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on November 8, 2008
I first wrote this review in 2003 for the previous incarnation of this set. I see that it is now down to under $250 in its new compact format. When I acquired the original LP sets (with scores) between 1971 & 1989 the cost was over $1,300. It is still the greatest and most powerful recording in existence of these works, for, with its various blemishes, it contains the most eloquent musicianship of the pioneers of the Early Music revival from Vienna and Amsterdam. The blemishes are important too, as they eloquently document the rapid development of skills necessary to realise one of the leading musical ideas of our time: attempting to get as close as possible to the actual sounds the composers heard when they wrote their music. As a next-generation member of this fraternity (I am a professional harpsichordist, organist and co-director of several ensembles specializing in Bach's music, and have worked with many of the people on these recordings. I have also written a major biography of one of the members of the generation before Leonhardt & Harnoncourt, the Viennese harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm), I can only reiterate even more strongly what I wrote five years ago and urge lovers of Bach to acquire this set immediately. Here is my original review:

Had this set not been made, then the history of performance practice in the last quarter of the 20th century and beyond would have proceeded very differently. Had this set not been made we would not have many of the current leading figures in the field of early music performance, nearly all of whom were in some way connected with the performance revolution which found its most profound expression in these recordings. For it was during the 14 or so years of this recording project (between 1971 and 1985) that three of the greatest musicians of our time, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Frans Bruggen forever altered the public's perception of the surviving remnants of Bach's fabled, but rarely heard, "Jahrgaenge", or yearly cycles of church cantatas. For this reason alone, this recording is of profound importance.
Leonhardt, with his consort in Amsterdam, and Harnoncourt, with his Concentus Musicus of Vienna shared the task of recording, with an unmatched team of vocal and instrumental soloists, Bach's roughly 200 surviving "concerti sacri", perhaps a further hundred being lost to us. It was a repertoire more honoured in the history books than experienced in performance. This enterprise changed that state of affairs for ever.

The arguments which are now sometimes made (chiefly by those who are unaware of the extraordinary and revolutionary step which these performances represented), decrying the slightly "raw" (I prefer "vocal") sound of original instruments, or the occasional shakiness of a boy soprano soloist, miss the point of this enterprise, which was to present the music in a new way using Bach's own contemporary resources. Leonhardt and Harnoncourt are the first to insist that using "historical instruments" makes sense because those are simply the best tools for the job. Re-constituting something old has never been their aim. Rather, their idea was to break free of the mindless tradition of performance which took no account of the sounds that Bach actually had in his head when he created his "well-regulated" music for the churches of Saxony. And how does this work in practice? We are left to marvel at an extraordinary level of accomplishment on the part of nearly everyone associated with this project, vocally and instrumentally.

Gustav Leonhardt was well aware (and hopeful) that subsequent generations would likely improve upon aspects of performance which still remained to be sorted out. But, as he said, it was a start. Indeed, when he and Harnoncourt were jointly awarded the Erasmus prize in the Netherlands in 1980, he remarked, with singular modesty and self-awareness: "It was not done well, but it is remarkable that it was done at all". This tells us more about Leonhardt's famous humility, than it does about the standards of these performances, which are usually (with few exceptions) very high indeed. In many instances they will never be surpassed. What we have here is a glimpse of one of music's "golden" ages captured forever on disc. What the listener will marvel at is the extraordinary assuredness of technique and style which is evident in every one of these cantata performances.

The solo vocal contributions of Kurt Equiluz, Max van Egmond, Paul Esswood, Marjanne Kweksilber (BWV 51) are simply without equal, and the current generation of fine Bach singers would be the first to concede their enormous debt to the participants in this great enterprise (their teachers, in many cases). The choirs should also be singled out for attention: Wiener Sangerknaben, Tolzer Knabenchor, Hannover Knabenchor, Choir of Kings College, Cambridge as well as directors Heinz Hennig, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, Philippe Herreweghe, David Willcocks and Hans Gillesberger. So Europe's finest were all involved in this.

