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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion, BWV 245 [124'43"]
Friedericke Sailer (soprano); Marga Höffgen (alto); Helmut Krebs (tenor/Evangelist); Franz Kelch (bass/Jesus); Hermann Werdermann (bass/Petrus, Pilatus)
Recorded: Ilsfeld, Germany, October 1960
Motet: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225 [14'38"]
Motet: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 [8'38"]
Motet: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230 [7'34"]
Recorded: Schwaigern, Germany, 1968
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [193'27"]
Agnes Giebel (soprano); Renate Günther (alto); Helmut Krebs (tenor/Evangelist); Franz Kelch (bass/Jesus); Hermann Werdermann (bass)
Recorded: Protestant Church, Weinsberg, Germany, October 1958
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 [36'00"]
Ingeborg Reichelt (soprano); Margarethe Bence (alto); Helmut Krebs (tenor); Franz Kelch (bass)
Recorded: Protestant Church, Weinsberg, Germany, March 1957
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 [164'19"]
Agnes Giebel (soprano); Claudia Hellmann (alto); Helmut Krebs (tenor); Barry McDaniel (bass)
Recorded: Ilsfeld, Germany, June 1963
Motet: Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228 [10'57"]
Motet: Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229 [9'37"]
Recorded: Schwaigern, Germany, 1968
Motet: O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht, BWV 118 [4'37"]
Recorded: Schwaigern, July, 1966
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [127'55"]
Ingeborg Reichelt (soprano I); Elisabeth Fellner (soprano II); Renate Günther (alto); Helmut Krebs (tenor); Franz Kelch (bass)
Recorded: Protestant Church, Weinsberg, Germany, January 1958
Motet: Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 [23'32"]
Recorded: Schwaigern, Germany, 1968
Heinrich Schütz Choir, Heilbronn
Boys' Choir of the Robert-Mayer-Schule, Heilbronn (BWV 244)
Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra
Heilbronn Instrumental Ensemble (BWV 227, 228 & 229)
Südwestfunk Orchestra, Baden-Baden (BWV 147)
Conducted by Fritz Werner
WARNER ERATO 2564 61403-2 [10 CDs: 78'26" + 77'07" + 76'27" + 75'37" + 77'23" + 58'02" + 53'38" + 76'00" + 78' 07" + 73'20" Total 724'07"]
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This box is the third volume of Erato's reissue of Fritz Werner's Bach recordings and, happily, all his recordings are now available to us. I commented generally about Werner's approach to Bach in reviewing Vol.1 of this series, which contained a generous collection of cantatas.

This present volume is extremely valuable in that it lets us hear Werner in Bach's supreme choral masterpieces. Furthermore, none of these recordings have been widely available for some time, I believe, and many of them may well be making their CD début. Though many of the major record companies seem to be relying heavily on reissuing their back catalogue these days, these Werner recordings are just the sort of thing that might easily get overlooked. Warner Classics deserve much gratitude for making them available once more. They give us a clear idea of Werner as a Bach interpreter. They also suggest that he has been unfairly overlooked by comparison with his peer, Karl Richter. Had Werner recorded, like Richter, for a major international label (his recordings were made by the French company, Erato) his stock might have stood far higher.

The earliest of the major recordings assembled here is the B Minor Mass, which was set down in January 1958. Frankly, though it has some highlights, this recording is not the best memorial to Werner. Much of the trouble lies in the recording, I think. The engineers seem to have been uncomfortable with the acoustic of the Protestant Church in Weinsberg (though a few months later they made a much better job of the St Matthew Passion in the same venue). For the Mass, the recorded sound, as reported here, is diffuse and over-resonant, with the choir in particular set too far back in the aural spectrum. This contributes to a decided lack of incisiveness in the choral sound. I must say, however, that I can't lay all the blame for this at the engineer's door; the choir themselves sound somewhat woolly and often imprecise in attack. Werner used what sounds like a fairly large chorus and that works against him, I think.

