This box is the third
volume of Erato's reissue of Fritz Werner's
Bach recordings and, happily, all his
recordings are now available to us.
I commented generally about Werner's
approach to Bach in reviewing
Vol.1 of this series, which contained
a generous collection of cantatas.
This present volume
is extremely valuable in that it lets
us hear Werner in Bach's supreme choral
masterpieces. Furthermore, none of these
recordings have been widely available
for some time, I believe, and many of
them may well be making their CD début.
Though many of the major record companies
seem to be relying heavily on reissuing
their back catalogue these days, these
Werner recordings are just the sort
of thing that might easily get overlooked.
Warner Classics deserve much gratitude
for making them available once more.
They give us a clear idea of Werner
as a Bach interpreter. They also suggest
that he has been unfairly overlooked
by comparison with his peer, Karl Richter.
Had Werner recorded, like Richter, for
a major international label (his recordings
were made by the French company, Erato)
his stock might have stood far higher.
The earliest of the
major recordings assembled here is the
B Minor Mass, which was set down in
January 1958. Frankly, though it has
some highlights, this recording is not
the best memorial to Werner. Much of
the trouble lies in the recording, I
think. The engineers seem to have been
uncomfortable with the acoustic of the
Protestant Church in Weinsberg (though
a few months later they made a much
better job of the St Matthew Passion
in the same venue). For the Mass, the
recorded sound, as reported here, is
diffuse and over-resonant, with the
choir in particular set too far back
in the aural spectrum. This contributes
to a decided lack of incisiveness in
the choral sound. I must say, however,
that I can't lay all the blame for this
at the engineer's door; the choir themselves
sound somewhat woolly and often imprecise
in attack. Werner used what sounds like
a fairly large chorus and that works
against him, I think.
The opening Kyrie is
massive in scale and moves at a stately
pace. I thought it sounded a bit turgid.
Matters improve in the second Kyrie,
even though Werner's tread is still
firm. He finds grandeur in the opening
chorus of the Gloria but for my taste
'Et in Terra Pax' drags a little. The
'Qui Tollis' is steady but not inappropriately
so. I feel that the 'Cum Sancto' could
have been launched with more bounce
but overall it's a joyful conclusion
to the Gloria and the fugal section
is urgently done with decent clarity
in the choral lines despite some congestion
in the recording itself.
However, there's nothing
like the incisiveness that's on offer
from Karl Richter's Munich Bach Choir
in their 1961 traversal (DG), which
is in much better sound, and this is
as true in the quiet passages as in
the fast, joyful outbursts. This is
apparent in movements in the Credo such
as the' Et Incarnatus' (where Werner's
pace is reverent without dragging) and
the exuberant 'Et Resurrexit' and 'Et
Expecto' choruses. Werner does these
well but the impact is lessened by fuzzy
choral tone and a congested recording,
neither of which hampers Richter.
Werner has some good
soloists on his roster. Helmut Krebs
is a huge asset, singing the Benedictus
with his usual intelligence and style
(though the higher reaches of the tessitura
tax him somewhat.) Franz Kelch does
well but the truly horrible horn
tone in the 'Quoniam' (it sounds like
a trombone!) is a terrible distraction
from his singing.
Ingeborg Reichelt combines
very well with her respective partners
in all three duets in which she is involved.
I particularly enjoyed 'Domine Deus'
where she and Krebs show us just what
two excellent Bachians working together
can achieve. Elisabeth Fellner makes
a very fine job of the 'Laudamus Te'.
She sings clearly and with an extremely
nice tone. I like Werner's pacing, too.
On the debit side, Renate Günther
and Werner make rather heavy weather
of the Agnus Dei. Her breathing appears
to be under some strain though the tempo
itself is not especially slow. On the
other hand, she and Reichelt combine
to good effect in 'Et in Unum Dominum'
during the Credo. I should also mention
that, as is the case throughout this
boxed set, the instrumental obbligato
playing is of a very high order. For
example the flute player (Maxence Larrieu)
excels in the 'Domine Deus' and again
in the Benedictus while the oboe d'amore
in the 'Qui sedes' (Pierre Pierlot?)
is just as fine.
of the work as a whole is a devoted
and homogeneous one, full of conviction.
He's not perhaps at his best here by
comparison with some of the other offerings
in this box but I've no doubt that the
quality of the sound does him few favours.