The instrumental soloists: Frans Bruggen, Walter van Hauwe, Kees Boeke, Anner Bylsma, Jurg Schaftlein, Lucy van Dael, Sigiswald, Wieland and Bart Kuijken, Ton Koopman, Bob van Asperen, Lidewij Schiefes, Alice Harnoncourt, Herbert and Herwig Tachezi, Erich Hobarth, Friedemann Immer - to list only the more familiar names - have created a whole world of intelligent and vital performance which has transformed musical thought in our time. No-one in any area of musical performance has remained untouched by the ideas which are so forcefully presented here (even those who'd be the last to admit it). The fundamental idea of treating each period's music as a vital and representative product of its time is one which now extends to music of all periods, signaling the fulfilment of one of Leonhardt's and Harnoncourt's chief aims: to eliminate the artificial distinction between mainstream and "early" music, and, instead, to treat all music with proper respect for its origins and context.

What this recording continues to offer the listener is the experience of hearing the music for the first time, which the technical polish of subsequent surveys cannot quite match. For the young person wishing to learn about music, there is no better starting point than investing in this set, now available at a fraction of its original cost (unfortunately, minus the scores, which were one of the hallmarks of this series in its first incarnation on LP.

It seems pointless to list highlights, but one might start with the following: BWV 1, 6, 8, 11, 13, 19, 23, 29 and so on. The list is endless. Better still, buy the set and begin a life-time's voyage of discovery instead. Bach, Leonhardt and Harnoncourt: you can't do better than that. Oh, and we should also acknowledge the contribution of the founder recording producer for this project, Wolf Erichson (even though he didn't stay with Teldec to the end of it). Without him, the revolution in informed and intelligent music performance on recordings would never have happened.

2008: At its new price and in its new format, this set is now within reach of everyone who loves Bach's music, eloquently performed by the greatest specialist musicians of our time. One of the pinnacles of recording.

Peter Watchorn (2008 & 2003)
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on February 4, 2009
Like Peter Watchorn, I also reviewed this same set in its $550.00 incarnation, and bought, over a period of several years, all 10 of the six-CD volumes. Each purchase only confirmed for me what I initially believed: that the apparent roughness of these performances actually enhanced rather than diminished the value of the music. Bach's cantatas are not musical bonbons, but serious works of religious art. Serious, of course, doesn't mean stuffy or boring, and every cantata in this set offers at least one movement--and frequently several--of profound, exquisite beauty. There is the full range of human experience here: joy, sorrow, terror, despair, and--perhaps most often--deep, mature, boundless love.

I'll avoid commenting on the performances again--see my review of the old box set for details--and what others say on this site pretty much matches my own view of this set. But I will comment on the price, which is both a delight (for those contemplating getting a set of Bach's cantatas) and a frustration (for people like me who paid twice as much to own the same music). Bach's cantatas are not nearly as well-known as they should be--now there's no reason everyone can't own their own set of first-rate recordings.

One more piece of advice: Since this set is so reasonably priced, I'd highly recommend that you take some of the cash you have saved and invest in Alfred Durr's The Cantatas of JS Bach, now in paperback from Oxford University Press. Durr wrote many of the notes for the original Telefunken vinyl recordings, but this book offers the complete German texts and a parallel English translation that is superb (better than the often-ridiculous translations supplied with the Teldec CDs, by the way). Plus, you get a thorough, yet accessible commentary for each cantata, a short history of the form, and other helpful essays--an excellent companion to these works. For those, like me, who miss the loss of the scores in the LP-to-CD transfer, you can download for free electronic scans of the old Bach-Gesellschaft versions (which were reproduced with the Telefunken sets)--these are far from perfect, I know, but they will provide the listener with at least a decent score to follow. Just Google "Bach Gesellschaft" and follow the first link.

So what are you waiting for? There are 60 CDs of some of the most sublime music ever written ready for you to explore!
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on October 28, 2008
This is the landmark 60-CD set of the complete Bach sacred cantatas recorded by period instrument pioneers Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt with their respective original instrument ensembles Concentus Musicus Wein and the Leonhardt Consort between the early '70's and the late 80's for Teldec. I bought this in its previous incarnation, the most expensive single recorded music purchase I ever made at $400, it takes up what seems like three feet of space on my shelf, and I have never regretted it, out-of-tune boy sopranos, scratchy violas, an oboe d'amore player who seems to be learning his instrument over the course of several discs, and all. This is not period Bach delivered with the swing and polish of John Eliot Gardiner, this is raw, immediate, intimate and from the gut. And it just got hundreds of dollars cheaper. I don't know if this means a reduction in the copious annotation (hundreds of pages of commentary and translation) that accompanied my older edition, which would be a pity, because this set was both a labor of scholarship and a labor of love. But there is music enough here to last a lifetime, the very heart of Bach's oeuvre.