The opening Kyrie is massive in scale and moves at a stately pace. I thought it sounded a bit turgid. Matters improve in the second Kyrie, even though Werner's tread is still firm. He finds grandeur in the opening chorus of the Gloria but for my taste 'Et in Terra Pax' drags a little. The 'Qui Tollis' is steady but not inappropriately so. I feel that the 'Cum Sancto' could have been launched with more bounce but overall it's a joyful conclusion to the Gloria and the fugal section is urgently done with decent clarity in the choral lines despite some congestion in the recording itself.

However, there's nothing like the incisiveness that's on offer from Karl Richter's Munich Bach Choir in their 1961 traversal (DG), which is in much better sound, and this is as true in the quiet passages as in the fast, joyful outbursts. This is apparent in movements in the Credo such as the' Et Incarnatus' (where Werner's pace is reverent without dragging) and the exuberant 'Et Resurrexit' and 'Et Expecto' choruses. Werner does these well but the impact is lessened by fuzzy choral tone and a congested recording, neither of which hampers Richter.

Werner has some good soloists on his roster. Helmut Krebs is a huge asset, singing the Benedictus with his usual intelligence and style (though the higher reaches of the tessitura tax him somewhat.) Franz Kelch does well but the truly horrible horn tone in the 'Quoniam' (it sounds like a trombone!) is a terrible distraction from his singing.

Ingeborg Reichelt combines very well with her respective partners in all three duets in which she is involved. I particularly enjoyed 'Domine Deus' where she and Krebs show us just what two excellent Bachians working together can achieve. Elisabeth Fellner makes a very fine job of the 'Laudamus Te'. She sings clearly and with an extremely nice tone. I like Werner's pacing, too. On the debit side, Renate Günther and Werner make rather heavy weather of the Agnus Dei. Her breathing appears to be under some strain though the tempo itself is not especially slow. On the other hand, she and Reichelt combine to good effect in 'Et in Unum Dominum' during the Credo. I should also mention that, as is the case throughout this boxed set, the instrumental obbligato playing is of a very high order. For example the flute player (Maxence Larrieu) excels in the 'Domine Deus' and again in the Benedictus while the oboe d'amore in the 'Qui sedes' (Pierre Pierlot?) is just as fine.

Werner's conception of the work as a whole is a devoted and homogeneous one, full of conviction. He's not perhaps at his best here by comparison with some of the other offerings in this box but I've no doubt that the quality of the sound does him few favours. If this were a single-issue release it would not stand comparison with Richter, for one, I fear. However, in the context of this box there is much to admire and enjoy.

A few months later Werner and his team were back in the same venue to set down the St Matthew Passion. Ironically, the sessions followed only a few months after Karl Richter had recorded the work in Munich for DG. As I've already hinted, Werner is accorded much better recorded sound this time and, in fact, this recording must be considered one of his finest achievements.

The first thing to say is that the chorus sounds immeasurably better. Not only are they more clearly recorded but also their singing is incomparably better. They're clear, incisive and precise. Once again the orchestral support is first rate with some glorious obbligati to savour. And the solo team is good, led by the peerless Evangelist of Helmut Krebs.

His is a distinctive timbre, which will not be to all tastes. Furthermore, his voice is not all that big; it's certainly smaller and narrower than the voice of Ernst Haefliger, Richter's Evangelist. But it's what he does with the voice that's the key to it all. Every word is crystal clear and is invested with meaning. From his very first entry he is telling a story and his narration, perfectly paced, draws the listener in. Quite simply, he is superb. In particular he narrates the scenes in Part II where Christ is being interrogated by the High Priest with great commitment and imagination. Later on, as the story moves to the dénouement of the Crucifixion he is both involving and moving. Here is an Evangelist who believes every word he sings.

