomplete to realize in performance, such as BWV 197a (realized somehow for Masaaki Suzuki's recently completed cycle on BIS), and BWV 193 (included in Ton Koopman's cycle on his label, Antoine Marchand).
2) Also ignored are the four inauguration cantatas for Leipzig: BWV 26, 69, 119 and 120. (However, Gardiner did include the inauguration cantata for Mühlhausen, BWV 71.)
3) The three known wedding cantatas are likewise not present: BWV 120a, 195, 197.
4) Gardiner omits the two funeral cantatas, BWV 106 and 157. (However, he recently released the `Actus tragicus' BWV 106 with the Easter oratorio.)
5) Finally, one cantata for an unknown occasion, BWV 196, was also left out. (But note that Gardiner recorded all six of the others in this category, and BWV 150 actually appears twice.)

From an aesthetic standpoint, the box set is presented in an attractive, pleasingly compact format. Collectors of SDG's original volumes may have found the covers, featuring photo portraits by Steve McCurry, an odd match for sacred music by a German composer dead for more than 2 1/2 centuries. In time, McCurry's portraits became oddly comforting, symbolizing the humanity one hopes to find in Bach's music. Happily, this current set positively celebrates McCurry's work: the original 28 portraits are now expanded to 56 (one for each disc) and the 28 colorful miniatures on the lid give an appealing, bejeweled look to this treasure chest of musical art.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2014
It's hard to review something like this - hours of music across 56 CDs. The truth is, I already had started buying the double sets when they came out and decided to take advantage of this set when it was offered.

My collection of Bach Cantatas includes releases by Koopman and Suzuki, not to mention one-off CDs by others in HIP circles. I don't always prefer the Gardiner readings over the others, but that's not to say that they're not worth a listen.

While I have not yet listened to the whole set, I can say there is a consistency here in the artistic or aesthetic approach. Gardiner's book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, is a nice companion volume to read about Bach's history, at least through Gardiner's lens. His view of Bach and the cantatas I'd say is congruent. What we get in interpretation is a full-blooded approach, with an intensity of passion, sometimes tempo, and special attention to emotion.

What makes the recordings special, I think, is the context in which they were recorded. These are not studio recordings (there was less time to prepare, perhaps), but they are recorded in real churches and for that we get both the church acoustic and the "live thrill" of live performances. In almost every case, the recorded sound quality is wide and spacious.

Watching some of the videos about this project on YouTube (originally, I believe, one was aired on BBC), gives even more insight into the project's reach. These musicians clearly love Bach, and that love for his sacred music comes across well in the performances.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2014
I bought this completely on impulse. I'm not going to lie. My selection of Bach in my collection was underwhelming. I was just starting to get into him more. I listened to his violin concertos, St. Matthew Passion, Brandenburg concertos and Goldberg Variations. After hearing the very popular BWV 140 (another version by Gardiner) I knew I wanted more. When I saw this box set I balked a bit at the price, but decided to take the plunge anyway. Boy, I'm glad I did. These are very easy to get wrapped up in, going from one to the next, or listening to one several times to dissect. Quality of these Cantatas vary, but this purchase is well worth it given the quantity.

I also enjoyed the sound on this. These are all live recordings, they do not have a false, unnatural or sterile sound of being played in a vacuum. There is open space on these recordings and there is no audience noise.

When I was first considering this purchase it wasn't available on Amazon. You can also find this directly through the label's website. Suddenly when it became available again I decided to also look at Amazon UK. I was actually able to get this for a better price there, even with shipping added in (not a Prime product). So if price is a major concern (as it should be) then do your shopping.

Each CD is in its own slip inside a black box which should fit on your shelf or inside one of those CD cubbyholes depending on how deep it is (mine sticks out just a bit, but still secure). The essays and words are on a separate disc, which is a bit annoying, but understandable.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2015
THE NUMBERS: 1 year, 59 concerts, 282 musicians (including 56 soloists), over 60 churches in continental Europe, the UK and the USA, 50 cities, 13 countries, 198 cantatas performed, over 40 concerts recorded.

THE CHOIR AND INSTRUMENTALISTS. Gardiner employed an ideal number of choristers (17-20) and instrumentalists (27-30). There are some really excellent ensembles performing Bach today, especially in Europe. The superb Collegium Vocale Ghent, for example, springs immediately to mind. But it is hard to imagine a better group of musicians in the world than the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. They ply their craft so expertly and with such sensitivity that it is hard to imagine them ever being out-classed.

GARDINER’S DIRECTION. Bach has no more enthusiastic an advocate today than John Eliot Gardiner. He brought decades of studying and performing the works of Bach to this monumental project. Some listeners think that his approach to Bach’s cantatas is at times too extroverted or indulgent of extremes of tempo and dynamics. I don’t have a very wide comparative perspective on Bach cantata performance, but I never felt this way while listening to the set. His interpretations felt perfectly suited to the lyrics and music.

