MusicWeb International: CD of the Month "The RIAS BachCantatas Project"
Review by John Quinn
These recordings form a remarkable part of theimmediate post-war musical legacy in what was then West Germany. Thebackground, which is related more fully in the booklet notes, is worthsummarising. At the end of the Second World War, when Berlin was occupied, theSoviet forces annexed all the musical recordings that had belonged to theformer Reichs-rundfunk. The authorities in the sector of Berlin controlled bythe Americans sought to establish a new broadcasting entity, which within ashort time became known as RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor). However,the new radio station had to start from scratch; for one thing, it had norecorded musical material at its disposal. The conductor Karl Ristenpart(1900-1967) was amongst those entrusted with building up the musical resourcesof the fledgling radio station. Amongst other things, Ristenpart decided torecord all the cantatas of J S Bach and to perform some of them publicly.Sadly, the project was never completed, for reasons explained in the booklet,but here we have 28 cantata recordings plus one cantata by Telemann that formany years was attributed to Bach.
The very thorough notes in the booklet relate the whole story behind theserecordings in good detail. In all 78 cantatas were recorded between October1946 and February 1953; in fact, 107 recordings were made but some recordingswere subsequently duplicated. The recordings were made for a wider use than the'merely' musical; they were broadcast during a Sunday morning religiousprogramme on RIAS when the cantata appropriate to the day would be heard aftera sermon. Quite a number of the earlier recordings were 'wiped' and I inferfrom the essay by Rüdiger Albrecht that, regrettably, what we have in this boxis all that survives. It will be noted that many of the cantatas here includedare not among the cantatas that are better-known, even today. Also, there arefrustrating gaps. There is no BWV 147, for example, and I noted that one of theearliest recordings was a performance of BWV 82 by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau;what one would give to hear that!
It must be remembered that at the time of these performances the Bach cantataswere far from being widely known, so this project was hugely enterprising andthe driving force behind it was Karl Ristenpart. His career was focusedprincipally on chamber orchestras - he founded his own ensemble as early as1932. It appears that he was unsympathetic to the Nazis - which would have madehim acceptable for RIAS - although he did agree to take his orchestra to playfor the troops at the front during the war years. He set up the RIASKammerorchester and when policy changes at RIAS brought about the demise ofthat orchestra - and the Bach cantata project - in 1952 he moved to Saarbrückento work for the radio station there, setting up another chamber orchestra,including some of his Berlin players. During his fourteen years there, however,the emphasis was on orchestral music so no more Bach cantatas were forthcoming.
In many ways Ristenpart was ahead of his time, especially in using fairly smallforces to perform Bach. That's one reason why these performances are of suchinterest to Bach collectors. We aren't told the approximate size of either thechoir or the orchestra but both are clearly smaller than the ensembles used byKarl Richter in his Bach recordings for DG Archiv. Another attraction lies inthe roster of soloists. Many of the names will be unfamiliar sixty years or solater but three names stand out. Among the sopranos was Agnes Giebel (b. 1921)then starting out on her career. Though Ristenpart engaged several singers inthe other three voices he used just one tenor, at least on these recordings,namely Helmut Krebs (1913-2007). Krebs was a soloist at the Deutsche Oper atthis time. A few years later he recorded a good deal of Bach with Fritz Werner(review,review,review)but here we find him in younger voice. Incidentally, Agnes Giebel was anotherluminary of those fine Werner recordings of Bach. It's a joy to hear so much ofthese two excellent Bach singers but the set is invaluable also because we canhear a good many examples of the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Born in 1925,Fischer-Dieskau would have been in his mid-twenties when these recordings weremade. News of the great singer's death was announced while I was evaluatingthese discs and much has been spoken and written - and very rightly so - abouthis immense stature as one of the foremost singers of the second half of thetwentieth century. Like Krebs, he was at this time a soloist with the DeutscheOper but Bach's music was a constant thread throughout his career and it'sthrilling to have so many examples of his early work in this box; one canreadily understand why his singing caused such a stir from the very start ofhis career for he is in consistently magnificent voice.
Let me discuss some highlights from this engrossing set and start with one ofthe finest performances of all, that of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV140. This is, quite simply, an outstanding Bach performance. The opening chorusis impelled forward most excitingly. When the choir first enters their call of'Wachet auf' is a true wake up-call; and what an inspired decision byRistenpart to have the boys of the RIAS Knabenchor joining the soprano line andlending the cutting edge of their tone to the melody! There's real enthusiasmand urgency here. Ristenpart's tempo seems ideal to me and he takes 6:24 overthe movement. Out of curiosity I put on Karl Richter's 1978 DG Archivrecording, to which I hadn't listened in a long time. Oh dear! His tempo isinsufferably slow in this movement - he takes 9:38 - and in his hands the musicsounds turgid and uninspiring. Fritz Werner too is pretty stately - he takes8:14 but at least he's not as leaden as Richter. I revelled in Ristenpart'sreading which, frankly, would not sound out of place among today's 'period'performances. In the following recitative Krebs sounds like a clarion herald.In the famous tenor chorale movement Ristenpart uses the whole tenor sectionfrom the choir - which I prefer. Richter uses his soloist, which is perhapsunderstandable when you have Peter Schreier on hand to do the honours but againa lethargic speed rules out this version while Ristenpart seems to get it justright. The soprano soloist for Ristenpart is Gunthild Weber who is an effectivepartner to Fischer-Dieskau in the two duets. Fischer-Dieskau also sings forRichter. There he's partnered by the enchanting Edith Mathis. I prefer her toWeber but I prefer Fischer-Dieskau's singing on the Ristenpart recording.Although there are many satisfying cantata performances in this box this one, Ithink, takes the palm.