If this were a single-issue release
it would not stand comparison with Richter,
for one, I fear. However, in the context
of this box there is much to admire
A few months later
Werner and his team were back in the
same venue to set down the St Matthew
Passion. Ironically, the sessions
followed only a few months after Karl
Richter had recorded the work in Munich
for DG. As I've already hinted, Werner
is accorded much better recorded sound
this time and, in fact, this recording
must be considered one of his finest
The first thing to
say is that the chorus sounds immeasurably
better. Not only are they more clearly
recorded but also their singing is incomparably
better. They're clear, incisive and
precise. Once again the orchestral support
is first rate with some glorious obbligati
to savour. And the solo team is good,
led by the peerless Evangelist of Helmut
His is a distinctive
timbre, which will not be to all tastes.
Furthermore, his voice is not all that
big; it's certainly smaller and narrower
than the voice of Ernst Haefliger, Richter's
Evangelist. But it's what he does with
the voice that's the key to it all.
Every word is crystal clear and is invested
with meaning. From his very first entry
he is telling a story and his narration,
perfectly paced, draws the listener
in. Quite simply, he is superb. In particular
he narrates the scenes in Part II where
Christ is being interrogated by the
High Priest with great commitment and
imagination. Later on, as the story
moves to the dénouement
of the Crucifixion he is both involving
and moving. Here is an Evangelist who
believes every word he sings.
Krebs also sings the
tenor arias, each of them cruelly demanding.
He sings 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen'
(No. 20) with beautifully heady tone.
Later the cruelly exposed tessitura
and difficult rhythms of 'Geduld' (No.
35) seem to faze him not at all while
he presents a supremely eloquent and
restrained account of the recitative
that immediately precedes that aria.
If, with one glorious
exception, no one else is quite on this
exalted level the other soloists still
do Bach (and Werner) proud. Franz Kelch
sings Christus and I find him somehow
more convincing that when he later essayed
the same role in the St. John Passion
(see below). He does not have the vocal
presence of Kieth Engen (for Richter)
but he sings with refinement and taste.
Like Krebs he also sings the arias and
towards the end of the whole work two
of Bach's most sublime creations fall
to him. 'Komm süsses Kreuz' (No.
57) inspires him to some fine and expressive
singing and he does 'Mache dich, mein
Herze, rein' equally well, even if the
young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Richter)
surpasses him both tonally and in terms
of what he does with the words. Renate
Günther sings 'Buss und Reu' (No.
6) very well. I prefer her to Hertha
Töpper on the Richter set and I
much prefer Werner's pacing of
the aria to Richter's. She also does
the sublime 'Erbame dich' (No. 39) very
affectingly and the aria is enhanced
by a marvellously expressive violin
obbligato from Reinhold Barchet.
I indicated that one
other soloist is on Krebs' level of
artistic attainment. This, of course,
is soprano Agnes Giebel. She displays
lovely pure, silver tone and breath
control to match in her first aria,
'Blute nur' (No. 8) and she is no less
successful in 'Ich will dir mein Herze
schenken' (No. 13). But she is finest
of all in 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland
sterben' (No. 49). Here she is deeply
impressive and very moving, producing
some gloriously controlled singing and
wonderful tone. Giebel's delivery of
this poignant aria is on an elevated
level. Not only is it the single finest
piece of singing in this performance
but in the whole set of CDs. Her performance
is enhanced by a sublime flute obbligato,
played, I suspect, by Jean-Pierre Rampal,
Werner's pacing of
the whole work and his vision of it
is compelling. The drama moves inexorably
forward and the entire story is most
movingly related. I had not heard this
performance before (it has lain in the
vaults for far too long) but I was very
moved by it. This is an account of the
St. Matthew that all lovers of
Bach's music will want to hear and it
is fit to be ranked with the very finest
now before the public. The most direct
comparison is with the contemporaneous
account by Karl Richter. Richter has
some better-known names on his solo
roster but Werner need fear no comparison
and in many ways I prefer his reading.
In particular, once heard, I would not
want to be without Krebs' compelling
Evangelist. The reappearance of this
dedicated performance is a cause for
rejoicing and, frankly, the whole set
is worth buying just to possess it.
The recording of the
St. John Passion was made some
two years later. Once again Krebs was
the Evangelist and Kelch sang Christus.
I don't think this performance is quite
the equal of Werner's St Matthew.
For one thing, the choral singing,
though good, is just not as incisive,
nor is Werner's pacing always quite
as unerring. We get an example of this
at the very start. The opening chorus
is a wonderful movement, pregnant with
tension and giving the feeling that
momentous events are about to unfold.
We get much of that here, it's true,
with Werner setting a purposeful and
deliberate speed. However, when the
choir enters they sound a bit too weighty.
I'd have welcomed a little more bite
and urgency and a touch more spring
in the rhythms. A little later on the
sharp choral interjections, such as
'Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?'
(No. 12b) sound just a little ponderous.
