Monday, December 24, 2007

Collecting Bach

Our household is not particularly big on gifts. Living in a condominium in the San Francisco Civic Center, we had to experience a rather radical downsizing of stuff when we sold the house in Palo Alto, especially when the contents of our garage led to the Mother of All Garage Sales. Consequently, I have a tendency to annoy my wife when, if she is thinking about buying something, I reply "Do we have space for it?" However, every now and then something shows up that deserves the space, even if it means taking space occupied by something else.

Last week, when my wife came home with the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, which she had received as a gift from someone who knew that she was a serious music-lover, my immediate reaction was to point out that a sizable chunk of the condominium volume was being occupied by the Teldec Bach 2000 collection. However, since I already had the Brilliant collection of the complete works of Mozart, I had the good sense to hold my tongue and do a bit of exploration. After some initial sampling I now feel it important that the puppy can stay.

Those unfamiliar with Brilliant probably do not know that they are the "paperback press" of classical CDs. They are a Dutch outfit basically in the reprinting business, but they have shown a lot of good taste. The Mozart collection is a mixed bag, but how could anything that large be other than mixed? Besides, I got fed up with St. Martin in Neville's Recording Studio decades ago and therefore never had the urge to spring for the Philips Complete Mozart Edition. Furthermore, the packaging is really compact. Each disc is in a rather flimsy paper envelope, and all the liner notes are in PDF files on a CD-ROM. I have not consulted those files very much, particularly since I have so many other sources for Mozart; but I still appreciate the packaging strategy.

My only real beef with Brilliant is that they do not communicate directly with the consumers. As fate would have it, out of the 153 CDs in the Bach 2000 collection, one was missing: The cardboard jacket for the Orgelbüchlein contained a second copy of another disc of chorale partitas and other short organ works. Since I had purchased the collection (at a rather impressive discount) from Collectors' Choice Music, I got in touch with them; but the only thing they could offer was to replace the entire set, which I was hoping to avoid. Fortunately, however, I was able to get in touch with the Hamburg office of Warner Music, where they were only too happy to send me the missing disc (without requiring me to return the duplicated one). On the other hand the Brilliant collection of the complete Haydn symphonies, which I had again ordered from Collectors' Choice, had a similar problem. A duplicate of the final disc (Symphonies 103 and 104) was in the jacket for (among other things) Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise!"). All efforts to reach Brilliant through electronic mail were in vain; but this time the Collectors' Choice invitation to replace the whole set was a bit more palatable, particularly when they made the exchange process so easy (and expense-free). Of course Brilliant must operate on a far smaller scale than Warner, so I was happy enough that the problem could be resolved.

Nevertheless, whatever the virtues of Brilliant may be, if space is such a premium in our condominium, do we really want two distinct sets of the complete works of Bach? Well, it is certainly not conspicuous consumption at the level that Mad Magazine once captured in their Fiddler on the Roof parody:

Headshrinker, headshrinker,
I am his spouse.
Two minks I own;
One's for the house.

The question is more whether my wife and I have world enough and time for two distinct performances of so many compositions. Regular readers probably know my answer already: There is always time to hear a new performance of a piece of music, no matter how familiar it may be; music lives, not through the fixity of marks on a page, but through the diversity of the ways in which those marks can be interpreted. Bach "lives" precisely because living musicians are always coming up with new ways to approach the performance of his work. Having such diversity on so extensive scale does wonders for becoming a better listener!

To be fair, I still have to determine just how diverse that diversity actually is. I am just beginning to listen to the Brilliant discs, and I have not yet tried to do any really serious comparisons. So my initial excitement may be premature, but it is still allowing me to embark on an interesting adventure.

Meanwhile, there are already two areas of difference about which I can comment. One has to do with the contents of the collection and the other with how the collections are organized. The Brilliant collection has 155 CDs, i.e. two more than were in the Bach 2000 collection. I immediately accounted for one of those discs: The Brilliant collection has a Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach disc, with 32 tracks, many of which are from the Schmieder Anhang and others of which are not by Bach but were copied in for his wife's enjoyment (presumably). In the Bach 2000 collection, on the other hand, the Notenbüchlein is represented by only eight tracks at the end of the final disc in the "Motets, Chorales & Songs" box, none of which are from the Anhang. Of course much of the Notenbüchlein is for solo keyboard and would therefore not belong in this collection; so the "editorial decision" seems to be based on whether or not the Anhang should be represented. That being the case, there may be other Anhang entries to account for the other additional disc; but I shall have to do some further digging to find them.

This brings us to the matter of organization. Bach 2000 was packaged as a four-by-three array of cubic boxes. The first four boxes contained the sacred cantatas. The fifth box contained the secular cantatas, the sixth the other large sacred choral works, and the seventh the collection cited in the last paragraph. The eighth box contained all the organ music, followed by the keyboard music in the ninth and tenth boxes. The eleventh box contained the chamber music and the final box the orchestral works. This is roughly the way in which Wolfgang Schmieder organized the music for his (BWV) catalog. It is also the basis for the index printed in the 244-page book that comes with the collection, in which dates are attached to each entry (where known and sometimes modified with a question-mark). This has become a great reference for me for far more than finding my way around the collection.

The Brilliant collection uses a simpler grouping into six "volumes."

  1. Orchestra Works/Chamber Music
  2. Keyboard Works
  3. Cantatas I
  4. Cantatas II
  5. Vocal Works
  6. Organ Works

The index on the cover of the box is more than a little arbitrary (probably due to the constraints of printing area) in choosing between text and BWV numbers. My guess is that I am going to continue to use the index in the book for finding my way around this second collection.

Finally, there is the question of what gets classified where. In the Brilliant collection the entire Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach is included as chamber music, which, for me at least, makes more sense than singling out the vocal material for a general vocal collection. More problematic is the Art of Fugue. Bach 2000 includes this in the chamber music collection, but it is performed by a solo organ. Brilliant classifies it in Volume II, rather than Volume VI; and the performance appears to be by a harpsichord. I need to figure out whether or not this is a pedal harpsichord, because, unless I am mistaken, there are passages that really cannot be handled by two hands (at least without a damper pedal). Of course, it may be that the performer applied the "Glenn Gould" solution of overdubbing, which my ear may not be able to detect. However, I shall have to think some more about this particularly organizational decision.

On the other hand that may be a waste of cycles. For all the interest we take in the performances of the individual movements of Art of Fugue, there is no reason to assume that Bach ever expected them to be performed. This is a treatise about the "art" of composing fugues, written in the only language in which Bach could write well, music notation. There is something slightly naive about the assumption that anything that looks like music should be played like music. (As one of my thesis readers put it, "Who wants to listen to an entire evening in D minor?") That is actually what infuriated me the most about Gödel, Escher, Bach. The book is overloaded with philosophy grounded in the puzzle canons of the Musikalisches Opfer when there is no reason to believe that those "notes" were ever intended as music to be played by instruments. As the name implies, they were puzzles, intellectual amusements that Bach could share with Frederick the Great without worrying about whether or not any performers would get in the way, let alone whether latter-day theorists would dignify them by calling them "music!"

I have no idea whether or not I shall "file any further dispatches" as I work my way through the Brilliant collection. I have yet to hear a disc that has disappointed me, but I am not yet sure what the impact will be on my overall listening to Bach (or anyone else's music, for that matter). At the very least the Brilliant collection has done an excellent job of keeping the place free of Christmas carols!

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