> BACH Selected cantatas 4CDset Rilling 94028 [TB]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

BWV 21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis
BWV 38: Aus tiefer Not screi ich zu dir
BWV 51: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen
BWV 56: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen
BWV 76: Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes
BWV 79: Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild
BWV 80: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
BWV 82: Ich habe genug
BWV 93: Wer nor den lieben Gott laut walten
BWV 106: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit
BWV 137: Lobe den Herren, den mächtgen König der Ehren
BWV 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
BWV 149: Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg

Arleen Auger, Nancy Amini, Eva Caspo (sopranos), Gabriele Schrekenbach, Julia Hamari, Helen Watts, Karen Hagermann, Ann Murray, Mechtild Georg, Hanna Schwarz (altos), Adalbert Kraus, Lutz-Michael Harder, Douglas Robinson, Aldo Baldin (tenors), Philippe Huttenlocher, Walter Heldwein, Sigmund Nimsgern, Wolfgang Schöne, Norman Anderson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (basses)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Indiana University Chamber Singers
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, Würtemberg Chamber Orchestra
Helmuth Rilling
Rec March & May 1976, Stuttgart (BWV 21); Feb & April 1980, Heidelberg (BWV 38); Sept 1983 Heidelberg (BWV 51); July 1983, Heidelberg (BWV 56); Sept & Dec 1977, Stuttgart (BWV 76); November 1981, Heidelberg (BWV 79); April 1983 Heidelberg (BWV 80); July 1983, Heidelberg (BWV 82); Feb 1979, Heidelberg (BWV 93); Jan 1975, Stuttgart (BWV 106); Dec 1980 & March 1982, Heidelberg (BWV 137); Sept 1983 & Feb 1984, Heidelberg (BWV 140); June 1983 & Feb 1984, Heidelberg (BWV 149)
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC 94028 [4CDs: 73.13, 76.25, 78.19, 69.25] Superbudget

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 the catalogue.

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 all concerned.

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?

Terry Barfoot

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