Krebs also sings the tenor arias, each of them cruelly demanding. He sings 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' (No. 20) with beautifully heady tone. Later the cruelly exposed tessitura and difficult rhythms of 'Geduld' (No. 35) seem to faze him not at all while he presents a supremely eloquent and restrained account of the recitative that immediately precedes that aria.

If, with one glorious exception, no one else is quite on this exalted level the other soloists still do Bach (and Werner) proud. Franz Kelch sings Christus and I find him somehow more convincing that when he later essayed the same role in the St. John Passion (see below). He does not have the vocal presence of Kieth Engen (for Richter) but he sings with refinement and taste. Like Krebs he also sings the arias and towards the end of the whole work two of Bach's most sublime creations fall to him. 'Komm süsses Kreuz' (No. 57) inspires him to some fine and expressive singing and he does 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein' equally well, even if the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Richter) surpasses him both tonally and in terms of what he does with the words. Renate Günther sings 'Buss und Reu' (No. 6) very well. I prefer her to Hertha Töpper on the Richter set and I much prefer Werner's pacing of the aria to Richter's. She also does the sublime 'Erbame dich' (No. 39) very affectingly and the aria is enhanced by a marvellously expressive violin obbligato from Reinhold Barchet.

I indicated that one other soloist is on Krebs' level of artistic attainment. This, of course, is soprano Agnes Giebel. She displays lovely pure, silver tone and breath control to match in her first aria, 'Blute nur' (No. 8) and she is no less successful in 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' (No. 13). But she is finest of all in 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' (No. 49). Here she is deeply impressive and very moving, producing some gloriously controlled singing and wonderful tone. Giebel's delivery of this poignant aria is on an elevated level. Not only is it the single finest piece of singing in this performance but in the whole set of CDs. Her performance is enhanced by a sublime flute obbligato, played, I suspect, by Jean-Pierre Rampal, no less.

Werner's pacing of the whole work and his vision of it is compelling. The drama moves inexorably forward and the entire story is most movingly related. I had not heard this performance before (it has lain in the vaults for far too long) but I was very moved by it. This is an account of the St. Matthew that all lovers of Bach's music will want to hear and it is fit to be ranked with the very finest now before the public. The most direct comparison is with the contemporaneous account by Karl Richter. Richter has some better-known names on his solo roster but Werner need fear no comparison and in many ways I prefer his reading. In particular, once heard, I would not want to be without Krebs' compelling Evangelist. The reappearance of this dedicated performance is a cause for rejoicing and, frankly, the whole set is worth buying just to possess it.

The recording of the St. John Passion was made some two years later. Once again Krebs was the Evangelist and Kelch sang Christus. I don't think this performance is quite the equal of Werner's St Matthew. For one thing, the choral singing, though good, is just not as incisive, nor is Werner's pacing always quite as unerring. We get an example of this at the very start. The opening chorus is a wonderful movement, pregnant with tension and giving the feeling that momentous events are about to unfold. We get much of that here, it's true, with Werner setting a purposeful and deliberate speed. However, when the choir enters they sound a bit too weighty. I'd have welcomed a little more bite and urgency and a touch more spring in the rhythms. A little later on the sharp choral interjections, such as 'Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?' (No. 12b) sound just a little ponderous. I wouldn't want to make too much of this for the choral contributions are perfectly satisfactory. It's just that comparison with the St Matthew recording reveals something of a falling off in standards.

Krebs is, once again, an outstanding Evangelist. His voice is light and pliant. He tells the story vividly but without affectation or exaggeration and he draws the listener in through his conviction. He's imaginative too. Take as an example the highly chromatic passage describing Peter weeping after denying Christ (CD 1, Track 12, 1'29"). Unlike some distinguished tenors that I've heard Krebs is poignant rather than anguished here and the degree of restraint is highly effective. This also paves the way for the aria 'Ach, mein sinn' (No. 13) very well. Krebs sings the tenor arias, of course, and he delivers this highly taxing aria with sensitivity. The music is very hard to put across. When it begins it sounds a bit on the slow side but it's soon clear that Krebs and Werner have judged the tempo shrewdly for with them the syncopated rhythms don't sound snatched. In 'Erwäge' (No. 20) the soloist faces even greater demands but Krebs demonstrates what really distinguished Bach singing can sound like. With his lovely light voice he makes it all sound so natural. His articulation is clean and he's effortless at the top of his vocal compass.

