Bach 333
The New Complete Edition
Various Artists
DG 4798000 (222CD, DVD et al)

If you enjoyed 2016’s superbly comprehensive Mozart 225 box, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca have done it again, this time celebrating the 333rd anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach with the biggest (and heaviest) collection of any composer in recording history. According to editorial consultant Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the number 333 is important, because three is a key Bach number representing the Holy Trinity. “The symbolism of three, and three times three, is everywhere in the collection of organ works Clavier-Übung III,” he writes. “We often sense these underlying features in the composer’s work; while I don’t think he ever let them dominate his thinking, it was clearly a way in which he was expressing the harmony of the universe as he saw it.” If Bach 333 still seems a little contrived – should we look forward to Schubert 222 next year? – any excuse to celebrate Bach is good enough in my book.

Bach 333Bach 333: The New Complete Edition

The result of two years’ scholarly research and the help of the Leipzig Bach Archive, the composer’s prodigious output weighs in at 222 CDs presented by genres. Generally chronological, it allows the listener to follow the creative development of one of music’s most fertile minds across a range of music from choral to orchestral, from organ music to harpsichord works. But there’s a great deal more to Bach 333 than a catalogue. Skillful curation allows the listener to dip in and out, while key works presented in multiple performances, intriguing sections exploring performance traditions, collections of transcriptions and a host of works inspired by the music of Bach transcends a mere completist exercise (which answers the inevitable question of who is this for: answer, anyone with a curious mind and over 280 hours on their hands).

Like the Mozart edition, the main focus here is on ‘period performance’, so orchestras and soloists inevitably play on authentic instruments. Elsewhere, harpsichord scores over the anachronistic piano. And if that worries you, a generous 12-disc supplementary section allows you to enjoy the main keyboard works played by Pollini (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I), Schiff (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II and Goldberg Variations), English Suites and Partitas divvied up between Pogorelich, Schiff, Argerich, Hewitt, Brendel, Perahia, Pires, Blechacz, Grosvenor and Ashkenazy) as well as a pair of fascinating discs exploring historical performances from Fischer in 1933, and including Gulda, Lipatti, Gieseking, Richter, Horowitz and Glenn Gould.

But surely Gould never recorded for DG, I hear you cry. Well, that’s the other masterstroke. Partially by design, and partially one suspects by necessity – DG and Decca have barely scratched the surface of the cantatas in the past – Bach 333 has been put together with the enlightened cooperation of a remarkable 32 different labels.

The main beneficiary has to be Soli Deo Gloria, the label set up by Sir John Eliot Gardiner to rescue his 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage after, irony of ironies, DG pulled the plug. Sacred cantatas take up a whacking 48 CDs, and Gardiner’s is the finest set around, so it’s fitting that the curators have turned to him for the lion’s share here. The rest are made up from the Suzuki set (on Bis), Koopman (on Challenge), Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) and a smattering of smaller (and occasionally more elderly) fry. Comparisons between the one to a part ventures of, say, Koopman, with Gardiner and Suzuki’s fuller choral sound is fascinating in itself.

Elsewhere, it’s Koopman’s pin-point sound gracing the Motets, we get two B Minor Masses (Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s brilliant account from CPO and Brüggen’s 1989 set), both the 1724 and 1749 versions of the St John Passion (Gardiner and Suzuki), two St Matthews (Gardiner and McCreesh) and a pair of Christmas Oratorios (Gardiner’s high-octane 1990s account, and Chailly’s super-speedy, ‘historically informed’ Leipzig recording). The vocal traditions selection is particularly generous, offering 23 CDs of additional performances stretching back to Mengelberg (1939) and Scherchen, and including a lot of Karl Richter (cantatas and the complete 1959 St Matthew Passion).

Returning to the keyboard, the harpsichord choices are perhaps the only mixed bag in the set. While Pinnock (Toccatas) and Rousset (Partitas and Goldberg Variations) deserve to be ranked highly, I’m less convinced that Huguette Dreyfus (for her performances) in the English Suites and Christopher Hogwood (for his instrument) in the French Suites would top my poll. And is Kenneth Gilbert the only choice for a harpsichord version of The Well-Tempered Clavier? Rousset on Aparté or Butt on Linn both offer more imaginative accounts. Fortunately, there are bonuses, including Mahan Esfahani’s mandatory recent account of the Goldbergs, and in case you were wondering about Schiff’s piano take on the Goldbergs, they’ve boldly bought in his 2003 ECM recording rather than use the 1982 Decca.

Unlike the other sections, the organ works tend to hop around on each disc from player to player. The bulk of the repertoire is taken from Hurford (his majestic Decca set) and Preston (his more nimble DG collection, including the Orgelbüchlein and Clavier-Übung III), but there are delightful contributions from others like Koopman, Weir and the ever reliable Helmut Walcha. Historical accounts go way back to Schweitzer (1936, now owned by Warner) and include Walcha’s complete 1952 account of the Orgelbüchlein.

The orchestral choices revisit DG Archiv’s pioneering 1980s recordings for two lively sets of the Brandenburgs (Goebel – so much better than his recent sterile Sony survey – and Pinnock). Both still bear comparison with the finest newer recordings. The same forces plus Hogwood share the Orchestral Suites. The violin concertos go to Carmignola, while the harpsichord concertos are shared between Rousset, Pinnock, Staier, Hogwood and Koopman. The orchestral traditions appendix takes us from Busch’s 1935 (now Warner) account of Brandenburg No 1 up to John Butt’s 2013 account of No 6 with plenty to surprise in between.

Chamber music features violin sonatas and partitas from Huggett and Goebel, Narciso Yepes’ lute suites and David Watkin’s award-winning 2015 account of the Cello Suites, picked up from the tiny Resonus label. The trios and other sundry chamber works plunder the classic Musica Antiqua Köln accounts from the 1980s. Historically, we get generous doses of Casals, Milstein and Grumiaux.

Being a complete edition, towards the end there are plenty of bits and bobs, ranging from incomplete works to works of dubious authority. But if that sounds worthy but dull, try the four discs exploring Bach’s German and Italian influences, music by his illustrious forebears and his gifted children, and three discs of Bach’s influences on other composers of his time.

Best of all are the final six discs – ‘Bach after Bach’ – ranging eclectically from Brahms’ transcription of the Chaconne for piano left hand to Mahler’s arrangement of an orchestral suite, and including Stokowski orchestrations and jazz treatments by Jacques Loussier and Oscar Peterson. Gardiner’s 90-minute BBC film Bach: A Passionate Life and a set of wonderfully informed essays complete a landmark issue.

Bach 333: The New Complete Edition is out now from Universal. Find out how you could win a copy here.