BACH Mass in B minor. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hanssler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)


Edition Bachakadamie Vol.70 Mass in B minor, BWV232

Sibylla Rubens Juliane Banse sopranos I & II
Ingeborg Danz alto
James Taylor tenor
Andreas Schmidt Thomas Quasthoff basses I & II

Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth RillingHÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.070
2 discs [1h 52:34] mid-price

by Ng Yeuk Fan

It's not Y2K, it's Bach YearMany choruses around the world are bound to look through their cupboards in search of Bach works which they may present to audiences in the year 2000. Yet Bach is not quite the mainstream fare of most choirs that I know. Despite a tonality deeply rooted in the ‘classical’, Bach remains exceedingly difficult to get right for its many demands made on interpreters. For the solo voice – inexhaustible breath and advance vocal dexterity; for the chorus, a willing sense of proportion and place within Bach’s complex musical structure and for the director, a subtle balance of the inspired versus examined humanity is needed to deliver Bach that is immediately sensational!

So too in Bach’s B minor Mass – for even in any league, it is a giant of a musical creation hailed by many to be the most perfect of musical compositions. Considering its relatively short two hours of running time, the B minor packs an amazing multitude of everlasting tunes, awe-inspiring musical super-structures and creativity-dulling fugal massivas. And to top it all, Bach achieves this with so little, such economy of notes and orchestration. It is for me the be-all and end-all of Masses and Fugues; for after the B minor, no one really needs to write another.

I am surprised by Helmuth Rilling’s interesting use of the staccato in his interpretation. He makes entire sections outstanding by using the staccato even where Herreweghe (for Harmonia Mundi – reviewed here) and Gardiner (Archiv Produktion 415 514-2) employed broad flowing legato lines. Such an interesting experimentation can be sampled in the duet Domine Deus clearly. One can also hear this ‘choppiness’ put to stunning effect in one of my favourite choruses, the Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Undoubtedly, this ‘agitation’ in the music when coupled with Rilling’s fast tempos makes for a very engaging and exciting experience! Nonetheless, I find it is used too often. Sometimes, such as in the following Et in terra pax, its half-hearted use disturbed the legato lines without making any alternative impact.

Given that Bach’s original markings are not too clear on how to articulate the notes, this jazzy skipping may or may not be to your taste but I thought that it worked more often than not – breathing a really fresh perspective into many arias and choruses. If nothing else, such an emphasis translates into cleaner and neater choral ensemble work for Bach’s difficult fugal structures such as the Cum Sancto Spiritu . Clearly a definite spark of ingeniuity due in no small part to Rilling’s strong choral background.

Speaking of which, the Gchinger Kantorei, a ensemble founded by Rilling in 1953, makes an excellent chorus of sound. Sample their wonders at Et resurrexit . They are generally very fine throughout but there is a hint that they have not been captured in every splendour possible despite the digital sound. There is a slight tightness in the middle choral range, which limits the illusory space much needed by any large choral work. The same also applies for the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart which delivers consistent quality but whose trumpets seemed too wayward in a track or two. Hear the flute soloist in Benedictus , which sat me up in my chair to hear his impeccable soli rendition.

Helmuth Rilling In the soprano duet Christe eleison, Rilling (right) achieves a beautiful electricity running through the legato cello lines, not quite the same but very reminescent of the late Karajan’s June 1950, Vienna concert recording (to be reissued by EMI Classics in Jan 2000) of the same duet with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Kathleen Ferrier on the solo lines. Altogether many moments of sustained greatness in Rilling’s interpretation here.

Thomas Quasthoff has a bright ring to his bass voice, which is a beautiful rarity. It makes the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus very refreshing if not for the little lack in interpretative imagination – which fellow bass Andreas Schmidt is able to fully command in his honeyed bass-baritone rendition of Et in Spiritum Sanctum, complete with subtle nuances that clearly indicated a voice capable of becoming legendary. Schmidt has one of the most beautiful bass voices I have ever heard.

James Taylor, Sibylla Rubens, Juliane Banse and Ingeborg Danz are all singers with beautiful voices chosen for the strong Bachian spirit in their voices. In particular, sample Ingeborg Danz in her heart-wrenching rendition of the Agnus Dei, hers is a most fascinating alto that does not become gruffy when deep in the lower range and which rises to a stunning golden richness – almost becoming inapproporate for the seriousness here.

Helmuth Rilling’s accomplishment in Hänssler’s version of the B minor Mass is not one to leave me entirely breathless or singing praises unending, but he cuts insightful new ground where giants such as EMI and Decca have failed and makes a worthy companion side by side Bach specialists like Herreweghe, Koopman and Gardiner.

619: 24.12.1999 NG Yeuk Fan

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