Bach's 250th produces some wild and woolly CDs

Johann Sebastian Bach's music has been praised for epitomizing God's order on earth. Even so, the explosion of interest from CD companies on the 250th anniversary of the composer's death is an extraordinary sign of his lasting importance.

From single-CD offerings to single-set CD collections vast enough to fill an entire bookshelf, music companies are releasing Bach's lifetime of work on a scale emulating his most grand opus.

The German record company Hanssler is offering 170 CDs of its traditional approach to Bach. Warner-Teldec has produced a much-trumpeted Bach edition of 153 CDs. Smaller but more choice, Harmonia Mundi offers 20 separate CDs and six boxed sets in homage to the master born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner has begun to record, for Universal, all of Bach's dozens of church cantatas.

How are these items being received? Warner-Teldec entered the fray first, taking the precaution of registering the trademark "Bach 2000." They launched their 153-CD set at last year's Salzburg (Austria) Festival, and within a month of the release date in September, "Bach 2000" had already sold more than 3,800 complete sets (priced at about $1,100 a set) and 800 "light" sets (the complete edition without the sacred cantatas), for a total of 765,000 CDs. An estimated 1.5 million CDs had been sold by the end of December.

These extraordinary sales may be explained by the fact that the sacred cantatas are from the legendary series conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, masters of early music. As in Bach's time, boy choirs are used, with soloists from the Vienna and Tolzer Boys Choir. All of this adds up to great musicmaking.

In terms of fresh releases for the Bach year, Harmonia Mundi (HM) has already won the crown with a sublime new version of the St. Matthew Passion conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. An owlish Belgian with a degree in psychology, Herreweghe conducts with rare emotional intensity. All of his cantata recordings in the Harmonia Mundi series are worth collecting, as are those of another conductor for the HM series, Rene Jacobs. A former countertenor, Jacobs has a deep understanding of choral and operatic conducting, and his version of Bach's motets are among the very finest.

Like most anniversaries, Bach's is a time for retrospection - historical performances are being remembered, notably in EMI's References series, which reprints classics like pianist Edwin Fischer's "Well-Tempered Clavier." Some of these old EMI performances are wild and woolly, yet precious for their spirit of experimentation.

Conductor Gardiner's cantata series (Universal/Archiv) looks likely to tread a more solidly traditional path: nothing flashy, nothing overdone, just some of the best music ever written presented in respectful homage.

What could be a better and more lasting tribute for Bach's special year?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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