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Helmuth Rilling conducting Romantic Choral Music
Franz SCHUBERT: (1797-1828): Mass in A flat major, D678 (1822) [44’57"]
Donna Brown (soprano); Monica Groop (alto); James Taylor (tenor); Michael Volle (bass)
Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra
Recorded in the Hult Center, Eugene, Oregon July 1996
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Psalm 42, Op. 42 (1837) [25’02"]
Sybilla Rubens (soprano); Scot Weir and Christoph Genz (tenors); Matthias Goerne (baritone); Thomas Mehnert (bass)
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Stadthalle, Sindelfingen, May 1997
Franz SCHUBERT: ‘Lazarus’ D689 (1820) (Fragment) [76’04"]
Maria: Sybilla Rubens (soprano);
Martha: Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Jemima: Simone Nold (soprano)
Lazarus: Scot Weir (tenor)
Nathaniel: Kurt Azesberger (tenor)
Simon: Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, January 1996
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Stabat Mater Op. 58 (1880) [87’27"]
Marina Shaguch (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (alto); James Taylor (tenor); Thomas Quastoff (bass)
Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra
Recorded in the Hult Center, Eugene, Oregon July 1995
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Schicksalslied Op. 54 (1871) [15’55"]
Nänie Op. 82 (1881)[13’15"]
Gesang der Parzen Op. 89 (1882) [12’23"]
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, April 1997
Johannes BRAHMS: Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45 (1868) [73’15"]
Donna Brown (soprano); Gilles Cachemaille (bass)
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, September 1991
Anton BRUCKNER: (1824-1896): Mass in F minor (1872) [62’08"]
Verena Schweizer (soprano); Elisabeth Glauser (alto);
Uwe Heilmann (tenor); Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Gächinger Kantorei
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, December 1992
Anton BRUCKNER: Psalm 150 (1892) [9’33"]
Pamela Coburn (soprano)
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, June 1996
Anton BRUCKNER: Mass in E minor (1869) [41’55"]
Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, June 1996
Franz LISZT (1811-1886): Stabat Mater from the oratorio ‘Christus’ (1866) [32’57"]
Henriette Bonde-Hansen (soprano); Iris Vermillion (alto);
Michael Schade (tenor); Andreas Schmidt (bass)
Gächinger Kantorei
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, February 1997
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924): Motetto per San Paolino: ‘Plaudite populi Lucensi antistiti’ (1877) [11’43"]
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Gächinger Kantorei
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, December 1992
César FRANCK (1822-1890): Les Béatitudes (1869-1879) (excerpts): Prologue [5’51"] No 1: ‘Bienheureux les pauvres d’esprit, parce que le royaume des cieux est à eux’ [13’51"]; No. 8 ‘Bienheureux ceux qui souffrent persecution pour la justice, parce que le royaume des cieux est à eux’ [21’40"]
Diane Montague (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (alto); Keith Lewis, Scot Weir
(tenors); Gilles Cachemaille (Christus), Juan Valse (Satan), Reinhard Hagen (basses)
Gächinger Kantorei
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, March 1990
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901): ‘Libera me’ from Messa per Rossini (1874) [13’47"]
Gabriela Beňačková (soprano)
Gächinger Kantorei; Prague Philharmonic Choir
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR
Recorded in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart, September 1989
All items conducted by Helmuth Rilling

HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 98.460 [8 CDs: 69’59"+76’04"+66’27"+62’33"+73’15"+71’41"+74’52"+67’02"]

The German conductor, Helmuth Rilling was born on 29 May 1933. To celebrate his seventieth birthday Hänssler Classics, for whom he has recorded for many years, offer this box of 8 well-filled CDs for the price of five.

