BACH Cantatas Vol.25 – BWVs 77-79. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hännsler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.25 BWV 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (1723)
BWV 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (1724)
BWV 79 Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (1725)

Helen Donath Arleen Augér sopranos
Julia Hamari Carolyn Watkinson altos
Aldo Baldin Adalbert Kraus tenors
Wolfgang Schne Philippe Huttenlocher basses

Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth Rilling

Includes German texts with translations in French, English and Spanish. Reissued 1999.

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.025
[53:08] mid-price by Chia Han-Leon This is the 25th volume of a 160-CD collection of Bach recordings on the German label Hänssler, which is to cover all the music the great master wrote (not counting the hundred or so lost cantatas, concerti, etc., of course).

Recorded between 1972 and 1981, the recordings here are naturally not exactly up to today’s high standards, but is nonetheless very acceptable. What is a little disappointing at first – for me – is that for performances made in this period, the Bach scholar Helmuth Rilling did not use the “authentic” approach. Not exactly, anyway. The results are that these performances sometimes sound rather “old world”, like the 1960s recordings by Hans Richter on Deutsche Grammophon, or Fritz Werner on Erato. In a word – old. During the 1970s and 1980s, other Bach exponents such as Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner (now here’s a frequent traveller) or Joshua Rifkin were already making much headway for the “historically informed” school.

Helmuth Rilling The extremely enlightening booklet notes defend Rilling – who “doesn’t see much sense in reconstructing isolated aspects to convey the meaning of Bach’s works to modern listeners who have a completely different background in every respect.” I do not agree with this, even less in the context of a “postmodern” world where the individual’s background is chameleonic, and we’re more than capable of being cubist in our perspectives over meaning. On my part, being a child of the 1970s, I can only offer my opinion from the viewpoint of someone who grew up on the aforementioned “authenticist” conductors, not on Rilling or Richter or even the old Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cycles. This is my position.

One thing I do agree with Rilling – that the objective of the performance philosophy is still the same. Hence in the final analysis, what comes across in these Hänssler recordings is a curious mix of the old and the new – or I should say, the old and the eternal. What I mean is that although the approach is comparatively more outmoded on the surface, the result is not surprisingly and often satisfyingly true to the Bach spirit.

Take the choruses and chorales of the cantatas here: certainly not as detailed and transparent as I like them, or as melodious as Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Chorus, or as crisp and superhumanly precise as Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir – but mixing an old-world solidity a la Richter and a freshness and sincerity to match Koopman. I enjoyed the musical results of the Gchinger Kantorei, their solemn chorales substantial and unburdened, radiating a kind of earthy beauty. The words are usually clear, a good example being the opening chorus of BWV 78.

There is a hint of heaviness in the overall orchestral-vocal/choral picture, but textures remain quite light and pliant. To my tremendous relief, the trumpet is sane, silvery and kindly vibrato-less, unassumingly (if a little too straight) accompanying the mezzo aria of Cantata 77. The use of the modern trumpet here convinces me of its value – for once I must find fault with my favourite Baroque trumpet: in that mezzo aria, comparing with Koopman rendition, it is plainly obvious that the Baroque instrument has trouble negotiating the difficult runs and trills; while the modern trumpet, played with little vibrato and subdued tone, sounds gently at ease with the notes nicely articulated. The sense of reverence in Rilling’s trumpeteer makes the performance so much more beautiful. I must also highlight the musical sensitivity of flutist Andras Adorjn (no less! One of the few woodwind names I remember from the old days) and the oboists.

Although modern instruments are used, Rilling has carefully created this light and articulate sound. Balance is very comfortable, with continuo and counter melody coming through at just the right level. The bass lines, for example, reach through the orchestral and choral layers with ample weight and clarity, though their boomy and slightly boxed-in sound suggests to me that articifial boosting may have occurred during remastering.

