Dodging brickbats …
Consumer Reports purchases what it covers,
thereby avoiding suspicions of collusion.
Elsewhere, reviewers who anger manufacturers
find themselves cut off from stuff to write
about. That’s why I propose to tread
lightly, especially since this little stroll
into cyberspace isn’t about audio hardware,
at least not directly. So then:
Immediately below, for your delight and
edification, are cable prices from a highly
regarded audio company whose products I have
used with pleasure, tho I’ve not tried
these, nor am I likely to:
One-meter interconnect, $15,999 / pair.
Eight-foot speaker cable, $28,999 / pair.
Four-foot power cord, $10,999 each.
Together that comes to about $56k, and
you’ll surely require more than the three
listed here. Scarcely shocking.
Audiophilia’s gentry takes in its stride
prices mere groundlings regard as insane.
“It’s all about the music.” One would hope
Hey, big spender…
Which brings us to the music it’s all about.
However acclimated the audiophile is to
extravagant prices, few of us are likely to
spend a multiple of $56k on cabling. We’re
equally unlikely to spring for a 27-volume
recording project that goes for around $900.
We just don’t spent that much at one time on
one stack of related discs. But how many of
us have spent $900 or more on interconnects
or a line conditioner – you know, the goods
that get us closer to the music.
now to that $900 stack – the subject of
these remarks – three of the project’s
twenty-seven volumes consist of one CD each
at $16.99. The remaining twenty-four contain
two CDs. Two of the double-disc sets list
for $31.99, with the rest coming in at
$34.99 (see ArkivMusic.com).
Where am I going with this? Directly to a
suggestion: that you set aside a small part
of your life-is-good budget and buy this
extravagance in its entirety. Within it, in
equal measure, reside discovery and joy.
and then there’s insanity
This isn’t just any old recording project.
Normally, musicians perform a composer’s
collected whatevers in one space under one
set of time constraints and acoustic
conditions. I’ve been listening most
recently to volume 18. The venues for the
two discs’ seven works are given as the
Henderkirche in Weimar, the Nikolaikirche in
Leipzig, and Hauptkirche St. Jacobi in
Hamburg. All in all, our musical caravan
rehearsed, performed and recorded in
churches and cathedrals in Germany, England,
France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, the
Netherlands, and finally, to celebrate
Christmas and the New Year, in St.
Bartholomew’s in Manhattan. While the
project’s last volume appeared a few months
ago, the project itself, which its conductor
and sponsors characterize as a pilgrimage,
occurred between 1999 and the start of 2000.
Why the need for a hectic travel, arrival,
rehearsal, performance and recording
schedule in so very many houses of worship
remains, for me at least, a mystery. But
certainly not a deterrence.
In any event, a band of instrumentalists,
choristers and shifting roster of vocal
soloists – not a clunker in the lot –
perform and record most of Johann Sebastian
Bach’s surviving church cantatas, something
under two hundred. An indeterminate number
have been lost, and the reason why is not
difficult to understand. They are, to use
the term in its literal sense, occasional
pieces – music for a specific occasion – to
be performed and put aside. The cantatas,
among other tasks and duties, were on Bach’s
to-do list. They’re what he contracted to
compose, as required, to keep family and
reputation intact. In addition to composing
and performing – Bach was celebrated in his
time as a virtuoso organist – he produced a
brood of kids, several of whom went on to
become important composers in their own
Why the fuss?
And now we come to the miracle, or if you
prefer, examples of overwhelming genius.
casual music lovers, Bach is best known for
his Brandenburg Concertos, B-Minor Mass,
Musical Offering, Art of the Fugue,
Magnificat, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for
organ, the Well-Tempered Klavier, and a
number of other widely recorded works. As a
church employee, he was required to produce
cantatas for the Lutheran calendar’s feast
days. Thanks largely to Beethoven, it wasn’t
until the 19th century that audiences
deposited composers on pedestals. Bach and
his contemporaries were more on the order of
master craftsman who worked for the church –
in Bach’s case, Lutheran – the nobility, and
an increasingly powerful middle class.
Given the size of his faith’s liturgical
calendar, you’d think that Bach would have
cranked out his cantatas like so much
lookalike wurst. All you need do to disabuse
yourself of that assumption is to play any
one of these CDs through. If beauty’s your
thing, you’re guaranteed encounters of
sweetness, glory and brilliance. Being in no
way authoritative, indeed, having heard in
my lifetime fewer than half the existing
total, I’ve played this game on myself and
have come away astonished. My pleasure looks
in large measure to the performances’
unremitting quality. If your take on the
music is as imperfectly focused as mine, I
suggest acquiring the 27 volumes if only to
open doors to perception.
conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, annotated
these volumes – an informative delight.
Producer Isabella de Sabata and her
recording teams did an especially fine job
of optimizing the project’s dozens of
venues. Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists
and Monteverdi Choir are just what you’d
expect of the cream of British players and
singers. Years ago a Swedish producer told
me that a good British orchestra can
sight-read a difficult score as if it had
been lengthily rehearsed. The British choral
tradition needs no word from me.
The elegant volumes are packaged as little
books, the covers of which feature
atmospheric photo-portraits by Steve McCurry
of people in non-Western garb, as symbolic
perhaps of the music’s universality. I’ve
seen few recording projects as handsomely
A checkered history
Gardiner began recording the cantatas under
Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv imprint. I have
eleven of those single-disc releases, a
quick check of which reveals that these Soli
Deo Gloria volumes do not repeat much of the
Archiv’s contents. Why Archiv dropped out I
cannot say. In any event, the Archiv CDs
share the SDG project’s wanderlust. It would
seem that the pilgrimage, then not so
identified, began before SDG, Gardiner’s own
label, took over.
not be goofy
I mentioned the pilgrimage as a tad
peculiar. Arduous certainly. As a further
peculiarity, the volumes have not appeared
consecutively, the first, for example,
showing up after the sets began appearing
over the course of many months.
Notwithstanding Prince Charles’ support, I
suspect the delays had to do with funding.
All of which means little when the
epiphanies burst into blossom.
ArkivMusic.com, among other classical-music
vendors, handles Soli Deo Gloria
Naxos distributes Soli Deo Gloria. See