Two choirs dominate these recordings, as they have dominated Rilling’s career. As long ago as 1953 he founded the Gächinger Kantorei, initially a forty-strong group, which took its name from the village of Gächingen, just outside Stuttgart. Since then the group has developed and can now muster a singing strength of between 24 and 100 or more, depending on the forces required for a particular work. Since 1965 the choir has appeared regularly with the orchestra, the Stuttgart Bach-Collegium, an ensemble which plays on modern instruments and which, therefore, is just as well equipped to perform romantic or modern music as it is to play the works of Bach and his contemporaries. In 1970 Rilling’s career expanded significantly across the Atlantic when he co-founded the Oregon Bach Festival, with which he is still very closely associated.

I think that anyone listening to these discs will be impressed by Rilling’s obvious skill as a choral conductor. He strives, successfully, for clarity of texture, attention to detail (especially in the matter of dynamics) and unanimity of attack. His choirs are unfailingly well balanced and the sound that they make is pleasing. One never feels that the tone is being forced. The soprano line is generally bright without descending into shrillness. The altos avoid any suggestion of "pluminess". The tenors have a good, bright, sappy tone and the bass line is firm without muddiness. But there’s more to these performances than technical excellence. Consistently I felt that Rilling is able to communicate that he loves the music he is directing.

The first two CDs give us a chance to hear him directing performances of Schubert on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the oratorio Lazarus offers few opportunities for the German choir to show their mettle since the work as presented here contains but two choruses. Schubert left the work incomplete, literally breaking off half way through the seventh number of part two, an aria for the character of Martha. When Helmuth Rilling recorded the work in 1996 he commissioned the composer Edison Denisov to write a completion of the oratorio. Denisov’s additions have been omitted here. I have to say that the work does undoubtedly have its longueurs. As you’d expect from such a vaunted composer of lieder there is much easeful melody, and some drama, in the succession of arias but the piece didn’t consistently engage my attention (the lack of a printed text didn’t help) despite the dedicated performances of Rilling and his fine team of soloists.

We are on much more familiar ground with Schubert’s fine Mass in A flat, recorded in the USA. With the benefit of the tighter structure imposed by the text of the Ordinary of the Mass Schubert produced this time a much tauter and effective piece. The performance is very good indeed with excellent soloists and a fine contribution by the choir. The robust passages, such as the sturdy fugues, come off well but it is the softer passages that especially catch the ear.

The coupling for the Schubert Mass is Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 42.It was only recently that I gave a warm welcome to Rilling’s reissued recordings of Mendelssohn’s two great oratorios, Paulus and Elijah. Here, in this shorter piece, he exhibits once again his credentials as a doughty champion of Mendelssohn. In this work the fingerprints of the composer of Elijah are all over the score. The bulk of the solo work is given to the soprano and, happily, Sibylla Rubens excels. Hers is essentially a silvery voice but she is more than capable of injecting a touch of steel where required. This may not be a masterpiece on the level of Elijah but Rilling makes out a very good case for it.

A disc and a half are devoted to Dvoŕák’s Stabat Mater. At first I feared I wasn’t going to like the performance but as it progressed I warmed much more to it and if any listeners have similar initial feelings I’d encourage them to persevere; it’s worth it. I think the trouble at the start is that Rilling is too pensive. His performance doesn’t have quite the same supple flow that we find in Rafael Kubelik’s 1976 DG version. Nor does Rilling’s orchestra have the tonal resource possessed by the Dresden Staatskapelle for Giuseppe Sinopoli in his dramatic account (also DG, 2000)

Overall, Rilling’s is rather a soft-grained approach (an impression which may be magnified by the recording itself which I found was best played back at a slightly higher level than usual.) He has a very good solo quartet at his disposal (though I have a marginal preference for Kubelik’s team) and they are well integrated as a team as is clear, for instance, in the ‘Quis est homo’ quartet (though here I find more urgent singing in the Kubelik version.) In ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ tenor James Taylor is outstanding, producing lovely, effortless singing with a heady and plangent tone (CD 3, track 6, from 1’06"). The duet, ‘Fac, ut portem’ finds him and soprano Marina Shaguch combining well and the ‘Inflammatus’ is sung by Ingeborg Danz with warm, full tone; she gives a fine account of this important solo. The remaining soloist is Thomas Quastoff and, as you might expect, he provides a solid foundation for the quartet and is suitably imposing in his solo, ’Fac ut ardeat cor meum.’