I wouldn't want to make too much of
this for the choral contributions are
perfectly satisfactory. It's just that
comparison with the St Matthew
recording reveals something of a falling
off in standards.
Krebs is, once again,
an outstanding Evangelist. His voice
is light and pliant. He tells the story
vividly but without affectation or exaggeration
and he draws the listener in through
his conviction. He's imaginative too.
Take as an example the highly chromatic
passage describing Peter weeping after
denying Christ (CD 1, Track 12, 1'29").
Unlike some distinguished tenors that
I've heard Krebs is poignant rather
than anguished here and the degree of
restraint is highly effective. This
also paves the way for the aria 'Ach,
mein sinn' (No. 13) very well. Krebs
sings the tenor arias, of course, and
he delivers this highly taxing aria
with sensitivity. The music is very
hard to put across. When it begins it
sounds a bit on the slow side but it's
soon clear that Krebs and Werner have
judged the tempo shrewdly for with them
the syncopated rhythms don't sound snatched.
In 'Erwäge' (No. 20) the soloist
faces even greater demands but Krebs
demonstrates what really distinguished
Bach singing can sound like. With his
lovely light voice he makes it all sound
so natural. His articulation is clean
and he's effortless at the top of his
Franz Kelch fails to
quite recapture the form he displayed
in the St Matthew. It sounds
as if he's trying too hard to be dignified
as Christus but actually he sounds a
bit stiff and formal. To my ears he
misses the humanity that's there for
all to hear in Krebs' singing. Like
Krebs he sings the arias too. In 'Betrachte,
meine Seel' (No. 19), for example, he
produces a nice tone but his is not
perhaps the most distinctive rendition
I've heard. Having said that, he is
tasteful and accurate throughout and
does nothing to detract from the success
of the overall performance.
To Marga Höffgen
falls some of the finest arias in the
work. She is very satisfying in 'Von
der Stricken, meiner Sünden' (No.
7) She sings with a full tone and with
sensitivity. She also has the emotional
kernel of the whole work, 'Es ist vollbracht'
(No. 30). Her reading of this desperately
sad aria is not overwrought. In fact
she's dignified and composed. She may
not quite efface memories of Dame Janet
Baker at this point but she's fully
up to the vocal and emotional challenges
of the aria and she's supported by a
fine viola da gamba obbligato from August
Wenzinger. In fact, throughout the performance
the principal instrumentalists maintain
the consistent high standards of Werner's
Sailer also does well. She sings 'Ich
folge dir gleichfalls' (No. 9) delightfully,
her voice sounding light and eager but
controlled. At the other extreme she's
poignant and touching in 'Zerfliesse,
mein Herze' (No. 35).
At the very end, the
final chorus, 'Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen
Gebeine' (No. 39) is very moving after
all that has gone before. Werner takes
it steadily but the music certainly
doesn't drag. Then the chorale, 'Ach
Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein' (no.
40) builds from a quiet beginning to
a strongly affirmative conclusion.
If I've sounded a bit
muted in my welcome to this performance
that's only because here Werner fails
to match his tremendous achievement
in the St Matthew. But, to be
fair, that's an exceptional reading.
In it's own right this St. John
is very satisfying, with much fine,
dedicated singing to savour and everything
under the wise control of a master Bach
conductor. This is a performance that
is greater than the sum of its parts
and so one can easily overlook one or
two weaker passages. Werner conveys
his vision of the piece splendidly.
He directs with understanding and commitment
and manages to make it sound as if the
whole performance was recorded in a
The performance of
the Christmas Oratorio was the
last of the major works to be set down
in a recording that dates from 1963.
This is a splendid and thoroughly enjoyable
reading from start to finish. All four
soloists are on top form. Giebel and
Krebs sing once again with the utmost
distinction. On this occasion they're
joined by Claudia Hellmann and by the
bass Barry McDaniel, who contributed
such a memorable performance of Cantata
82 to Vol. 1 of the cantatas.
As in the Passions,
Krebs is an eloquent Evangelist. His
aria singing is equally splendid. We
find him beautifully relaxed in 'Frohe
Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' (no. 15), for
example. While the fearsome passagework
of 'Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben'
(No. 41) holds no terrors for this assured
McDaniel is splendid
in his first aria, 'Grosser Herr, o
starker König' (No. 8) in which
he's joined by the peerless trumpeter,
Maurice André. McDaniel's diction
is excellent and he makes the divisions
very clear. Another highlight from him
is the aria 'Erleucht auch meine finstre
Sinnen' (No. 47). He also makes an admirable
duet partner for Agnes Giebel on several
Giebel, besides duetting
beautifully, comes into her own with
the echo aria, 'Flösst mein Heiland'
(No. 39). Besides featuring her silvery
voice this aria features to excellent
effect another of the instrumental stars
of this performance, oboist Pierre Pierlot.
