Helmut Rilling had the honour of recording the second
complete cycle of Bach’s sacred cantatas. This second box of three contains
20 CDs, one third of the total set, and includes cantatas BWV 65 to
129 (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 and 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 modern 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
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.
The following are some of the highlights of this set.
Cantata BWV 68 opens with a fairly long choral movement
- over 4 and a half minutes - with a rich instrumentation of strings,
oboes, bassoon and organ. This is a good example of Rilling’s choral
style - dense, yet richly textured. The choir is very good here, creating
a great deal of tension and drive.
Julia Hamari is a fine alto, and gives a moving performance
of the aria Wenn kömmt der Tag in cantata BWV 70. Her voice is
pure and limpid, and the interplay with the cello obbligato in this
aria is very moving. But she uses a touch too much vibrato, and her
diction is a bit lacking. But she has a voice that fits Rilling’s style
perfectly, and makes many excellent appearances in this set.
There is the occasional howler. Cantata 80, recorded
in 1983, features soprano Arleen Augér, who is usually excellent.
But in the aria Komm in mein Herzenhaus she is weak and wavering, attacking
the high end of her range with a chirpy sound that is terribly annoying.
This set contains one of the greatest Bach cantatas
in one of its finest performances - cantata 82, Ich habe genung, for
solo bass, sung here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This recording is
simply amazing, full of heart-rending emotion, and shows Fischer-Dieskau’s
mastery of this repertoire. While he recorded some sacred Bach music,
it is a shame that he did not sing more of the cantatas.
Cantata 84 opens with a plaintive oboe melody - Bach
often uses the oboe with soprano arias. This is a modest cantata; there
is only one soloist, the soprano (Arleen Augér, who is excellent),
and the oboe is featured throughout the work. The second aria, Ich esse
mit Freuden mein veniges Brot, is a fine example of Bach's best arias.
This displays the delightful joy of the soprano, with the oboe and violin
weaving around her melody; about as good as it gets.
Cantata 85 is quite uneven. Oddly enough this work
was recorded in three sessions, with two and a half years between the
first and the last. It opens, as cantata 84, with a plaintive oboe melody
(Bach really did like the oboe), accompanying an aria by bass Walter
Heldwein, who sounds a bit weak here. The second aria is quite nice,
with violoncello piccolo obbligato. This is one of the few cantatas
with this instrument. Unfortunately, alto Gabriele Schreckenbach uses
a bit too much vibrato for this music. The third section is the longest
of this cantata, and is scored for only two oboes, bassoon and organ
backing up soprano Arleen Augér, who is excellent.
Cantata 86 features four soloists, with arias sung
by the bass, alto and tenor (the soprano sings a recitative). The first
aria, for bass, is especially moving, and very well sung by Walter Heldwein.
The second aria, Ich will doch wohl Rosen brechen, alto (Helen Watts),
is a delightful movement, with a violin solo playing a rich, rhythmic
accompaniment to the voice. This is another of Bach's most wonderful
Cantata 90 features one of the most exhilarating obbligato
violin sections in all of Bach’s music. The opening aria, Es reißet
euch iein schrekclich Ende, begins with a brilliant exposition of the
violin’s theme - performed with brio by Walter Forchert - which continues
as an undercurrent to the tenor’s vocal part. Adalbert Kraus sings capably,
but the violin vastly overshadows him.
Cantata 96 features a beautiful opening chorus, with
a piccolo flute playing obbligato. While Rilling’s choir is excellent,
the flute is just a bit too loud and harsh. It is naturally intended
to stand out well above the choir - its range guarantees that. However
I cannot help but feel that it detracts from the overall sound.
The opening sonatina of cantata 106 is one of the most
moving instrumental sections in all the cantatas. This cantata, Gottes
Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, know also as Actus Tragicus, is one of
Bach’s most popular cantatas. Featuring beautiful melodies (such as
the flauto dolce in the opening sonatina), excellent choral movements
and beautiful arias, this work is brimming with beauty and joy. The
flauto dolce and viola da gamba act as a thread that hold this work
together, and the singers here are excellent, with the exception of
Alto Hanna Schwarz, who is a bit weak.
As for the first set of these cantatas, Rilling shows
a variety of strengths and weaknesses. With some excellent soloists,
and a wonderful choir, the vocal aspects of the cantatas are usually
(though not always) commendable. However, at times the music is lacking
in conviction and emotion. The ordering of the cantatas not being the
same as their recording order also juxtaposes some very different sounds,
but instrumentally and vocally. At times, you can here the same singer
in two different cantatas, recorded 10 or 15 years apart, on one disc.
Nevertheless, this set remains one of the monuments in the discography
of Bach cantatas, and certainly deserves this place because of Rilling’s
personal vision. While many people may not agree with this vision, Rilling
is consistent. At this low price, it is certainly worthwhile.