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Top Five Epic Cycles in Classical Music

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There’s something at least mildly obsessive about presenting a composer’s complete set of works. These projects don’t only require a great understanding of the music at hand, but often suggest a consummate biographical knowledge of its creator. The lengthier and more intimidating the cycle, the closer one feels to its its writer. Below are our top five ambitious cycles; please add your favorites in the comments below.

1.  Bach’s Complete Cantatas (65 hours)

We just finished our own full cycle through all of Bach’s music, so we are intimately aware of the time commitment necessary to just listen to all of Bach’s nearly 200 cantatas. It took the conductor and Baroque specialist, Ton Koopman, more than 10 years to record all 198 known cantatas with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. For Sir John Elliot Gardner it took more than five years and the help of several orchestras and soloists. Meanwhile, the Bach Collegium Japan and its director Masaaki Suzuki hope to complete the cycle this year after embarking on the project way back at the end of the 20th century.


2.  Mahler’s 10 Symphonies (11 hours)

Dozens of orchestras and composers have put their stamp on Mahler’s symphonies—some multiple times. But the sheer endurance of getting through all nine (and often the Adagio of the incomplete Tenth) symphonies can’t be underestimated. On the completion of a Berlin Staatskapelle’s 2009 Mahler cycle with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, Alex Ross wrote, “The trouble with putting on a gigantic Mahler festival is that some unlucky musicians have to play all the music. The composer made cruel demands on his performers; each symphony is a marathon in itself.”


3.  Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets (6.25 hours)

Regarded as the composer’s most autobiographical of works, Dmitry Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets are often considered as reflections of Shostakovich’s deepest and most personal feelings. Written over the course of 36 years in which the composer found himself more often than not out of favor with the ruling Soviet party, the quartets require an intimate understanding of Shostakovich’s state of mind. Last month, the Jerusalem Quartet (right) explored the works over a four-concert series with the Chamber Music Society. The group’s violist Ori Kam called the works "a window into Shostakovich’s soul.”


4.  The 32 Beethoven Sonatas (11.5 hours)

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have flummoxed many a keyboardist, including the great Rudolf Serkin, who infamously wiggled out of a complete cycle at Carnegie Hall in the early ’70s. These days, playing all the works isn’t as rare a feat. In recent years, Till Fellner, Paul Lewis, Daniel Barenboim, Andras Schiff and Jonathan Biss (who’s currently recording all the sonatas) have taken on the challenge. However, the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear will add an additional obstacle on the already daunting task by performing the works chronologically and back-to-back over a 12-hour period during his upcoming Sonatathon performances later this year.


5.  Haydn's 106 Symphonies (37 hours)

Of all herculean musical efforts, completing a cycle of symphonies by Joseph Haydn ranks among the most difficult. After all, the Father of the symphony wrote 106 of them. For years, Antal Dorati was the only conductor to record the complete the cycle of symphonies. Since then, Adam Fischer and Dennis Russell Davies have also finished the task. Said Fischer of the all-consuming process: "My daughter went to school with No 35; my son did his final school exams with 82; my niece got married with 32, had a baby with 41 and got divorced with 53."

Photo: Marco Borregreve/Harmonia Mundi