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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
Arleen Auger (soprano), Julia Hamari (contralto), Peter Schreier (tenor), Wolfgang Schöne (bass), Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart,
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
Recorded April/July 1984, Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 94.010 [3 CDs: 57.27, 47.49, 49.18]

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It may be that no man living has a vaster experience of Bachís choral works than Helmuth Rilling. He founded the Gächinger Kantorei in 1953, originally for the performance of contemporary works (to which he still remains dedicated), but gradually embracing the whole choral/orchestral repertoire including romantic mainstays such as Mendelssohn and Brahms.

(I am indebted for this general background information to the booklet, which you wonít get with the CDs, Hänssler having followed the pattern of some other smaller companies in offering this material as a free download from their Internet site. Anybody reading this particular review obviously has no problem about this: more antediluvian purchasers - they get full track listings and thatís all Ė will get out their pocket calculators or their matchsticks to see how many copies of this set they would have to purchase, as opposed to the same number of a full-price set, in order to fill their piggy-bank with enough cash to get a decent computer).

Though Rilling would presumably reject the idea that he specialises in a particular period, it is his complete recording of the Bach Cantatas which has drawn world-wide attention to his art. He has been fortunate in a publicity outfit which has in recent years given wide exposure to a provincial set-up which had long remained known to a relatively chosen few. However it was not publicity which drew most of the greatest soloists of the day to work with him for this was so from the beginning. A history of post-war Bach interpretation could almost be compiled from Rillingís recordings alone (the four soloists listed above are symptomatic).

Like many modern German conductors Rilling uses modern instruments (but demands for obsolete instruments such as the oboe díamore are met) while showing a strong awareness of the discoveries of period instrument practitioners. He has gone even further down this road since recording the Christmas Oratorio in 1984, but already textures are clean and light, with all notes well separated unless Bach has specifically slurred any of them. Since the recording is beautifully clear I suppose I could leave it at that. At the same time I feel that Rilling, for all his unparalleled experience, has left things unsaid, and I should be leaving things unsaid if I did not try to show what I mean.

Take the chorus which opens Part V (but any of the brilliant choruses right through the work would illustrate the point just as well). At the beginning you can thrill to the general vitality, to the excellent balance between the instruments, to the wonderfully sure high trumpets. The rhythms are tautly sprung, but as the piece goes on one becomes ever so conscious of each individual quaver being banged out one by one. It may be sprung but it isn't swung and no longer-term phrasing is evident to my ears. Rillingís vitality never flags, but the piece does seem a long haul. Even the chorales seem to be sung note for note, the idea being presumably that an arching legato phrase would be a vile anachronism. I feel rather mean in taking issue specifically with Rilling when this is the approach of his whole generation and there are worse offenders than him, and I am also aware that I shall be shot down as a die-hard romanticist who should never be allowed to pronounce on anything later than Mengelberg or Furtwängler; but I hold that singing is an inherently natural thing to do, something which man has been doing for at least as long as he has been talking, and for as long as he has been doing it he has known what any early-morning shaver in a resonant bathroom can tell you, namely that binding notes together to make a legato line gives you a feel-good sensation. Furthermore, when instruments were first invented, the idea was for them to imitate the human voice as far as possible, and that means the human voiceís legato. I agree that Bach is not to be played in the style of Gounod, but does performing him in the style of middle-period Stravinsky really get us any nearer to the truth?

Fortunately Rillingís approach allows a little more variety at times. Part IV, in the maestoso key of F major instead of the more festive D and A which prevail elsewhere, finds him adopting more relaxed tempi. This is the part I appreciated most. He often shows sensitivity and a feeling for drama in the accompanied recitatives. He also accompanies Hamari very sensitively in her third aria, while her second, the famous Schlafe, mein Liebster, is a bit choppy and for her first aria he provides a fairly objectionable example of unadulterated railway track Bach.

In Wolfgang Schöne Rilling would appear to have found a soloist after his own heart. Listen to his note-by-note punching out of the recitative Immanuel, o süsses Wort, especially evident for coming after a beautifully-handled recitative from Schreier. In his swift arias, strings of semiquavers are so over-aspirated that he unwittingly sounds like a pantomime devil cackling away to himself. The pity of it is that he actually has a very beautiful voice.

The remaining soloists are another matter. Peter Schreierís pre-eminence as the leading German Bach singer of his generation could be proved from this recording alone. His emission is free and easy in the cruelly high tessitura of his recitatives, the words crystal clear and above all he finds an expressive shape for every phrase. His arias are all tours de force of even passage work and strike tones of jubilation guaranteed to raise the weariest spirits.

Julia Hamari sings her arias with generous tone and even legato; in view of my comments on the accompaniments it is evident that only the third can be considered a classic performance. She is ringingly authoritative in her recitatives later in the work. Her contribution to the trio is strangely peremptory but I suppose Rilling asked her to do it like this.

Arleen Auger raises frequent regrets both that she is no longer with us and that the soprano has not a very great deal to do in this particular work. But then, come her aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen and something rather odd happens. Largo e staccato, it says in my Urtext Bärenreiter vocal score. This is staccato all right, but some of Rillingís allegros go slower than this largo. Auger copes gamely but surely this canít be right.

Which brings me back to where I began. The romantics who rediscovered Bach undoubtedly got a lot wrong, but they knew that this is sublime music which stands at the heart of western manís religious and spiritual experience. Some modern practitioners have found that it is possible to lighten textures and undo the legato lines without losing sight of this fact. It is a paradox that Rillingís exceptional knowledge and experience of Bachís music nevertheless seems not to have cultivated in him any larger awareness of what the music is actually about. Maybe our secular age asks no more. Youíll get from him a clean, clear and vital execution, three out of four superb soloists and beautiful sound. Itís really up to you to decide if this is enough.

Christopher Howell


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