The choral contribution, though recorded a little more backwardly than I would have liked, is excellent throughout and Rilling encourages attentive, well-phrased singing from his American choir. They are effectively supported by the orchestra. All in all, this is a very good performance of the work.

This collection also includes a large helping of Brahms’s choral music. First comes Schicksalslied and straight away Rilling demonstrates that he is a fine Brahms interpreter. The burnished orchestral introduction suggests a performance of distinction is to follow and so it proves. As compared with the recording of the Dvoŕák the choir is, to my ears, more forwardly placed in the aural picture and this is wholly beneficial, the more so since they sing so well. The glorious, lyrical opening is most beautifully rendered and later on the turbulent music really has drive and purpose. We end as we began with lovely orchestral playing in the radiant postlude.

The performance of Nänie, which comes next, is just as fine. This work is blessed with long, undulating choral lines though these are not easy to sustain. Rilling and his singers shape them beautifully, not least in the heart-easing coda. The third piece in this group contrasts nicely for Gesang der Parzen is a more dramatic piece than its companions. Rilling gives it a strong, purposeful reading and his choir reward him with some fervent singing which is ably supported by the orchestra. One passage which particularly caught my ear was the section (CD 4, track 6 from 8’50") where a quite splendidly projected tenor line dominates the choral texture. A few moments later the sopranos take up the same material to equally good effect. It is instances like this which really prove how good a choral trainer Rilling is. His choir make it all sound so natural and easy, the hallmark of a really well prepared ensemble.

Disc five is devoted entirely to Brahms, containing a performance of his most substantial choral work, Ein Deutsches Requiem. Comparing Rilling’s account with two long-established personal favourites of mine (Rudolf Kempe’s 1955 account and Otto Klemperer’s stoic reading, set down in 1961, both EMI) I found that the older versions were preferable on some counts (mainly minor points) but in other respects Rilling more than held his own.

Gilles Cachemaille is Rilling’s baritone soloist. His is a fairly light voice which is well produced and which falls pleasingly on the ear. I must say that he is nowhere near as characterful as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who appears in Rudolf Kempe’s devoted version and later reprised the role for Klemperer. However, the fluent tempo chosen by Rilling (quite close to Klemperer but appreciably quicker than Kempe’s) complements his soloist’s vocal style very well.

The soprano soloist, Donna Brown, sings with great poise in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. However, she must yield to Elisabeth Grümmer’s radiant ecstasy for Kempe. I put on that version intending just to do a couple of spot comparisons and ended up listening to the complete movement and being deeply moved by it – yet again!

The chorus makes a fine contribution and the fact that they are German-speaking gives them something of an advantage over Klemperer’s (excellent) Philharmonia Chorus. In the fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ the effectiveness of Rilling’s preparation is very evident as his choir produce some really luminous tone for him. In the sixth movement, ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, the choir achieves a real sense of quiet mystery at the start of the movement, better conveyed than I’ve ever heard before, which is done through sheer discipline and dynamic control. Thus when they sound the Last Trumpet later in that movement, the moment is all the more dramatic. The final movement is thoughtful and is distinguished by a good deal of quiet, reflective singing.

Overall this is a very fine and successful performance of this masterpiece. Whilst it doesn’t dislodge the Kempe performance in my affections, still less the Klemperer, it’s a version to which I’m sure I will return with great pleasure in the future.

Like Brahms, Bruckner is well represented in this anthology. Strangely, at the same time as reissuing Rilling’s recordings, Hänssler have licensed them to Brilliant Classics and the Brilliant box containing these performances, and others, was recently reviewed here by Robert Hugill. While generally welcoming these performances he issued a cautionary warning about a lack of Brucknerian structure, feeling that this was more apparent in the classic DG recordings by Eugen Jochum. Having compared the readings myself I should say that in general I agree with him, especially as regards the great F minor Mass.

