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Reviews: Bach: Mass in B minor - Rilling

Reviews: 1

Site review by ramesh March 14, 2007
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is a modern instrument version with full chorus and a 'historically informed' performance style, whereas the SACD version of Junghänel is on period instruments with a tiny orchestra [ six strings! ] and one voice per part.

Rilling can fairly be described as a Bach performance specialist. His modern orchestra integral set of the cantatas was commenced before the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt set and completed in time for the 1985 bicentennial. He has written a monograph on the B minor Mass. This is his fourth recording of the work. His third recording was in 1999 for Hänssler, and formed part of that company's complete Bach edition on CD.

This earlier recording had six voices per part [ there are two soprano sections in the work, hence twelve sopranos ], and an orchestra with strings 6-5-4-3-2. For the SACD, the booklet lists 14 sopranos, 9 altos, and a male complement of 9 tenors and 8 basses. The strings are 5-4-3-2-1. As can be seen, the chorus is larger and the orchestra smaller on this latest performance. The singers in the earlier version included Andreas Schmidt and Thomas Quasthoff as the basses. None of the singers in the new version are known to me : they are entirely adequate, though not as inspired as the earlier ones.

Rilling has had a relatively unenthusiastic reception in the British press, although he is highly regarded on the Continent, as well as in America, where he has performed at the Oregon Bach festival. His performances with modern instruments have a consistently brisker clip than Karl Richter. British critics have consistently lauded the performances of Parrott and Gardiner and have dished backhanded compliments to Rilling. This is somewhat baffling, as all three favour tempos that generally range from fleet to scampering. Moreover, all have a 'historically informed' approach to phrasing, which as a generalisation eschews long legato vocal lines as romantically operatic, in favour of a more heavily articulated approach which can verge on the choppy.

Rilling's tempi on the SACD are virtualy all quicker than in his 1999 performance, although both Parrott and Junghänel are even speedier. The exhilarating 'Et In Terra Pax' of the Gloria is faster than in any of the period performances, but on the obverse, the mystical Benedictus with its flute solo, verges on being lugubrious at 4:49, although this is better than his eccentrically slow tempo in 1999.

Listening to the opening Kyrie of the work is as good a place as any to audition this performance. The chorus is rich-throated and resplendent, more prominent with respect to the orchestra compared to his 1999 recording. Even though the digital recordings in the CD set of the Hänssler Bach edition were in my opinion virtually state of the art, the splendour of the stereo SACD sound is immediately apparent with the full chorus and modern orchestra, certainly compared to the SACD layer of the Junghänel, which doesn't immediately sound superior to the CD layer.

Rilling leads his singers into accomplished, clear singing of the Kyrie, and their short-span phrasing mirrors that of the orchestra. If one has been reared on past Choral Society battlewagons such as the Jochum, Klemperer or Karajan, one might consider that Rilling's conception is brisk and literal. On the other hand, this style of phrasing would be considered as unimaginative or plodding by the super-authenticists. In other words, Rilling falls between two stools. Listeners totally committed to one pole or the other will not find this version recommendable. Pragmatists, who wish to have the gestures of authenticity without either the vinegary orchestral sounds or the stylistic fundamentalism will find much to admire here. This is one of those performances which one will accord either effusive or meagre plaudits.

The Gloria, with its joyous bounce in both orchestra and singers, is particularly successful. Mention must be made of how splendid the trumpets sound in the SACD layer, harmonically rich without acerbity or screechiness. The Cum Sancto Spiritu, ecstatic and gleaming, is another high point which those who are interested in purchasing this set are advised to sample. Although many British critics have rather unfairly described the basic Rilling approach as a microcosm of how wags have described Wagnerian opera : glorious quarter hours sandwiched between interminable hours, the brisk speeds of this 2005 version avoid charges of pedestrianism. Very few individual movements are inspiring, but there are no total write-offs either.