Bach: Complete Orchestral Works / Helmuth Rilling
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BACH Overtures: in C, BWV 1066; in b, BWV 1067; in D, BWV 1068; in D, BWV 1069 1. Brandenburg Concertos. 1 Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-43 2-4. Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052-58 2,5. 2 Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1060-62 1,5,6. 3 Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1063 2,5,7,8 , BWV 1064 2,5,7,9. 4 Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1065 2,5,7-9. Concertos for Harpsichord, Violin, and Flute, BWV 1044, 1050a. 2,4,5,10 “Restored” Oboe Concertos, BWV 1053R 2,11 , BWV 1055-56R 2,11 , 1059R 2,11 , 1060R 2,3,11. Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045 2,4. “Reconstructed” Violin Concertos, BWV 1052R 2,4 , 1056R 2-4,11 , 1064R 2-4,11 • Helmuth Rilling, cond; 3 Christoph Poppen (vn); 4 Isabelle Faust (vn); 5 Robert Levin (hpd); 6 Jeffrey Kahane (hpd); 7 Mario Videla (hpd); 8 Michael Behringer (hpd); 9 Boris Kleiner (hpd); 10 Jean-Claude Gérard (fl); 11 Ingo Goritzki (oba, ob); 12 Muriel Cantoreggi (vn); 1 Oregon Bach Festival Ch & O; 2 Bach-Collegium Stuttgart • HÄNSSLER 98009 (11 CDs: 575:48)
This 11-CD set is, you might say, an excerpt from the 172-CD boxed set that Hänssler Classic has issued of Bach’s complete works under the direction or supervision of Helmuth Rilling. Those readers who have followed my reviews already know my love (yes, that’s the exact word) and admiration for Rilling’s work since at least the mid 1960s when I first became familiar with him. Such readers will also know that Rilling, throughout his career, continued to fly in the face of much Historically Informed Performance Practice, particularly in terms of phrasing, pitch, and the continual use of straight tone. Rilling believes, and rightly so, that interpretation trumps the instruments or mechanical devices used to achieve it, and I am right beside him. His strings and winds, then, use a light, fast vibrato, certainly not wide enough to be noticeable by the ear but enough to add luster to the orchestral timbre; he plays everything at A=440 because he knows that one can never be sure what pitch was used at what time in what city when performances of this music were given; and he also knows that there is very little evidence as to whether some of this music ever received public performances at all. On top of this, he believes in a lyrical style with pointed rhythms and forward momentum which gives the music life and zest.
Having said all that, and assuming that Hänssler Classic agrees or they wouldn’t have issued 172 CDs supervised by him, it is more than a little surprising to not find his name anywhere on the box of this set or even in the booklet under the credit listings for each individual disc. Only when you go to the very back of the booklet do you find a brief biography of Rilling, which tells you that he is the conductor, since both of these orchestras were founded by him. Very strange! Equally strange, considering how everyone and his uncle gets credit nowadays, the horn players of the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra are not listed for the First Brandenburg Concerto , and one has to go to the back of the box—not the front, or the spine, or even on any of the 11 CDs—to find the catalog number of this set in very tiny print on the bottom left.
Naturally one’s proclivity to acquire this set, which consists of recordings made between 1992 and 2000, depends in large measure on how much you like Rilling’s Bach and wish to make these performances your recordings of choice. I’m sure that Hänssler realizes that most collectors probably have some of these recordings, and/or alternative performances by other conductors, already on their shelves, and that if they wanted someone to package a “complete” Bach set—whether just the orchestral works, as here, or the whole shebang—they would have already acquired one of the many such sets available. Remember, too, that Teldec has already issued a competing set (on 153 CDs) of “Complete Bach,” there using multiple artists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Christopher Hogwood, Ton Koopman, Frans Brüggen, and many others; and, in the case of the vocal and instrumental soloists, many listeners have very specific preferences, several of which probably aren’t on either set of CDs. Therefore we have to assume that, in terms of marketing, these all-inclusive sets are definitely targeted to the more casual music lover, one who has attended Bach concerts over the years and perhaps owns a few solo instrumental, orchestral, or choral works by him, but would now like to acquire everything the man ever wrote.