In that work I found that in general Rilling is very successful in the more extrovert passages. It’s in the slower, more profound sections that Jochum’s much greater experience of conducting Bruckner’s symphonic music is evident, I feel; he knows instinctively how to keep the slow music on the move. Thus I find a much greater sense of purpose in Jochum’s reading of the ‘Kyrie’ where his speed is noticeably quicker than Rilling’s but with no sense that the music is being hurried.

 

In the ‘Gloria’ the opening bounds along jubilantly in Rilling’s hands and he almost matches Jochum for fervour. However, when the music slows (for example at ‘Qui tollis’) Jochum is stronger and less inclined to linger. Again, the start of the ‘Credo’ is splendidly festive under Rilling who, characteristically, observes the important dynamic contrasts accurately. However, later I found that I didn’t care very much for the way his tenor, Uwe Heilmann, sings the cruelly exposed solo at ‘Et incarnatus est’. Here Ernst Haefliger (for Jochum) is superb. The ‘Et resurrexit’, one of the most memorable passages in all Bruckner, blazes superbly (CD6, track 3, 8’49") and indeed the remainder of the movement is very good. The brief, rarefied ‘Sanctus’ also comes off very well. The soloists have a key role in the ‘Benedictus’ and Matthias Goerne’s strong but velvety voice is especially effective but I’m sorry to say that the tenor’s vocal production again sounds tight and effortful. Indeed, Goerne is really the only one of Rilling’s quartet who is on a par with Jochum’s impressive team. The ‘Agnus Dei’ comes off quite well but I feel that Jochum finds just a bit more spirituality and mystery.

There are many very good things in Rilling’s performance of this Mass and it will disappoint no one buying the set but I concur with Robert Hugill that Jochum has an edge. However, I find that Rilling turns the tables in the E minor Mass. In the opening ‘Kyrie’ Rilling has a touch more forward momentum than Jochum. Crucially, Rilling’s choir is much better at sustaining the long notes which are such a feature of the music. There is a fine sense of grandeur at the start of the ‘Gloria’ where, as so often in this whole set, all the choral lines are clear. Once again I found myself admiring the quality of the choral singing and the degree of control in the quieter passages. This is also true of the ‘Credo’ where both the ‘Et incarnatus’ and the ‘Crucifixus’ are superbly sustained and tuned. Equally, the confidence of the ‘Et resurrexit’ is splendidly conveyed.

The ‘Sanctus’ has the chaste purity of Renaissance polyphony and is splendidly sung, the movement ending in a magisterial affirmation. The prayerful dignity of the ‘Benedictus’ also comes across beautifully in this performance. The concluding ‘Agnus Dei’ is an extraordinarily affecting movement and I share Robert Hugill’s enthusiasm for it. Rilling and his team do it full justice, sustaining a mood of rapt intensity in a performance which is quietly overwhelming. This is a quite splendid rendition of this Mass which, by a whisker, I prefer to Jochum’s classic reading, not least because Rilling is given a better, clearer recording and obtains even better choral singing than does his distinguished rival.

The other Bruckner offering is the brief but powerful setting of Psalm 150. This is a splendid, majestic piece, which benefits here from some spirited singing and playing though, for once, I found the choir’s words rather hard to hear. The soprano has a brief but fearsome solo and here it is effectively sung by Pamela Coburn, a singer who I don’t recall hearing before.

Discs seven and eight include extracts from two substantial oratorios, both of them taken from complete recordings by Rilling. Neither Franck’s Les Béatitudes nor Liszt’s Christus are all that frequently heard these days and so it’s good to have a chance to hear some of the music. (In fact Hänssler have licensed Rilling’s complete recordings of both works to Brilliant Classics and both have been reviewed recently on this site.) Both works are essentially a series of tableaux rather than narrative in nature so little is lost by presenting extracts in this way and the Liszt Stabat Mater is especially well suited to separation from the context of the main work.

