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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Complete Sacred & Secular Cantatas

Hänssler Classic 98630 71CDs + CD-ROM
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Among the best aspects of this re-issue by Hänssler of the Rilling Bach cantata cycle first released in 1985 for the tercentennial (actually the first such complete recorded cycle) is the extent to which Rilling's musicianship and the dedication and engagement of his soloists, choruses and instrumentalists bring out the sheer beauty of Bach's sung music. It's not the most authentic or painstakingly-researched of cycles. But its revelation of the warmth and magnitude of the music make this a very attractive set. The fact that it also contains the sacred cantatas is another plus.

Also of great value to those wanting a cycle of recordings at a very reasonable price which go against the trend for Historically Informed Performance are the performers' obvious integrity and devotion to the music and to the probable aims of Bach. Rilling's accounts do lack something of the springiness and overt contrast that other conductors have sought from their forces – perhaps with the intention of rendering them more "immediate", "relevant" or "accessible". But they have much to recommend them nevertheless.

This is not to say, of course, that Rilling hasn't filtered what we hear through his own at times quite lush, rhetorical and imposing conception of the cantatas. But this is almost inevitable for any conductor who – as really ought always to be the case – becomes as involved in the life of this repertoire as is necessary in order to make a sensible attempt at a complete cycle. In balance, there is a "business-like" pace, a drive without being at all "matter of fact", a comforting momentum to Rilling's readings. On the one hand his glow sounds a little romantic. On the other, the articulation of his singers is pointed and clean – and at every turn completely audible – without being at all prosaic or mundane. Listen to the unnamed baritone soloist in Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, [CD.5 tr.5]… "I have a job to do (to praise God); I know how to do it; are you with me or against me?"! This is not aggression. But confidence. But there is no lack of excitement. The choruses are by and large swellings of joy (or sadness, regret, longing or other emotions as the texts dictate). This mass of color also offsets the sense that to perform Bach's cantatas is to move with gentle and steady admiration through something familiar to us; and hence to become involved (as worshippers in Bach's lifetime did) at the very intersection of that awe and familiarity. Rilling and his companies achieve this well.

Rilling seems to be asking his musicians first to look closely at exactly what Bach wrote, to understand it in its religious and musical context; and then to look inside themselves to see how these must relate to their conception and delivery of music that is such a staple of the liturgical choral tradition. That they easily find ways of making the music fresh, alive and vibrant is good testimony to their expertise. Indeed, the many more performers (close to 100) on this set than were gathered by Gardiner, Koopman or Suzuki are (or were) most of them highly acclaimed Bach specialists… Arlene Augér, Juliane Banse, Matthias Goerne, Christophe Prégardien, Christine Schäfer, Helen Donath, Julia Hamari, Carolyn Watkinson, Siegmund Nimsgern, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Altmeyer, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Henschel, Christoph Genz and a young Thomas Quasthoff.

Other qualities which can hardly fail to strike the listener are the exactitude of the enunciation of soloists: listen to the actually again unnamed soloists in BWV 13, Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13 [CD.4 tr.18], for example; and the string players of the Stuttgart Bach Collegium… violin, viola and cello playing of real force, precision and expression. This leads, in fact, to a lightness and deft approachability in the pace and feel of many of the cantatas. Not that there's insufficient depth. Quite the opposite. Just no ponderousness. There's the same lack of dogma and binding to accepted praxes in Rilling's approach that advances a style influenced by the by 1985 quite mature "early" music movement. Indeed, for its time, Rilling's was something of a ground-breaking enterprise. He refused to be swept into modes in which he did not believe either by one-to-a-part advocates, or by those seeking to throw caution over and make a Bach with more than a nod in the direction of his latter day "arrangers". The solo singing in Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, BWV 17 [CD.5 tr.s 12-23] is a case in point: crisply, cleanly, transparently (again unnamed) singers weave a wholly crystalline way through the sinuous and sombre melodic lines of this delightful cantata. When obbligato or continuo instrumental groups play, it's with a delicacy and precision that draw no unsustainable conclusions about Bach's musical and liturgical goals.

At the same time, these perceptions of Rilling's underpin, support and complement the genuine fervor of the singers. There's a genuineness, a benevolence, a positive sense of uplift and a generous openness to the motives of the musicians throughout the cycle. It's infectious, it's lasting and it's appropriate. There are moments – in the larger orchestral passages of BWV 17, for example – when we can be sure that the texture is just too heavy, the multiple strings present too much of a thicket for them to resemble what Bach would have expected to use. At these times, we must concentrate on the diction of the singers in the next vocal passage; on Rilling's great grasp of the architecture of the cantata(s) as a body of work; on his appreciation (perhaps less stark than those of Gardiner, Koopman and certainly Suzuki) of the variety which they exhibit; on the eagerness of the solo players to add to the richness; and on Bach's ability to combine functional devotional writing for weekly worship, perhaps not expecting his work ever to be heard twice, with such great and unique beauty. In this Rilling is a fine advocate.

Rilling's tempi are decidedly on the fast side: ideally one should hardly notice the effort needed by singers to curve and carve their way around accelerated passages; this expertise (of which there's plenty here) should communicate what the music needs to communicate, not a performing achievement. But such numbers as So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schließt [CD.8. tr.18] in Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, ist der Menschen Leben, BWV 26 really put the tenor (in this case Adalbert Kraus) to something of a test. It's very quick. He does well.

After but a few hours of careful listening to the CDs you'll either be convinced or judiciously cautious. As you progress you'll probably be struck by a "leveling" of musical exploration and excitement. Rilling never reduces the cantatas to a series, never draws Bach's teeth, withdraws the thrill and sense of commitment that infuses every note. But in his command of the enterprise, Rilling perhaps tends towards the production of something not bland or featureless, but somewhat uniform. The dynamics and tempi in particular are all very "safe". The truth is that this is such a great body of music that no one interpretation can do it justice in every respect. Serious collectors will want to have the three modern cycles (Koopman, Gardiner and Suzuki) as well as this – perhaps as a more than adequate "reference" set – by Rilling. It has a great many strengths, never tires and is revealing in many ways of the world in which Bach worked, and lived.

The CDs come in 71 thin individual paper sleeves stacked in a "flip-open" box together with a couple of substantial CD-size booklets and a CD-ROM, which contains the cantatas' texts, background and biographical and bibliographical notes as well as tabular data on the cantatas; though only the PDFs, text from the printed booklet, are available to non-Windows users. This is by far the smallest footprint of the four complete such cycles (exploration of and familiarity with which Rilling sees as the most important learning process of his musical career… "Only if you know Bach's cantatas, can you say that you really know Bach") currently available. Like the others it has advantages (technical agility and evenness) and drawbacks (that guarded evenness). It's more affordable than they are and should certainly be taken very seriously.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.