Franz Kelch fails to quite recapture the form he displayed in the St Matthew. It sounds as if he's trying too hard to be dignified as Christus but actually he sounds a bit stiff and formal. To my ears he misses the humanity that's there for all to hear in Krebs' singing. Like Krebs he sings the arias too. In 'Betrachte, meine Seel' (No. 19), for example, he produces a nice tone but his is not perhaps the most distinctive rendition I've heard. Having said that, he is tasteful and accurate throughout and does nothing to detract from the success of the overall performance.

To Marga Höffgen falls some of the finest arias in the work. She is very satisfying in 'Von der Stricken, meiner Sünden' (No. 7) She sings with a full tone and with sensitivity. She also has the emotional kernel of the whole work, 'Es ist vollbracht' (No. 30). Her reading of this desperately sad aria is not overwrought. In fact she's dignified and composed. She may not quite efface memories of Dame Janet Baker at this point but she's fully up to the vocal and emotional challenges of the aria and she's supported by a fine viola da gamba obbligato from August Wenzinger. In fact, throughout the performance the principal instrumentalists maintain the consistent high standards of Werner's Bach performances.

Soprano Friedericke Sailer also does well. She sings 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' (No. 9) delightfully, her voice sounding light and eager but controlled. At the other extreme she's poignant and touching in 'Zerfliesse, mein Herze' (No. 35).

At the very end, the final chorus, 'Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine' (No. 39) is very moving after all that has gone before. Werner takes it steadily but the music certainly doesn't drag. Then the chorale, 'Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein' (no. 40) builds from a quiet beginning to a strongly affirmative conclusion.

If I've sounded a bit muted in my welcome to this performance that's only because here Werner fails to match his tremendous achievement in the St Matthew. But, to be fair, that's an exceptional reading. In it's own right this St. John is very satisfying, with much fine, dedicated singing to savour and everything under the wise control of a master Bach conductor. This is a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts and so one can easily overlook one or two weaker passages. Werner conveys his vision of the piece splendidly. He directs with understanding and commitment and manages to make it sound as if the whole performance was recorded in a single take.

The performance of the Christmas Oratorio was the last of the major works to be set down in a recording that dates from 1963. This is a splendid and thoroughly enjoyable reading from start to finish. All four soloists are on top form. Giebel and Krebs sing once again with the utmost distinction. On this occasion they're joined by Claudia Hellmann and by the bass Barry McDaniel, who contributed such a memorable performance of Cantata 82 to Vol. 1 of the cantatas.

As in the Passions, Krebs is an eloquent Evangelist. His aria singing is equally splendid. We find him beautifully relaxed in 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' (no. 15), for example. While the fearsome passagework of 'Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben' (No. 41) holds no terrors for this assured soloist.

McDaniel is splendid in his first aria, 'Grosser Herr, o starker König' (No. 8) in which he's joined by the peerless trumpeter, Maurice André. McDaniel's diction is excellent and he makes the divisions very clear. Another highlight from him is the aria 'Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen' (No. 47). He also makes an admirable duet partner for Agnes Giebel on several occasions.

Giebel, besides duetting beautifully, comes into her own with the echo aria, 'Flösst mein Heiland' (No. 39). Besides featuring her silvery voice this aria features to excellent effect another of the instrumental stars of this performance, oboist Pierre Pierlot. Giebel's rendition of 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' (No. 57) is also memorable. Hellmann too is in fine voice. In 'Bereite dich, Zion' (No.4) she sings with lovely, even vocal production and her tone is suitably warm. I also enjoyed very much her account of 'Schliesse, mein Herze' (No. 31).

