Bach: The Complete Cantatas
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hänssler CLASSIC is proud to present Helmuth Rilling's landmark
recording of the complete Bach Cantatas in a new, specially-price
collector's edition. Rilling was the first conductor to ever record the
complete Bach cantatas and still, 25 years after they were first
released in celebration of the Bach tercentennial in 1985, they
remain the standard by which all other interpretations are judged.
Timeless performances featuring many of Europe's finest singers at
the height of their careers!
An attractive new display box with complete documentation and
interactive CD ROM containing complete booklet notes and texts is
Top customer reviews
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There is nothing “creaky” about these recordings and the only reasons to “wonder why these recordings are still in the catalog” are either ideological or based on personal “taste”.
I have listened to (and poorly played) Bach on an almost daily basis for over 30 years. In addition to this Rilling set, which I bought a few months ago (I had bought a few of Rilling’s single discs over the past 20 years), I own Harnoncourt & Leonhardt’s complete set, the 75-cantata set by Karl Richter, most of the Herreweghe cantata recordings (mostly very good if a bit “soft”), a sprinkling of the Rifkin’s (interesting minimalism) and (alas) years ago I bought the first issue of the Koopman set (I did not buy the second). I also like Suzuki’s efforts (probably the best of his generation), in most cases, although I do not collect his recordings because they are still very expensive. I have a low opinion of Gardiner’s musicianship (try his abysmal St. John’s Passion to see what I mean – one of the worse recordings in my collection)
Having musically grown up at the height of the “original instrument” movement (20+ years ago I even bought a Baroque bow for my violin) I have come to believe that there is no intrinsic superiority of one approach versus the other. I intensely dislike terms such as “historically informed performance” (as if Karl Richter, the son of a Lutheran pastor, deeply steeped in Lutheran theology, a Thomaner himself, organist at St. Thomas, were less informed than one of his British or Dutch “HIP” colleagues (I won’t name names)) or, even worse “Authentic” (hey listeners lend me your authentic years, you who have listened to all sorts of 20th and 21st century noise but whose ears still really really suffer when they hear a diminished seventh…).
Anyway, this set is excellent. Rilling himself is deeply steeped in the protestant tradition (try his lectures on the B Minor Mass on youtube) and choral conducting. The performances are tasteful with no rhythm bashing or mannered swellings (try Fabio Biondi’s violin with Ian Bostridge for that) or other received wisdom from the prophets of the “aufführungspraxis”. The choir is big but not as big as, say, Richter’s. The contrapuntal textures are very clearly audible, for the most part. The instrumental soloists are also very good.
Some people view the interpretive restraint in this set as a weakness. I view it as a strength.
The singing ranges from good to excellent with a healthy dose of natural vibrato. If you are picky about singing and never really swallowed the self-serving fashion for falsetto male singers pushed by the Brits and the Dutch (I am often appalled at some of this “singing”) you will like this set. The roster of singers is a who’s who of Bach’s singing (many of the singers have also worked with Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Richter, and Herreweghe).
For those who object that Bach dealt with all male forces I would reply that first, the recreation of original conditions is an obsession I do not share, second, you can carefully read his letter on “Well Appointed Church Music” to see how he liked his “original conditions”, third you can listen to Harnoncourt and Leonhardt’s set: they employ boy sopranos (this unique set is worth owning just for that) and you will realize that, as one wit observed: “they have no strong opinions about intonation and rhythm”. Even allowing for the fact that, apparently, in Bach’s days boys changed their voice later and hence were more mature musicians, you get the idea.
Obviously, no set of 200 cantatas will satisfy you always. But at the current price buying this set is the opposite of a “rookie mistake”. It is a very smart choice.
Highly recommended addition to (or beginning of) your collection.
Returning to the present age for the moment, one notes with some dismay that the consolations of great music do not come without a cost--yes, the cost of intellectual effort, but also financial outlay. And it is on this point that Hänssler-Verlag's reissue of Rilling's Cantata Cycle maintains a distinct advantage, whatever it musical merits or vices. With the Secular Cantatas included, along with exhaustive scholarly notes, texts and translations downloadable (and printable) from the CD-Rom included, this is a bargain that no collector can or should resist at the current asking price. Even if you own other other Bach Cantata recordings in abundance, don't pass this up.
