The Hänssler complete Bach cantata edition began
in 1969 and was completed in 1984. The driving force was the conductor,
Helmuth Riling, and it is only right to acknowledge at the outset that
his achievement in this enterprise remains both worthy and considerable.
The intention had always been to acknowledge Bach's 1985 tercentenary
by issuing the complete set, as indeed the project achieved. In itself
this was remarkable enough.
But what of the merits and drawbacks for the potential
purchaser today? To begin with, the performances have never been easily
available outside Germany, but in recent times Hänssler's distribution
outlets have improved greatly, so the availability of these reissues
cannot be in doubt, and can also be welcomed as a useful addition to
Rilling has come in for some criticism for his relatively
old-fashioned approach to types of instrument, numbers of voices, decorations
tempi and phrasing. Since Bach is and always will be the most indestructable
of composers, there is as much room for Rilling's 'son of Karl Richter'
style as any other, and his experience and credentials as a Bach performer
are beyond question. His tempi are always well chosen rather than controversial,
and though Allegros could frequently be swifter, articulation and textures
gain immeasurably thanks to allowing the music to breathe. And breathing,
of course, is an essential of singing.
The singers, indeed, are the consistent joy of these
performances. Although there are some less famous names, in general
the soloists are distinguished artists in a repertoire far wider than
that of the Bach specialist. Arleen Auger heads the list, both alphabetically
and artistically. She does wonderful things in her solo cantata, BWV
51, perfectly light in timbre and stylish in phrasing and articulation.
Full marks, too, to Rilling for his tasteful support.
The other real start, and an artist well known in the
Bach repertoire, is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He features in the two
solo cantatas, BWV 56 and 82, both of which he had already recorded
for Archiv with Karl Richter. While neither of these more recent performances
is superior to the earlier ones, the Hänssler recordings are strong
and firm, if perhaps just a touch mannered.
Rilling always provides a big sound for the bigger
pieces, as represented in music such as the opening chorus of Ein feste
Burg, BWV 80. Some may find his fortress too mighty, but surely there
is room for this fully committed style. Here and throughout the set
the orchestral contributions are good, using 'modern' rather than 'period'
instruments, and with wind and string obbligati which bring credit to
Rilling is in the habit of extending a cello or organ
note when the solo voice is left with a thin texture of accompaniment,
when silence might be the alternative. And if you enjoy a full sonority
in Bach's more large-scale, complex movements, Rilling is your man.
He has gone on record as saying that his role is that of 'creator or
synthesiser between the 'historical' and 'romantic' approaches inside
the spectrum of contemporary Bach interpretation'. In other words, he
aims to use what he finds the best of the options available. Therefore
his choices are responses to what is in the score, always with a preference
for romantic indulgence and emotional commitment, when these terms might
apply. On the other hand, he is not unaware of recent musicological
trends and discoveries.
These are mixed-voice choirs rather than male-voice-only
choirs. The experts disagree about the extent to which Bach employed
female voices in Leipzig, and in any case the quality of the performance
should surely come first, as it does here. Continuo options are, I think,
less consistently convincing. Cello generally joins in the solo movements,
thickening the texture and sometimes even muddying the waters, in realisations
of continuo which can be indulgent and over-decorated.
In sum, these performances will give much pleasure
to all save those who take a strong exception to 'traditional' performing
styles rather than 'authentic' performing styles. But surely there is
room for co-existence, since great music is always greater than any
one view of it. The level of musicianship is high, with consistent orchestral
playing and generally distinguished solo singing, often by major artists
who deserve their reputations. The choral contributions are tasteful
and nicely balanced, and the same can be said for the recordings.. It
may be that in many of the better known individual cantatas there are
preferable alternatives, but if you want to get to know this wonderful
music - and the Bach cantatas are music's greatest treasure-trove -
Rilling is a safe and reliable guide.
Less safe and reliable, however, is the Hänssler
documentation, which in the accompanying booklet is altogether thin.
On the back page we are advised that it is possible to have a free download
of the booklet in several languages at www.haenssler-classic.de. On
enquiring I was told that it is also possible for this information to
be sent by writing and asking for it. In that case the message should
be printed loud and clear. The argument goes that by saving in this
way, the company can reissue the discs at budget price. A laudable enough
aim, to be sure, but will it work when competitors offer more?