The aforementioned occasional failures of intonation and the deliberately scaled-down instrumentation and choral forces only serve to heighten the sense of direct communion with God; this is honest, not pious, and the rawness of the peformances convey a sense of fear, trembling, awe, and humility in the face of the Almighty. Other recordings may be smoother, but none are as powerful and direct. I may be indulging in special pleading for technical lapses (which disappear over the course of the set as the players and singers get a firmer grip on the tiller, but these recordings moved me in the same elemental fashion as my first hearing of such similarly raw, "mistake-prone" works as Robert Johnson's delta blues recordings, Hank Williams' I Saw the Light, and John Coltrane's Village Vanguard recordings.

These cantatas were written to elucidate the minister's sermon for every Lutheran holy day on the calendar; within a restrictive framework, in a 20 minute span, Bach delivered a hymnal chorale, a fugal burst from the chorus, recitatives, and solo arias. With these simple elements, though, he recombined instrumental groupings and explored a range of spiritual moods from exalted, to celebratory, to desolate, to consoling. The polyphony is staggering, the solos heartfelt, the orchestra simultaneously rangy and lush. This is the musical equivalent of Dante's Commedia, something to explore, meditate upon, music to both pray and dance to. There is absolutely nothing like it, anywhere.

If you wish to hear the workings of Enlightenment logic intertwined with "irrational" faith, two elements polemicizing atheists always claim are incompatible,so that the listener cannot tell where one starts and the other ends, check this out. Bach could not have written these pieces (on a weekly basis, over decades!) if he could not so marry his huge brain and his huge heart.
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on March 26, 2010
I agree with Peter Watchorn's review. (I thought your name sounded familiar. I've seen it on credits on other CDs). I started to purchase the LP volumes when I was 15 years old (1974). I was so intrigued by the sound of the original instruments. It was as if I was transported back to Bach's time. In fact they actually helped me get through high school because I read the text as they performed and the words of faith helped when the bullies of high school and other things got me down. I continued to buy each volume as it came out until they started to come out on CD in the mid 1980's. Then the complete set came out in 1994 and received it as a gift for my birthday. I still can't bring myself to sell or get rid of all those LP volumes because they have all those pictures of the performers and pictures of the original instruments which the CDs don't have. My most favorite Cantata is Leonhardt's performance of the Actus Tragicus BWV106. I've tried Koopman's series, Rifkin series, and Gardiners and none seem to have the magic that Leonhardt and Harnoncourt bring to it. Maybe it's because I grew up with their records or maybe not. Maybe it's because the sound of the boy's choirs is so ingrained in me that when I hear it done by adults it just does not work for me. I don't really know.
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on January 3, 2010
These ARE without any possible doubt the DEFINITIVE recordings of the greatest works of music by possibly the greatest genius of all time! The recordings of these cantatas made by Koopman and Suzuki are good but they are not consistent. However, this collection is all the way through. This was and as far as I'm concerned THE standard for performing these works. It set up the program for historically informed performance over thirty years ago and it still is the standard for all any that come after it. Do not miss owning this collection. I started to buy them when they first came out on LP but it was expensive then and then I started to collect them when the CD technology came out but still couldn't afford the regular purchase of them. Now, they are at a bargain price and anyone who admires Bach and the Baroque shouldn't miss owning them!
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on July 13, 2009
I have an earlier and more expensive offering of this set and echo the superlatives given by other reviewers. Whatever the meaning or intentions of the "historically informed" musical movement was or are this enterprise was it's first major triumph. And, it is true that Bach did not employ women singers. (All other recorded Cantata cycles do and you really can't go wrong - I rather like Koopman's.) Consequently the all male performance with early renditions of "original instrument" support give this set a completely unique sound. And it's beautiful. It doesn't hurt that Bach's sacred cantatas are the greatest series of musical composition in history. The boy singers are what really set this wonderfully recorded cycle apart. That's an automatic good news/bad news. The bad news is that not all of the boys are up to the blizzard of parts given them. The good news is that when they are firing on all cylinders the result is well and truly the voice of angels. And the boys and the wonderful male adults create gorgeous chorales. So, let me simply say this: if you don't have a cantata cycle get this one. If you have another Bach cantata cycle get this one too. (I have three and a half and will hit four within a year or so I'd guess.) Would a Beethoven lover be content with a single cycle of symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas or string quartets: not likely. Would a classical music lover have only one Figaro? Unthinkable. Buy this set because it one of the greatest triumph in the history of commercially recorded music. And, while you're at it, you will also have 60 CDs filled with extraordinary music.
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on April 12, 2012
The Teldec Bach Cantata series under the joint direction of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt was the first complete Bach Cantata series featuring historically-informed performance practice--as it was understood in the period 1970-1985. This series was not, in fact, the first complete cantata cycle--that honor goes to Helmuth Rilling, who utilized modern instruments, "conventional" mixed choirs, and standard operatic-oratorio soloists. Unlike Rilling, the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series excludes female voices entirely. With the exception of the taxing Soprano solo cantatas BWV 51 and 199, all of the soprano arias are taken by boy choristers; and, of course, the choral ensembles rely entirely on boy sopranos and altos. Those interpretive choices on the part of the two conductors give this pioneering effort its distinctive character and unique status among competing Bach cantata cycles (Leusink employs an all-male choir, but female soprano soloists). In many ways, too, the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series has historical value: they *were* the first, after all, to stake out this territory for early music practitioners. Though period instrumental and choral ensembles have improved beyond all recognition since Harnoncourt and Leonhardt recorded the final volume of their series, these two figures--and the forces they worked with--deserve all the honor we can give them for their collective "voyage of discovery"--even if it was a somewhat rocky one at times!