The chorus work is impressive. As usual Werner employs what sounds like quite a large choir. They launch the whole work impressively in 'Jauchzet, frohlocket' (No. 1), spurred on by the André-inspired festive trumpets. They're eager and joyful in the much more lithe chorus, 'Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe' (No. 21) while the chorus 'Herrscher des Himmels' that encases Part III finds them back in celebratory mood.

Werner leads a really fresh and joyful performance. At all times the music sounds completely unforced and natural. He succeeds in making Bach's re-telling of the familiar Christmas story sound new-minted. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance, which is one of the highlights of the whole box.

We also get Werner's earlier (1957) traversal of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147. (His subsequent recording (1963) is contained in the second box of cantatas, which I shall be reviewing shortly.) Frankly, this need not detain us long. The recorded sound is rather vinegary and the resonant acoustic has not been tamed by the engineers. The choir is somewhat distantly recorded and all of this conspires to give a fatal lack of clarity in the opening chorus. Among the soloists, Krebs is, predictably, very good, as is Ingeborg Reichelt. Kelch is satisfactory but the alto, Margarethe Bence, is rather too fruity in tone for my taste. The famous chorale, which closes both parts of the cantata, sounds laboured. I hope for better things from the later recording.

Werner's recordings of the Motets, BWV 225-230 are also included. These recordings date from 1968. Unfortunately, to accommodate the larger works it's been necessary to split the motets into three groups (BWV 227 stands on its own), which is a pity, if understandable. The performances are generally good. I thought the opening chorus of BWV 226 was perhaps a little too smooth and restrained at the start but Werner builds the movement well. One thing that I noticed is that it sounds as if Werner used a smaller choir than usual in at least some of the motets (BWV 230 and the more elaborate BWV 227 seem to employ more singers.) I can't be sure of this but it sounds that way and if so this was a wise move. The set also includes the funeral Motet, O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht BWV 118, which actually sounds more like a cantata movement (and has more elaborate instrumental accompaniment.) Werner gives it a suitably dignified reading.

A word about documentation. The set comes with a booklet containing a track listing (in which there are a handful of minor errors); a good essay by Nicholas Anderson, common to all three volumes in this series, about Werner and his interpretations of Bach; and a reasonable note about the music itself. There are no texts.

So, how does one sum up such a substantial collection? Well, it's a treasure trove of masterpieces and the whole box is a marvellous testament to the skills of Fritz Werner as a Bach interpreter. As is only to be expected, perhaps, with a collection of performances set down over some 11 years, it is an uneven achievement. I don't believe the B Minor Mass shows Werner at his best, though in part at least this is down to the sound quality. I wish he'd been given the opportunity to re-record it with the benefit of improved techniques in recording and, perhaps, among his choir. On the other hand, the performance of the St. John Passion is a very good one, that of the Christmas Oratorio is excellent and the St Matthew Passion is particularly fine.

The overriding impression that I'm left with after living with this boxed set is that Fritz Werner has been unfairly overshadowed by contemporaries such as Karl Munchinger and, of course, the great Karl Richter. At his best - and much of this set shows him at his best - Werner was a warm, lyrical, wise interpreter of Bach, wholly devoid of artifice and a fine and sincere artist. I love to hear Bach's music performed on period instruments but the finest interpreters of the previous generation, of which Fritz Werner is undoubtedly one of the foremost, have much to teach us about these masterpieces and we ignore recordings such as these at our peril. As I said at the start, Warner Classics earn our gratitude for reissuing these recordings. However, it cannot be taken for granted that they will remain in the catalogue indefinitely and Bach enthusiasts are strongly advised to snap them up while they can.

I have enjoyed these recordings enormously and recommend them with great enthusiasm, especially at such an advantageous price. Now on to the remaining volume of cantatas!

John Quinn

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