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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Volume 1

CD 1: Cantatas BWV 1, BWV 2, BWV 3
CD 2: Cantatas BWV 4, BWV 5, BWV 6
CD 3: Cantatas BWV 7, BWV 8, BWV 9
CD 4: Cantatas BWV 10, BWV 12, BWV 13
CD 5: Cantatas BWV 14, BWV 16, BWV 17, BWV 18
CD 6: Cantatas BWV 19, BWV 20
CD 7: Cantatas BWV 21, BWV 22
CD 8: Cantatas BWV 23, BWV 24, BWV 25, BWV 26
CD 9: Cantatas BWV 27, BWV 28, BWV 29
CD 10: Cantatas BWV 30, BWV 31
CD 11: Cantatas BWV 32, BWV 33, BWV 34
CD 12: Cantatas BWV 35, BWV 36, BWV 37
CD 13: Cantatas BWV 38, BWV 39, BWV 40
CD 14: Cantatas BWV 41, BWV 42
CD 15: Cantatas BWV 43, BWV 44, BWV 45
CD 16: Cantatas BWV 46, BWV 47, BWV 48
CD 17: Cantatas BWV 49, BWV 50, BWV 51, BWV 52
CD 18: Cantatas BWV 54, BWV 55, BWV 56, BWV 57
CD 19: Cantatas BWV 58, BWV 59, BWV 60, BWV 61
CD 20: Cantatas BWV 62, BWV 63, BWV 64

Sopranos - Arleen Augér, Nancy Burns, Inga Nielsen, Maria Friesenhausen, Helen Donath, Ingeborg Reichelt, Edith Weins, Ulrike Sonntag, Barbara Rondelli, Constanza Cuccaro, Nancy Amini
Altos - Julia Hamari, Helen Watts, Verena Gohl, Gabriele Schreckenbach, Hildegard Laurich, Else Paaske, Carolyn Watkinson, Martha Kessler, Gabriele Schnaut, Margit Neubauer, Marga Hoeffgen, Ann Murray, Karen Hagerman, Elisabeth Graf, Mechthild Georg
Tenors - Aldo Baldin, Adalbert Kraus, Theo Altmeyer, Kurt Equiluz, Peter Schreier, Lutz-Michael Harder, Douglas Robinson, Frieder Lang
Basses - Philippe Huttenlocher, Walter Heldwein, Siegmund Nimsgern, Hanns-Friedrich Kunz, Wolfgang Schöne, Niklaus Tüller, John Bröcheler, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Norman Anderson
Gächinger Kantorei, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, Figuralchor der Gedächtniskirche Stuttgart, Helmut Rilling
Rec: 1968-1985 (dates for the complete set).
HAENSSLER 92.561 [approx 20 hours]

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Helmut Rilling had the honour of recording the second complete cycle of Bach’s sacred cantatas. This box contains 20 CDs, one third of the total set, and includes cantatas BWV 1 to 64 (some numbers are missing, and represent works that have been attributed to other composers). Rilling’s recording came on the heels of the groundbreaking set by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. But the two sets are very different - while Leonhardt and Harnoncourt broke new ground by not only recording the first complete cycle of the cantatas, their approach was one of almost orthodox historical performance practice. With original instruments and pitch, small forces, they also went as far as to record with boy sopranos and altos, and an all-male choir. Rilling took a different road - his recording can be seen as more "traditional", using modern instruments (in most cases; there is still a harpsichord, the occasional viola da gamba, etc.) and a much more contemporary approach to singers. Not only does he use women for all the soprano and alto parts, and in the choir, but his singers use more "modern" technique, with much more vibrato, for example, than is common in historical performance practice.

Another important difference is the huge number of vocal soloists used. More than 40 soloists are present on this set of one-third of the cantatas (only a few additional soloists appear on the other two sets), compared to a much smaller number for the Leonhardt and Harnoncourt. (Subsequent "complete" sets, such as that by Leusink, and those in progress by Suzuki and Koopman, use small numbers of soloists as well). This gives the latter set more unity, especially in the alto and tenor ranges, where there are very few soloists. Rilling’s set is therefore more varied vocally than others; this has its advantages and disadvantages. While one might want to hear some of the best voices more often, at least the weaker ones are not too present. Listening to this set straight through - which is certainly not what most people will do - this vast number of soloists shows both a great deal of variety and a certain lack of unity. While one hears familiar voices after a while, there are so many that it is hard to get used to those which are heard more often.

The following are some of the highlights of this set.

One of Rilling’s strongest points is his choir. A choirmaster from his earliest days as a musician, he always manages to provide a rich, powerful choir, with a beautiful texture, even though some of the earliest recordings do not have the excellent sounds that the later ones do. However, he tends to have them sing a bit too strongly, missing out on some of the more subtle nuances of Bach’s choral writing. But this is only an occasional problem, and the qualities of this choir far outweigh the defects.

The opening movement of cantata BWV 19 is a fine example of his choral work. This movement, at almost five minutes, recalls the choral movements in the B Minor Mass, with its powerful singing, rich instrumentation, and high energy. The horns and timpani contribute to the joyous tone, giving this piece a level of beauty not heard in many other works.

