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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.