THE SOLOISTS. It is amazing how Gardiner was able to sign up so many first-rate soloists. There really is not a weak one among the fifty-six, and it is worth noting that several of them came from the ranks of the Monteverdi Choir itself. Here I will single out just a handful who deserve mention not only for their superb singing but for their repeat appearances: sopranos Katherine Fuge, Joanne Lunn, and Gillian Keith; altos Meg Bragle, Ingeborg Danz, and Wilke te Brummelstroete; countertenors Michael Chance, Daniel Taylor, and William Towers; tenors Christoph Genz, James Gilchrist, and Mark Padmore; and basses Julian Clarkson, Peter Harvey, Dietrich Henschel, and Stephen Varcoe. The MVP award should without a doubt go to Peter Harvey, who performed in no fewer than 70 (!) of the 198 cantatas.

THE RECORDED SOUND. The recorded sounds is excellent. I say this as someone who recently listened to all 56 discs over the course of 52 days with headphones on. The engineers are absolute wizards; how they managed to avoid even the slightest hint of audience noise is beyond me. There are admittedly four or five discs with performances recorded in venues with too long a reverberation. The worst is a concert that Gardiner chose to have in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, with the choirs of Clare and Trinity Colleges combining forces with his Monteverdians. Overall, though, the sonics are outstanding.

THE TEXT AND TRANSLATIONS. These are given on a CD-ROM. Serious listeners would do well to invest in Richard Stokes’s book J. S. Bach: The Complete Cantatas. This is the translation that Gardiner chose, and it is really more comfortable having this volume in front of one than using a laptop computer. It is not cheap (ca. $50), but for those who plan to work their way through all 198 cantatas, it is worth the investment.

THE LINER NOTES. All but a handful of the discs are accompanied (on the CD-ROM) by liner notes written by John Eliot Gardiner. The exception are four discs released by DG/Archiv with Ruth Tatlow as the annotator. Gardiner’s discussion are based in part on a diary he kept during the pilgrimage year. They are quite lengthy (averaging around 3,000 words; by contrast, Tatlow’s average about 1,000) and quite technical. Musicians will be especially appreciative of what he writes, thought listeners who, like me, are nonmusicians may feel a bit overwhelmed by the detail.

THE PERFORMERS’ REMINISCENCES. The accompanying CD-ROM also includes the reminiscences of various members of the choir and orchestra. These pertain to half of the discs (28 out of 56). The participants speak alternately of how moving the whole pilgrimage was, how responsive the audiences were, how technically challenging some of the cantatas were to perform, and how spiritually meaningful they found Bach’s music to be. They are all very insightful and a delight to read.

THE BOX AND SLEEVES. The box the discs come is attractive, and the CD sleeves are plenty sturdy. The inside of each sleeve gives the track titles and times, the names of the soloists, and the recording venue and date. The back gives the names of the choristers and instrumentalists. The front of each is adorned by one of the celebrated photographer Steve McMurry’s luminous photographs of striking individuals he encountered in diverse Middle and Far Eastern countries. (The cover of the box features 28 of them, which appeared originally on individual releases of the discs.) In the accompanying booklet, McMurry expresses his delight that Gardiner asked permission to use his photographs for the project. “The range of emotions and experiences that Bach wrote about,” he says, “are common to the human condition. I hope my images help to convey this.”

FINAL THOUGHTS. In various contexts, John Eliot Gardiner has emphasized the universal appeal of Bach’s cantatas, and there are certainly legions of non-Christians who find them very uplifting. But it is fair to say that Christian listeners, touched deeply by so many of the lyrics, are able to enjoy a dimension of the cantatas that nonbelievers never will. Even so, Bach cantatas are, for believer and nonbeliever alike, one of the most priceless treasures of our Western musical heritage. In this respect, it is sad to contemplate that most people will never have the privilege and pleasure of hearing a Bach cantata in their life. By any measure Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was a landmark event in the history of music and of recorded sound. That alone makes this set of cantatas worth owning. Add to that the consummate artistry of the performances and you are left with a must-have set.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2013
Well, color me a bit disappointed in the packaging here. After holding out for years on buying JEG's Bach cantata releases in the hopes they would be collected in one box set, I was excited to see this release on the schedule. The recordings contained herein represent one of the most remarkable recording achievements ever undertaken, just like the music represents one of the finest composing achievements in Western history. That being said, I was expecting a bit more robust - even luxurious? - packaging to house this set. Don't get me wrong, it is sturdy enough, just not as beautiful as one might expect given the material.

If one is new to this music, one could do worse than snap this up while it is still available. Even at a few hundred dollars, it is an investment for a lifetime. And, as another reviewer suggested, pick up Durr's book on Cantatas and settle in for one of the finest listening experiences you can have.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2015
Purchased over a year ago, have listened all the way through and recently started again.

Brilliant music, of course. One wonders why many of the Cantatas aren't better known. Personally, I know the rest of Bach's music pretty well, but many of these I heard for the first time in these recordings.

Excellent performances, as we've come to expect from JEG. Mostly energetic tempi. Occasionally there are quirky textual interpretations. Not entirely flawless, but certainly as good as it gets; top notch! A monumental offering.

Packaging is functional; the CDs are protected as long as they are in the box. My only complaint here - I can't express how much I dislike the photos on the CD sleeves. They obviously took a chance with them, but who knows what they were trying to do, and it was a mistake. They are completely staged, fake, made up, pretentious images. I find them the antithesis of this music, which is what we always get from Bach: authentic, no-nonsense straight-talk; that is, the Truth.
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