Alan Curtis, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Bob van Asperen, Brandenburg Concertos, British Broadcasting Corporation, cantata, CD, computer, Das Alte Werk, DVD, Goldberg Variations, Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord, headphones, Il Giardino Armonico, Kurt Equiluz, Mass in B minor, Milan, MP3, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, organ, passion, secular cantata, Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello, Teldec, Ton Koopman
In 2000, Teldec issued its complete Bach edition on CD, made up of four decades of releases from its catalogue, as well as the Das Alte Werk labels. All the works were performed on period instruments and ranged from the earliest of the cantata recordings, dating from 1963, to those of some of the instrumental trios made in the late 1990s to plug the few gaps in the survey. It was an extraordinarily comprehensive achievement, which ran to 154 discs, including a DVD of a BBC documentary from its great composers series.
Now the whole set has been made available at a remarkably low price as more than three thousand MP3 files on a single memory stick, together with PDFs of essays from the original recordings, though not, as far as I could establish, the texts of the vocal works, even though there would have been plenty of space for them on the memory stick. As a concept alone, it’s pretty astonishing to be able to hold the whole life’s work of one of the greatest composers in the history of western music in the palm of one’s hand – but it would be only that, and the empty triumph of technology over artistic quality, if the results were not worthwhile both musically and technically.
On a musical level, certainly, there can be very few complaints. The core of the whole enterprise was always the pioneering set of the complete sacred cantatas: sixty CDs in the original set, on which Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt worked tirelessly with their ensembles for Das Alte Werk over more than twenty years. While those performances are sometimes a bit more strait-laced expressively than today’s much suaver period-instrument bands, there is a wonderfully uncomplicated directness about the singing and playing that is always fully engaged. Harnoncourt and Ton Koopman share the secular cantatas, while it’s the former’s performances for both the Passions – his outstanding 1970 version of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and a slightly less convincing 1993 one of the St. John Passion (BWV 245), with Kurt Equiluz and Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the respective Evangelists – and for the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), from 1986, that are included.
Koopman also features extensively as an organist; his performances of the complete organ works are spread across sixteen CDs and recorded on a variety of instruments in the 1990s. As you would expect in such a purist set, all the remaining keyboard works are played on the harpsichord, shared between seven different soloists, including Leonhardt in his classic performance of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), Alan Curtis and Bob van Asperen. Leonhardt is the soloist, too, in the harpsichord concertos, while the Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-51) are represented by wonderful buoyant performances from the Milanese group Il Giardino Armonico. Among the instrumental music, Harnoncourt goes back to his beginnings as a string player in the Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello (BWV 1007-12) and the Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord (BWV 1027-9), while Thomas Zehetmair plays the solo-violin works.
For this set, the original recordings have been compressed at a bit rate of 320 kbps. That is apparently the maximum quality that can be handled by domestic MP3 players, and the sound seems pretty good, though inevitably can seem restricted when compared with the CD originals. Alternatively the files can be downloaded and then burnt on to CD, though, that rather defeats the object of having them on a memory stick in the first place. Plugged into a computer and played back through high-quality headphones, though, the results are certainly acceptable, even if navigating your way around the 25GB of material is sometimes hit and miss – the search facility provided with the application isn’t terribly sophisticated, and so locating a particular chorale prelude, say, could take a while.
But riffling through 154 CDs to locate a specific track wouldn’t ever be straightforward either, and in the end it is the sheer quantity of music involved that makes the task a challenge. The accessibility and the miraculous compactness of this set are bound to be its huge selling point; as a handy work of reference, certainly, it’s hard to fault.