What about the vocal soloists? Note the presence of sopranos Helen Donath and Arleen Augr (again, no less!). Both are stars of their day. The former deserves praise for her warm and bright voice in BWV 77 (try “Mein Gott, ich liee dich von Herzen” on track 3). One good test is the famous “hastening feet” duet of Cantata 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele – a delightful – rather cute actually – vocal spin for soprano, alto (I prefer countertenor) and cello continuo. This duet is sometimes fatally assigned to choir.

Personally I have always adored the lovely performance by Julianne Baird and Allan Fast on Rifkin’s L’Oiseau Lyre 1988 recording (Double Decca 455 706-2), to which I compare this quick-footed (very quick at 4’38”!) rendition by Augr and Carolyn Watkinson (an alto of note since the days of Hogwood/Gardiner). Like the indefatigable cello continuo (bravo!) which includes a bubbly organ, this performance is light-hearted and delightful, with the appropriate sense of mild anxiety which befits the libretto (hastening for help). It is always amusing to hear this piece (shaking my head in chagrin when a choir is involved) – Bach’s combination of soprano and alto is brilliantly merry, and so is this performance.

Aldo Baldin makes a heroic tenor in this cantata as well, with one fiercely fearful recitative and one flute-accompanied aria of joyous determination. He is joined by the commanding bass of Wolfgang Schne, who launches into a fabulously potent account of the aria “Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen” (“Now you will quiet my conscience” 12) – what stupendous bass melisma! Effortless power nobly controlled! Surely one of the high points of this disc.

J.S.Bach

Right: J.S. Bach – 1746 portrait by
E.G.Haussmann.

Cantata 79 Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (“God the Lord is sun and shield”) is the latest of the cantatas recorded here, committed in 1979. A Reformation cantata (BWV 80 is the more famous one), BWV 79 is a celebratory work resplendent with horns. Rilling’s reading is OK, if slightly lacking in focussed sound and weight. The timpani in the opening chorus and the third movement chorale is strangely muffled (it sounds more like a stuttering motor), and the orchestra could drive a bit more. Praise to the horns though, trotting along gracefully while Peter Lukas Graf’s woody flute pleasingly accompanies Augr in the winsome and enjoyable aria “Gott is unsre Sonn und Schild”.

The album is backed by elegant notes, with scholarly writeups dealing with both the musicological and literary-metaphysical aspects of the music-libretti. Like the Erato/Koopman series, the track index helpfully details the orchestration of each movement. As a matter of fact, Erato ought to learn a thing or two from Hänssler regarding the provision of notes for the cantatas: Andreas Bomba, the author for Hänssler, carefully lays out the date, occasion, notes on the text and edition for each cantata. (Hänssler might like to note that the “Composed for” and “Performed on” entries in the English notes appear to be reversed). Full libretto is provided, although the English translations sometimes be too hard trying in sounding poetic, at syntax’s expense.

All in all, an enjoyable and enlightening disc. I was very pleased to reacquaint myself with some of the musicians I’ve grown up on (in the late 80s). Though the sound quality is old-tech, the readings themselves do justice to Bach. This despite any “authenticity” points I have raised. Collectors following the Koopman series should not feel obliged to follow this one – collecting Bach cantatas is an expensive hobby! – and authenticists should sample first. But it is worth noting that Rilling’s reading of Cantata 77 is similar in feel and just as good as Koopman’s on Vol.8 of the Erato series (except that bit about the trumpet…). Both produce very beautiful performances that are comparable despite the differences in style – Bach’s eternal qualities must be at work. While Rilling’s reading is more lilting, smooth and lyrical, Koopman’s has a bit of that, but more bounce.

If you feel like trying something different, the Hänssler series, at mid-price, is an enlightening ride. It is to Helmuth Rilling’s credit that his musical beliefs do triumph over actual instrumental stylistics, not least of of all in his unfussy, honest and unassuming direction.

CHIA HAN-LEON isn’t that old. But he is getting old. He remembers Andras Adorjn and Milan Munchinger and still has some of his Award cassettes.

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