As othe reviewers have noted, the ensemble playing and singing (under both conductors) can be rough, and those boy sopranos, with the best will in the world, can't compete in lung capacity, ability to sustain a line, or sing in tune, with adult vocalists. That having been said, there is much to enjoy in this series; indeed, I keep coming back to it as a point of reference for appreciating and evaluating later cantata cycles. Harnoncourt can be overemphatic and eccentric (much like Hermann Scherchen, under whom he played as a cellist in his younger days); yet none of the current Bach interpreters--not even Gardiner--convey the dramatic tensions and inwardness of these works better than Harnoncourt at his best. Leonhardt, as one reviewer hinted, adopts a more laissez-faire posture, which can lead at times to a fatal slackness; yet at *his* best (which he is relatively less frequently than Harnoncourt), he can evoke the intimacy and charm of these works as well as any Bach interpreter past or present.

The biggest asset to this series, however, is the superb team of adult soloists. The contributions of such luminaries as Equiluz, van Egmond, Nimsgern, Esswood, Jacobs, Huttenlocher, and--latterly--Thomas Hampson, cnnot be gainsaid. They are, on average, better than any of their competitors in more recent cantata cycles. Compare, for instance, Esswood for Harnoncourt-Leonhardt and Robin Blaze for Suzuki and you'll hear a telling for instance of my general observation.

The ensemble singing is, of course, more variable. Diction can be mushy and textures confused. But when these various all-male choirs were on their mettle, as they more often were, they produce a satisfyingly robust sound that carries well over the instrumental ensemble, even in the most richly orchestrated, "festive" cantatas. Compare, once again, Suzuki's crack vocal group--whose diction, transparency of texture, and phrasing are nearly always impeccable--with the choirs in the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series, and you will find that Suzuki's group is often covered by his instrumental ensemble, to the point that important fugal entrances are lost and contrapuntal detail generally doesn't emerge as clearly as it might. Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir, is, of course, nonpareil, but I would say that the all-male choirs in the Teldec series give them some stiff competition in a number of works (such as the opening choruses, for instance, of BWV 101 and 102).

I would also note that I applaud Harnoncourt's and Leonhardt's decision to restrict keyboard continuo to organ; the incessant jangling of the harpsichord, that one hears even in the most quiet, contemplative movements of some other cantata cycles (Rilling is the worst offender in this regard), amounts to something of a "pet peeve" for me.