Giebel's rendition of 'Nur ein Wink
von seinen Händen' (No. 57) is
also memorable. Hellmann too is in fine
voice. In 'Bereite dich, Zion' (No.4)
she sings with lovely, even vocal production
and her tone is suitably warm. I also
enjoyed very much her account of 'Schliesse,
mein Herze' (No. 31).
The chorus work is
impressive. As usual Werner employs
what sounds like quite a large choir.
They launch the whole work impressively
in 'Jauchzet, frohlocket' (No. 1), spurred
on by the André-inspired festive
trumpets. They're eager and joyful in
the much more lithe chorus, 'Ehre sei
Gott in der Höhe' (No. 21) while
the chorus 'Herrscher des Himmels' that
encases Part III finds them back in
Werner leads a really
fresh and joyful performance. At all
times the music sounds completely unforced
and natural. He succeeds in making Bach's
re-telling of the familiar Christmas
story sound new-minted. I thoroughly
enjoyed this performance, which is one
of the highlights of the whole box.
We also get Werner's
earlier (1957) traversal of the cantata
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV
147. (His subsequent recording (1963)
is contained in the second box of cantatas,
which I shall be reviewing shortly.)
Frankly, this need not detain us long.
The recorded sound is rather vinegary
and the resonant acoustic has not been
tamed by the engineers. The choir is
somewhat distantly recorded and all
of this conspires to give a fatal lack
of clarity in the opening chorus. Among
the soloists, Krebs is, predictably,
very good, as is Ingeborg Reichelt.
Kelch is satisfactory but the alto,
Margarethe Bence, is rather too fruity
in tone for my taste. The famous chorale,
which closes both parts of the cantata,
sounds laboured. I hope for better things
from the later recording.
of the Motets, BWV 225-230 are also
included. These recordings date from
1968. Unfortunately, to accommodate
the larger works it's been necessary
to split the motets into three groups
(BWV 227 stands on its own), which is
a pity, if understandable. The performances
are generally good. I thought the opening
chorus of BWV 226 was perhaps a little
too smooth and restrained at the start
but Werner builds the movement well.
One thing that I noticed is that it
sounds as if Werner used a smaller choir
than usual in at least some of the motets
(BWV 230 and the more elaborate BWV
227 seem to employ more singers.) I
can't be sure of this but it sounds
that way and if so this was a wise move.
The set also includes the funeral Motet,
O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht
BWV 118, which actually sounds more
like a cantata movement (and has more
elaborate instrumental accompaniment.)
Werner gives it a suitably dignified
A word about documentation.
The set comes with a booklet containing
a track listing (in which there are
a handful of minor errors); a good essay
by Nicholas Anderson, common to all
three volumes in this series, about
Werner and his interpretations of Bach;
and a reasonable note about the music
itself. There are no texts.
So, how does one sum
up such a substantial collection? Well,
it's a treasure trove of masterpieces
and the whole box is a marvellous testament
to the skills of Fritz Werner as a Bach
interpreter. As is only to be expected,
perhaps, with a collection of performances
set down over some 11 years, it is an
uneven achievement. I don't believe
the B Minor Mass shows Werner at his
best, though in part at least this is
down to the sound quality. I wish he'd
been given the opportunity to re-record
it with the benefit of improved techniques
in recording and, perhaps, among his
choir. On the other hand, the performance
of the St. John Passion is a
very good one, that of the Christmas
Oratorio is excellent and the St
Matthew Passion is particularly
The overriding impression
that I'm left with after living with
this boxed set is that Fritz Werner
has been unfairly overshadowed by contemporaries
such as Karl Munchinger and, of course,
the great Karl Richter. At his best
- and much of this set shows him at
his best - Werner was a warm, lyrical,
wise interpreter of Bach, wholly devoid
of artifice and a fine and sincere artist.
I love to hear Bach's music performed
on period instruments but the finest
interpreters of the previous generation,
of which Fritz Werner is undoubtedly
one of the foremost, have much to teach
us about these masterpieces and we ignore
recordings such as these at our peril.
As I said at the start, Warner Classics
earn our gratitude for reissuing these
recordings. However, it cannot be taken
for granted that they will remain in
the catalogue indefinitely and Bach
enthusiasts are strongly advised to
snap them up while they can.
I have enjoyed these
recordings enormously and recommend
them with great enthusiasm, especially
at such an advantageous price. Now on
to the remaining volume of cantatas!