Cantata BWV 4 is one of Bach’s finest cantatas. It is also one of the most "complete", with each of the four vocal soloists getting their turn, an instrumental opening movement, and long, rich choral movements. This piece is indicative of Rilling’s approach to the cantatas. This work opens with a brief (49 seconds in this recording) sinfonia. Rilling plays this with heavy, lush strings, rich with vibrato, at a relatively fast tempo as compared to other performances. He clearly shows here that he is not of the historically informed performance crowd. His strings are orchestral and stark, his lines are dense and bold. Compared to other performances (the only two other complete sets at the moment, those by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, on Teldec, and Pieter Jan Leusink on Brilliant Classics), Rilling is clearly focusing on the raw energy of this music. Harnoncourt takes a lighter approach, he seems to be looking for drama and spiritual intensity. Leusink is still different, with a much slower tempo, the strings playing softly, with a mellower sound. A long choral movement follows, almost five minutes in Rilling’s version. His choral sound is as up front as the strings in the sinfonia. The voices are heard loud and clear, with a great deal of pent up drama. Again, Rilling seems to focus on more basic emotions. Nevertheless, the texture of the choir is excellent, as always in his recordings. Harnoncourt’s choir is lighter and more ethereal, clearly following the way he approaches the strings in the first movement. His use of boys as opposed to female sopranos gives it a much different sound than Rilling. Where Rilling exudes magnificence and splendour, Harnoncourt seems to be privileging the counterpoint and interplay of the voices. Leusink is much different, his choir sounding very much like Harnoncourt, but a bit smaller, and, oddly enough, his tempo faster than the others.

Rilling chooses a very fast tempo for the opening chorus of cantata BWV 7, which detracts a bit from its dramatic tension. But Aldabert Kraus is excellent in the aria Des Vatelrs Stimme ließ sich hören; Kraus sounds very much like Peter Schreier, and, while he does not have Schreier’s depth, he is excellent in most of the arias and recitatives in this set. I cannot help but feel that Helen Watts, in spite of her fine voice, uses a bit too much vibrato. Her voice wavers almost all the time, interfering with its clarity. She has a deep, dark alto voice, which is very fitting for some (but not all) of the arias she sings. But, as in the aria Menschen, glaubt doch dieser Gnade in cantata BWV 7, she overdoes it, detracting from the music.

Cantata BWV 12 is one of the few cantatas that opens with an instrumental sinfonia. While Rilling’s sound here is excellent, the following choral movement, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weaping, Wailing, Greaving, Fearing), which Bach adapted to make the Crucifixus of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), is almost painful in its raw spirituality. Rilling’s choir is perfect, with just the right subtle tones and texture, in this melancholy movement that last over seven minutes long.

Tenor Peter Schreier is one of the great Bach tenors. As the quintessential evangelist, he has graced many recordings of Bach’s passions. He appears several times in this set, and his aria, Geliebter Jesu, du allein, in cantata BWV 16, is one of his fine performances. His clear, rich voice is perfect for this music, and his mastery of this genre is always apparent.

Cantata BWV 21 opens with a sinfonia followed by another great choral movement, where Rilling’s chorus again shows its remarkable transparency and texture. The balance between the lower voices - the basses and baritones - and the high end of the choir is exemplary. This is another of the great Bach cantatas where the oboe has a key role; its plaintive melody in the aria Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not is beautiful, though the tempo for this aria feels a bit slow. Arleen Augér is magnificent in the sensitivity and humility she expresses, though she slightly overuses vibrato. One of Bach’s longest cantatas, at just under 45 minutes here, this is one of the few cantatas in two parts.

Cantata BWV 41 is a choral cantata, which means it is based on church hymns. It opens with a long movement for choir and orchestra, which Rilling plays at breakneck speed, unlike many of his choral movements. This tempo gives it unique energy, and the choir has a rich texture. The orchestra has a raw, almost aggressive sound, which is not what Rilling usually gives us. Unfortunately, this magic fades slightly when Helen Donath begins singing the aria in the second movement - her vibrato borders on annoying, even though her voice melds well with the horns and oboes that accompany this aria. The long aria for tenor, Woferne du den edlen Frieden, is magnificently sung by Aldabert Kraus, but the obbligato accompaniment of a violoncello piccolo sounds wooden and pedestrian - what a shame; Kraus gives this aria an excellent performance.

Few singers have as varied a repertory as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - not only has he left an indelible mark on the German lieder, but he is also an excellent opera singer and a magnificent performer of Bach’s sacred vocal works. The performance here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau are among the best available. Cantata BWV 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, is a very moving work, which contains a series of arias and recitatives for solo bass and a final choral movement. This is the fourth recording Fischer-Dieskau made of this work, and one can hear in his voice a mastery of the music and content. His voice is less flexible and colourful than in the three previous recordings of this work, but he remains, nevertheless, the standard by which other singers of this cantata are measured. The third section of the cantata is perhaps the most beautiful, as Fischer-Dieskau sings in dialogue with an oboe obbligato and a subtle orchestral accompaniment.

This review cannot do justice to all the many cantatas in this 20-CD box set. While there are some low points - which is to be expected from any such enterprise - the high points are such that this is one of the essential sets of Bach’s vocal works. Rilling’s vision is certainly contestable, especially by those who approve of nothing other than historically informed performances, but one cannot ignore the unity of his approach and the overall quality that results from it.

Kirk McElhearn

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