For Bach’s Birthday, Discover Complete Editions of His Works

Today is the 327th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, undoubtedly the most important composer in the history of western music. His work is vast and varied: it ranges from solo keyboard music to choral passions and oratorios; from concertos to organ works; from sacred cantatas to solo works for violin or cello.

Appreciating Bach’s output is complex, as his music fills from 154-172 CDs, depending on the recordings. A good way to plunge into his world of music is to buy a complete edition of his works. There are three such editions available (one of these is due out next week), and here is a brief overview of them.

Starting with the least expensive set, the Brilliant Classics Bach: Complete Edition contains 157 CDs. Reviewing an earlier version of this set in 2001 (a handful of recordings have changed since then), I wrote, “While many of the recordings are excellent, there are some which are mediocre. Nevertheless, the good ones do outweigh the lemons, and, if you like Bach’s music, you owe it to yourself to get this set – at its super-bargain price, even those recordings you don’t like will not cause too much disappointment, but the quality of the excellent ones is such that you will certainly be delighted.” It is a good set, not great, but the current price – as of today, it’s $131 on Amazon – it is the cheapest, at less than $1 per disc.

Next comes Haenssler Classics’ Complete Works of Johann Sebastian Bach on 172 discs. A bit more expensive – currently around $214 – I wrote that, “Comparing this set to the Brilliant Classics box, I would certainly give higher grades to Hänssler.” The cantatas are much better, though the style may not please everyone. However, there is an excellent collection of singers in the sacred works. To name but a few that stand out: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Augér, Helen Watts, Edith Wiens, Peter Schreier, Philipp Huttenlocher, Matthias Goerne, Juliane Banse, Thomas Quasthoff, Christoph Prégardien and many more. And Rilling’s choirs are always top-notch. The same can be said for the other sacred works, the passions, oratorios and masses.

Finally, Teldec’s Complete Bach Edition, on 154 discs, notably contains the first complete set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Revolutionary at the time, this set sounds a bit old-fashioned now; there are no female singers, for example, to replicate the way Bach performed these works, and the boy sopranos are a mixed bag. I don’t own this set, and didn’t buy the first version of it when it was released in 2000, but it contains many excellent musicians, including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Concentus Musicus Wien, Ton Koopman, Il Giardino Armonico, Andreas Staier, Christopher Hogwood, Musica Antique Koln, Reihard Goebel, Klaus Mertens, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson and many others. The current price of this set is about $325, making it the most expensive.

So, should you buy one of these sets? If you love Bach as I do, no amount of CDs is too many. The ability to compare different interpretations of these works is a great way to truly understand them.