Unlike composers such as Rossini or Dvořák, Liszt sets the text of the Stabat Mater as one single, through-composed piece, albeit one with several clearly defined sections. For the most part the setting is subdued ("more than a little ascetic" as the notes would have it) though it does contain a few big moments. Liszt eschews lengthy solos but his quartet of soloists still plays a major role, often singing as an ensemble. Rilling’s quartet contains no weak links and, importantly, they blend together well. The performance features another excellent contribution from the choir and from the orchestra too (including an important role for a harmonium.) The only criticism I have is that the chorus don’t articulate their words too clearly, which is something of a snag as the Latin text may not be familiar to all listeners. That said, the reading is committed and eloquent. I have to confess that Liszt is very far from being a Desert island composer so far as I’m concerned but I enjoyed this Stabat Mater considerably.

The three extracts from Franck’s oratorio are also very effective. The shortest piece is the Prologue which consists primarily of a tenor solo. It’s not clear from the documentation which singer is singing here (or elsewhere for that matter) but I suspect it’s Keith Lewis. Whoever is responsible sings nobly. Though the oratorio is often described as a contemplative work this description is belied by the other two excerpts offered here for both include a good deal of vigorous music. The choir rises to the occasion very capably (as does the orchestra) and their singing is full-toned and well articulated throughout. The dynamic range of the chorus is wide and there’s plenty of contrast as a result. The solo singing is also of a uniformly high standard. I thought Gilles Cachemaille had just the right kind of elevated voice for the role of Christ and the fine soprano solo in ‘Blessed are those who suffer persecution’ (CD 8, track 6) is very well done by Diane Montague. The one slight disappointment is that at the very end of that piece (the conclusion of the whole work) the organ is slightly, but noticeably, out of tune. For those reluctant to invest in the full work these extracts give a good flavour, I think, and I’m glad that they have been included, especially since Rilling’s name is not immediately associated with Gallic music.

Two Italian rarities to conclude with. Puccini’s Motetto (CD 8, track 1) was written when he was just 19 and was composed for the feast day of the patron saint of his home town of Lucca. According to the notes it "fairly gushes with fresh italianità’ (sic). I don’t know about that. It consists of a rather blatant opening and closing chorus which frames an extended baritone solo. This is quite pleasing and, unsurprisingly, is indebted to Verdi. Matthias Goerne sings it well. According to the notes Helmuth Rilling "wrenched [the piece] from obscurity" in 1992. I have to say that it strikes me as little more than a curiosity and a trifle which does not really add to our understanding of Puccini.

The Verdi item is another matter, however. This ’Libera me’ had its origins in an aborted project devised by Verdi in 1868 in response to the death of Rossini. He proposed to his publisher, Ricordi, that thirteen leading Italian composers should each contribute a section of a Requiem in Rossini’s honour. Verdi and his twelve now- forgotten colleagues duly produced their composite work but a variety of political and financial problems meant that it was never performed until Helmuth Rilling mounted a performance of the complete work, from which I believe this recording derives. Though the composite Requiem languished in Ricordi’s vaults Verdi later recycled his contribution into his own Requiem. The final version of the ‘Libera me’, which we know so well today, differs in quite a few respects from the original version as recorded here. The differences chiefly lie in the soprano solo line but among the other, noticeable changes, the celebrated ‘thwacks’ on the bass drum are absent from the ‘Dies Irae’ and at the end, the sotto voce recitative ‘Libera me, Domine’ is given not to the soloist but to the choral basses. As a fascinating first draft this is most interesting to hear. Not everyone may care for the rather histrionic soloist (I don’t) but the performance as a whole is very good indeed and offers an interesting conclusion to this survey of Rilling recordings.

The documentation accompanying this set is a bit basic. The notes are not especially helpful and, as translated at least, are somewhat fulsome. No texts or translations are provided which is a bit of a handicap in the less familiar pieces. I expressed a very slight reservation about the recorded sound in the Dvořák Stabat Mater but the recordings as a whole are very good indeed. As I hope I’ve made clear, the standard of the performances is uniformly first class.

This set is a handsome tribute to a distinguished choral conductor. It contains many very fine performances and I’m sure it will give great pleasure to collectors, as it has to me.

John Quinn



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