As it turns out, however, most of the singers Rilling used in his recordings of vocal works over the years are among the elite of the musical world (Christine Schäfer, Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Banz, Michael Schade, Thomas Quasthoff, Matthias Goerne, and Michael Volle, among others), and in these concertos he has some exceptionally fine soloists like violinists Christoph Poppen and Isabelle Faust, harpsichordists Robert Levin, Jeffrey Kahane, and Michael Behringer, flautist Jean-Claude Gérard, and oboist Ingo Goritzki—not all household names, but all first-rate interpreters who have the Bach style “under their skin.” Yes, I also like the keyboard concertos played by pianists like Glenn Gould and Konstantin Lifschitz. I have a special fondness for the violin concerto recordings of Bronislaw Huberman and Sigiswald Kuijken, but to be honest, as an overview of Bach’s style, Rilling’s versions will simply blow you away. They just have so much verve, life, and exuberance to them that they make Bach sound happy, and by golly that’s something we don’t get enough of. I have some recordings of the multiple-harpsichord concertos directed by Trevor Pinnock on DG Arkiv, and those performances are pretty good, but Rilling’s performances are far superior. Consider that it would be only too easy for a reviewer to start listening to this set and, after a few hours, start to get antsy or feel that it is overkill, but never once did my interest flag or the music wear out its welcome.
One reason why this is so—aside from Rilling’s ability to always make Bach sound enjoyable—is that his soloists do not play here as Gould or Lifschitz did, which is as virtuoso soloists against the ensemble, but rather in sinfonia concertante fashion. Rilling understands that performances in Bach’s day, though brilliantly performed by all concerned, were generally more of an ensemble effort than one, two, or three soloists vying for attention against a backdrop of strings and/or winds. Thus the sinfonia concertante style of the Brandenburg s is extended to the violin, keyboard, and oboe concertos; and, moreover, both conductor and soloists use a judicious amount of rubato, just enough to add an element of suspense to the proceedings, to reduce the possibility of their sounding mechanical or metronomic. Of course, exceptions are made for the three- and four-harpsichord concertos, where so much of the solo writing comes to the fore and the orchestra drops away, but that is only to be expected.
My one complaint as to programming concerns the short playing time of several of the CDs. Consider: CDs 1-3 and 5 are all under 45 minutes. With such short timings, it’s no wonder that Hänssler’s Bach Edition runs 19 CDs longer than Teldec’s. That’s a waste of disc space. No one who downloaded this music would ever put so little music on a single disc. This set could very easily have fit on eight CDs as follows:
CD 1: Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-68 – 63:39
CD 2: Orchestral Suite, BWV 1069 + Brandenburg s 1-3 – 63:49
CD 3: Brandenburg s 4-6 + Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045 – 57:37
CD 3: Violin Concertos, adding BWV 1052R & 1064R – 78:47
CDs 4 & 5: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052-58
CD 6: Two-Harpsichord Concertos
CD 7: Two & Three-Harpsichord Concertos – 74: 35
CD 8: Restored oboe concertos + Violin Concerto BWV 1056R – 74:41
Aside from this caveat, and my complaint about not having the conductor’s name anywhere on the box, if you’re looking for outstanding recordings of these works you really can’t go wrong with this set. It’s so good, in fact, that I was finally able to retire my poor old recordings of the Brandenburg s conducted by Benjamin Britten and the Pinnock multi-keyboard concertos.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: 98009
Label: SWR Music
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: Helmuth Rilling
Orchestra/Ensemble: Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra, Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, Stuttgart Bach Collegium
Performer: Boris Kleiner, Carol Wincenc, Christoph Poppen, Ingo Goritzki, Isabelle Faust, Jean-Claude Gérard, Jeffrey Kahane, Mario Videla, Michael Behringer, Muriel Cantoreggi, Robert Levin