So what do I advise any prospective purchaser of a Bach cantata cycle to do? You can't go too far wrong with any of them--even the Leusink cycle, often pilloried by critics, has its merits and should be considered (see my review of Leusink on this website). For the latest in scholarship and impeccable musicianship, I would say that it has to be Suzuki--even though I do prefer a fuller choral sound (no Rifkin minimalist forces for this reviewer) and a richer-toned countertenor soloist than Robin Blaze. Indeed, in many ways I prefer more traditional soloists, including female contraltos, as long as they don't overdo the vibrato. For sheer chutzpah, and many unique insights, I would go with Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage series; his cycle can boast the best choral singing, if not always the finest soloists. Leusink has a certain chutzpah of his own, and a first-rate instrumental ensemble; his soloists, too, are not nearly as variable as they are made out to be in the critical press. The problem for Leusink is an undisciplined all-male choir that is frequently not up to the exigent demands Bach imposes on them. Rilling will appeal to those who prefer modern instruments, traditional oratorio singers, and a middle-of-the-road approach that tries, and often succeeds, in bridging the gap between PPP and the old "Kapellmeister" tradition. Harnoncourt-Leonhardt offer the excitement of discovery, and have the advantage of slower tempos than is the fashion today. They have outstanding adult soloists working for them, all-male choirs that sing with far greater discipline than we might have expected, and charming, if vocally inelegant boy sopranos.

I have heard only a few cantatas from Koopman's cycle, and thus am not qualified to comment on his work.

A tentative--and somewhat reluctant--ranking, then, of the Bach cantata cycles known to me: Suzuki, Gardiner, Rilling, Harnoncourt-Leonhardt, Leusink. For earnest Bachians, I would add an imperative to acquire the best of the older Bach traditions represented by Richter, Werner, Prohaska, and others. If price is an issue, then my ranking would shift accordingly: Rilling, Leusink, Harnoncourt-Leonhardt, Gardiner, Suzuki. And, finally, a ranking in order of recording quality: Suzuki (despite the highly reverberant acoustic of the Kobe Shoin chapel); Harnoncourt-Leonhardt, Gardiner, Leusink, Rilling.

Truly, we Bachians are spoiled for choice when it comes to the cantatas!

ADDENDUM: Since I wrote these lines, I have had the occasion to audition the one complete Bach cantata cycle with which I had been previously unfamiliar--namely, Ton Koopman's effort for Erato/Challenge Classics. I had avoided Koopman's cycle for years largely because I have always disliked his style of organ playing--historical rectitude gone beserk, was (and largely still is) my reaction to his recordings of Bach organ music. However, as I now realize, his cantata cycle is another matter. His style, while close in many ways to his pupil, Maasaki Suzuki, is altogether more expressive, with shapelier phrasing (he does not avoid legato entirely) and a fuller appreciation for the sensuous beauty of Bach's seamlessly spun contrapuntal textures. Koopman also favors a more robust choral sonority that rarely gets drowned out by the instrumental ensemble (as happens quite frequently in about two-thirds of Suzuki's cycle). I also applaud his decision to assign a critical mass of the alto arias to female mezzo and contralto soloists rather than counter-tenors. All of this adds up to a reappraisal of the tentative ranking given above. I would now place Koopman's cantata series just slightly ahead of Suzuki. Though there are inevitably ups and downs in a project of this scope, I find that Koopman's peaks are higher than anyone else's (at least in the HIP category), and his troughs fewer in number, though, regrettably, more numerous in the more intimate earlier cantatas from Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Weimar, than in the great yearly cantata cycles from Leipzig (where he really shines). However, there remains an irresistible exuberance, a sense of the joy of discovery, in every volume of Koopman's series. Of course Gardiner and Suzuki convey this quality as well, so my remarks are not to be interpreted as dismissing their entirely laudable efforts. It's not a matter of the best being an enemy of the good: It would be a logical fallacy to infer from a comparative judgment of value that the "less" valued is not also valuable. That a is in some respects better than b, doesn't imply that b is bad or merits our disapproval. Far from it, as comparing the relative virtues of Bach cantata cycles amply attests.
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on December 20, 2010
To the best of my knowledge, this Telefunken "Das Alte Werke" set was the first ever integral recording of the Bach cantatas. It is not the first complete recording, that was Rilling, but Rilling never set out with the intention to record them all, it sort of developed that way. As a result, the gap between the first and last Rilling recordings is more than 20 years, and the later recordings, although performed on modern instruments and with women's voices, were informed by the growing knowledge of period practice. The "Das Alte Werke" set was the first set to seek a unified approach, and in addition to try to recapture the sort of sound that would have been more like the sound Bach would have heard, using copies of the instruments that he would have known.

