Sound Recording Reviews

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Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach Edition: Complete Works. Various performers. Brilliant Classics 93102, 2007.

The contents of this massive, 155-disc boxed set were originally issued as a series of twenty-three smaller sets in observance (one hates to say "celebration") of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. For the one-box version, Brilliant Classics chose to replace nine of the original discs with period-instrument performances by Musica Amphion, Jaap ter Linden, La Stravaganza Koln (under Andrew Manze), and the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra. In addition, the complete box includes new recordings of all the sacred cantatas by the Netherlands Bach Collegium, a period-instrument ensemble featuring a boys' choir and the smaller forces favored by such groups. It is worth noting that while the focus of this boxed set is on period-instrument recordings, many of which are new and some of which are licensed from other labels, there still remain some modern-instrument performances, notably the secular cantatas (recorded in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Berliner Solisten and Kammerorchester Berlin), and the double concerto (by the Lodz Chamber Orchestra). In order to keep the physical size of the package manageable, the label chose to place each disc in a thin cardboard sleeve rather than a plastic jewel case, and texts and other performance notes are encoded on a CD-ROM rather than printed in what would have been a very thick paper book. (Performer credits and brief notes on recording dates and locations are printed on the back of each cardboard sleeve.) As a result, the entire box measures roughly fifteen inches by five inches by five inches; a combination of color codes and a schematic map of the discs' thematic distribution printed on the inside of the box lid make it fairly easy to zero in quickly on a desired disc. At a list price of $139.98, this boxed set is a truly remarkable bargain--assuming, of course, that the performances and sound quality are high enough to justify the investment of money, staff time, and shelf space, however modest those investments may be. Alert buyers may be particularly skeptical of the new cantata recordings by the Netherlands Bach Collegium, which were made with remarkable speed--all reportedly recorded within a period of fifteen months. Skeptics should prepare to be surprised, however. While there are quibbles to be made here and there (not everyone will prefer the sound of the boys' choir on the cantatas, and Musica Amphion sounds just a bit dry and brittle on the Brandenburg Concertos), for the most part these are top-notch performances by world-class players and singers; particular mention should be made of the wonderful 1994 performance of the St. Matthew Passion by the Brandenburg Consort and Choirs of King's College and Jesus College, Cambridge, and of Musica Pacifica's delightful rendering of the trio sonatas. Does this box represent a sufficient Bach collection for most libraries? Of course not. But no single collection of Bach recordings can ever be considered definitive, given the ongoing scholarly discussion regarding Bach's own intentions and the performance practices of the baroque period in general. The Bach Edition is an inexpensive, compact, and convenient addition to any classical collection, and for that reason should be considered an essential purchase for most libraries.

Franz Joseph Haydn. DeLirium: Concerto, notturno per lire organizzate; Divertimenti per baryton. Christopher Coin; Ensemble Baroque de Limoges; Quatuor Mosaiques. Laborie LC03, 2006.

The lira organizzata is a strange and rather fascinating instrument, a hybrid created by blending the function and design of an organ with those of a hurdy-gurdy. The latter is a bowed stringed instrument in which the strings are vibrated by means of a rosined wheel, which is turned by a hand crank; the player uses external keys to stop the strings at different pitches. The hurdy-gurdy has been a mainstay of vernacular European music since the Middle Ages, but for various reasons--not least of them its often raucous tone and difficulties of tuning and temperament--it has never found much of a place in the art music tradition. …