The reason is simply that this is the ONLY complete Bach Cantata cycle performed with modern instruments, ample mixed choirs (not a countertenor among them!, and soloists accomplished in traditional (one may even call it "operatic") vocal technique. Admittedly, a series of this magnitude, directed by a single conductor, and recorded over a span of at least two decades, will sometimes fall below expectations. But the standard of accomplishment Rilling has achieved here is consistently high. Though some of the earlier recordings are lacking in rhythmic vitality and favor too much legato phrasing, Rilling's priorities changed perceptibly during the first decade of this project, so that the bulk of these renditions are stylistically aware without being pedantic, energetic without being rushed, expressive without being romanticized. Indeed, if one compares Rilling's "learning curve" to that of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt in *their* pioneering Bach Cantata series--factoring out, for the moment, differences in performance practice priorities--one notes a conspicuous decline in the latter's engagement with the music, whereas one observes the opposite trend in Rilling's cycle. In other words, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt evidently began to lose interest in the project after it was well underway, whereas Rilling's engagement never faltered, but only became more intense over time.
This is obviously not the place to go into a detailed analysis of Rilling's performances. I have been familiar with them, and impressed by them, since the days of vinyl discs. Certain works, particularly the more festive ones, have rarely been surpassed for heady exuberance. One of my fellow reviewers cites BWV 129 as a salient example, and I readily concur. The opening chorus of BWV 100 provides another example of Rilling's ability to convey rapturous joy, and one could also cite the sparkling display of musical fireworks throughout the incomplete, and rarely heard, wedding cantata BWV 195. Rilling also frequently finds the charm in Bach's writing, particularly in those arias with obbligato winds; the delightful bass aria from BWV 123 provides a good example: the "walking bass" really really swings, with something like a detectable "back-beat," while the flute solo enchants the ear with its florid passagework. Finally, I would note that at least one cantata--the well-known BWV 78--receives a rendition that is as close to "definitve" as any recorded Bach Cantata I know. The famous duet zips along with enormous brio, and elsewhere the drama and pathos of this multi-diminsional score are perfectly conveyed.
There are, of course, also interpretive misfires. The monumental opening chorus of BWV 102 bogs down into something of a sodden slog, and the four great choral pillars around which BWV 21 is constructed are similarly earthbound. Occasionally, one finds Rilling insensitive to the affect of text and music, as in his brisk, mechanical treatment of the ineffable chorale setting with which BWV 105 concludes. That movement should begin in anxiety, and proceed through rejoicing to inner quietude; in Rilling's account, it remains boisterous all the way through. I could cite further examples in this vein, but fortunately for prospective purchasers, they are not numerous.
Overall, then, the ratio of successes to failures, both in terms of entire works, and in terms of movements within cantatas, is remarkably high. Of course, that positive outcome has as much to do with the quality of the vocal soloists (Helen Watts Arleen Auger and Phillipe Huttenlocher outstanding among them), choral singing (nice balance, good diction, sometimes too prominent vibrato) and ensemble playing (not quite in the class of Richter's Munich Bach Orchestra,but expert), as with Rilling's intelligent and unfussy direction.
What of the recorded sound? Some of the earlier recordings in the series suffer from a rather shallow "soundstage" which, together with some close spotlighting of instrumental and vocal soloists, can create a cramped or harsh effect. Elsewhere, I noticed a persistent artificial-sounding resonance that might prove distracting on repetition. However, sonic imperfections scarcely detract from Rilling's achievement--the first single conductor to have run the Bach Cantata marathon--and Hänssler's unbelievably low price tag. As with the other reviewers I can only entreat my readers to obtain this bargain box before it becomes history.
I like Rilling's recordings of BWV 1, 4, 30,
80, 140 and 147. Modern instruments are used, with both Bach Collegium Stuttgart and Württemburg Chamber Orchestra, with a medium size choir: the Gächinger Kantorei.
I paid $80 used from a Leipzig seller: about $1.15 per CD: very reasonable for such a large body of music. I am very happy with the purchase and overall excellence of Rilling's performances.
Soloists: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Arleen Auger among them. Lesser known soloists seem very good to excellent to me.
Another nice feature is that the Cantatas are presented in order of BWV number rather than by date of composition or season: BWV 1, 2, 3 are on Disc 1; BWV 4, 5, 6 on Disc 2, etc.
Many Bach Cantata collections have the Cantatas arranged by liturgical season or composition date, the listener shuffling between booklet and discs to keep track.