It may be that no man living has a vaster experience of Bach’s
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 won’t 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 that’s all – 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 Rilling’s 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 d’amore
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. Rilling’s 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 voice’s
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 Rilling’s 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 Schreier’s
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 Rilling’s allegros go slower
than this largo. Auger copes gamely but surely this can’t be
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 man’s 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 Rilling’s exceptional
knowledge and experience of Bach’s 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. You’ll get from him a clean,
clear and vital execution, three out of four superb soloists and beautiful
sound. It’s really up to you to decide if this is enough.