I have not heard all of these cantatas, but I know many of them from the initial LP releases I have in my collection, in their nice brown boxes (2 LPs per box) with miniature scores and detailed booklets. I enjoyed them, but, in my opinion, they have been surpassed. Nicky and Gus were trailblazers in the business of "authentic" performance (insofar as actual authentic performance is possible), and they of course suffer from the fact that people who follow reap the benefit of lessons learned and take things one step further. The use of these instruments was in its infancy and the orchestral sound is often thin and scrawny, the intonation of the valveless natural horns and trumpets often insecure. And occasionally I was caused to wonder whether some of these recordings had been made in Nicky's garden shed. In the now nearly 40 years that has followed, new generations of players have made these instruments their own. The Gardiners, Suzukis, Herreweghes and Koopmans have advanced the art and their orchestras sound much better than the orchestras in these works.

In the interests of "authenticity", the "Das Alte Werke" recordings eschewed women singers, opting to go with boy sopranos and counter-tenors. Bach would naturally have used all-male singers. However, boys' voices broke much later in Bach's time, so Nicky and Gus are actually trying to reproduce a sound that no longer exists, indeed that no longer CAN exist. Having said that, the quality of the singing is generally very good, and some of the boy soloists (from various boy's choirs, including the Vienna Boys' Choir and the King's College Cambridge choir) are really quite amazing (e.g., the opening solo of BWV28). The contributions of the grown-up soloists are also often outstanding (Max van Edmond and Paul Esswood come particularly to mind).

Having said all that, and acknowledging that this is a monumental achievement of the recording industry, I know enough about this set not to want to buy it, because to me the Gardiner/Suzuki sets sound so much better. However, I know people who absolutely adore this set, and who like the feeling of "insecurity", of operating slightly on the edge, of the whole thing, because this is what Bach must have been used to, considering he often had only a week to write, rehearse and perform a new cantata. These folk are the natural customers for this set. For anyone else, before splashing out this much money, I'd advise getting a single set of the cantatas (I believe the two-LP sets were released in CD form) and listen to one, to see whether you like the approach and the sound - and of course comparing with the likes of Gardiner and Suzuki, not to mention older recordings such as Richter, Rilling and Werner.

One of the enormous (and to me enormously irritating) conceits of this set when it first appeared was the statement, more or less in so many words, that this was the only way to play Bach, and that any other approach was wrong. Hopefully, this has been erased from the record by now. This is music for eternity and should be played to the full extent of its artistic and aesthetic possibilities, not strapped in a stylistic straitjacket, using women's voices and modern instruments, if need be. I still turn to the old Erato Werner recording of BWV140 and the glory of the three trumpeting Läubin brothers blowing up a storm in Rilling's BWV129. Bach performance is not set in stone, nor should it be.
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on February 25, 2013
I love all my cantata conductors - particularly Suzuki, Koopman, Richter and Gardiner - but find Harnoncourt (in particular) the most powerful magician of them all. I'm not musician enough to be able to analyse how, out of the rawness and vitality of these performances, he conjures transcendence.
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on January 22, 2009
1 google: emmanuel music bach cantata.
2 click one of two links: (A) cantata notes or (B) cantata translations.
3 use a download manager (freeware DAP for instance) and select (right click with DAP for instance) to download everything on that page ("download all with DAP", for instance).Of course (A) and (B) go in separate directories, to prevent overwriting...
...and presto: those two mouseclicks, A and B, download hundreds of HTML documents indexed by BWV number of (A) liner notes and/or (B) German/English lyrics for all the Cantatas. Well at least all them have the lyrics and most also have associated with them several paragraphs of informative liner type notes.

BTW, the notes and lyrics pages are mainly text so the hundreds of pages are each very small in size: not very much time and space are needed!
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