Another conspicuous success is Agnes Giebel's account of the solo WeddingCantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202. She's in wonderful form here,singing the opening aria with fine expression - and partnered by a good oboist.She's delightfully eager-sounding in the second aria, where a perky bassoonobbligato also gives much pleasure. The late Alfred Dürr says that the thirdaria "strikes a more elegiac note". Far be it from me to dissent from the viewof such an expert but I don't hear elegy in this music and certainly not inGiebel's warm, radiant singing of it. The fourth and final aria, decorated by apert oboe part, sounds smiling and happy here and the concluding gavottemovement is charming.
There's another solo cantata in the set, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen,BWV 56, which features Fischer-Dieskau. Here, in 1950, we find him in wonderfulvoice, even throughout its compass and with a lovely ease at the top of hisregister. He recorded it also with Richter, in 1969, and I prefer Richter'sslightly more flowing tempo in the opening aria but, on the other hand, Iprefer the smaller band employed by Ristenpart. Fischer-Dieskau's tone issuperb in 1969 but in that later version he is more emphatic in his enunciationof the words. The cantata includes the joyful aria 'Endlich, endlich wird meinJoch'. Both performances are excellent but I find Fischer-Dieskau sounds just abit more natural and spontaneous for Ristenpart.
What of Helmut Krebs? He's splendid throughout no matter what tests Bach setshim and no matter what emotions he's required to convey. A stand-out moment forme is the aria 'Ermuntre dich' in BWV 180. This is a very demanding aria butKrebs is quite outstanding - and the flute obbligato is jolly good too. Krebs'voice is light and keen and the rhythms dance irresistibly. His articulation istremendous and I love his light, ringing tone. This is an outstanding piece ofBach singing by anyone's standards. In BWV 19 there's a very different test fora Bachian tenor in the aria 'Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir'. Krebs sustainsthe long lines excellently and I admire his control very much. That said, evenhe doesn't match the wonderful way in which James Gilchrist, a very differentsinger, floats the line at a daringly expansive tempo in Vol 7 of Sir JohnEliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage (review).For me, Gilchrist and Gardiner capture the essence of this music in a waythat's very special. Krebs appears in every one of the cantatas that require atenor and his singing gives unfailing pleasure. Not only that, he is a stylistand, additionally, a singer who cares about the words and knows how to put themacross. His heady, distinctive tone and consistently clear diction are adelight to hear.
The other soloists aren't quite so well known, at least not in 2012, but thereare few weak links. One or two of the sopranos aren't really to my taste. EdithBerger-Krebs (the wife of the tenor?) sings in BWV 42, where she duets withHelmut Krebs and, quite honestly, isn't in his class; her tone sounds ratherpinched and shrill. Lilo Rolwes is somewhat tremulous of tone in her aria inBWV 31 and in BWV 21 Gerda Lammers sounds to me to be striving a bit too muchfor expression and, as a result, the line is rather choppy. The altos are alleffective. I particularly enjoyed the contributions of Ingrid Lorenzen - shegives a fine account of the extensive alto aria in BWV 42, for instance - whileCharlotte Wolf-Matthäus has a good focus to her voice as she shows, forexample, in BWV 22. Walter Hauck and Gerhard Niese have to stand retrospectivecomparison with Fischer-Dieskau, which is a bit unfair, but both acquitthemselves well in their various assignments.
The singers of the RIAS-Kammerchor make a strong contribution. Sometimes thesound is a little fuzzy but I wonder if this is as much to do with therecordings as the singing itself. I've already mentioned their excellentcontribution to BWV 140. Another place where they feature to particularly goodeffect is the dramatic opening chorus of BWV 19, which they deliver with plentyof energy and punch. They give a good performance of BWV 4 as well - I likedthe lively tempo and good choral response in the first chorus. Richter in 1968has better sound, of course, but his choir is bigger - some may prefer, as Ido, the smaller ensemble - and yet again Richter's speed is steadier thanRistenpart's. Incidentally, in the fourth chorus of this cantata Ristenpartgets all his basses to sing whereas Richter uses a solo voice(Fischer-Dieskau). I think Richter's decision is the correct one but againstthe pleasure of hearing Fischer-Dieskau sing the piece we must set yet anotherleaden tempo by Richter, who lingers over the movement for 4:36 againstRistenpart's much more satisfactory 2:45.
The RIAS-Kammerorchester plays well for Ristenpart although those schooled on'period' performances will need to adjust their ears for the string vibrato andthe legato style of playing. There's some good obbligato playing and it's apity that the players concerned aren't named; I suspect there isn't a fullrecord of who played in the orchestra.
The presiding genius is Karl Ristenpart and these recordings show him as aBachian of perception, style and good taste. I'm a great admirer of EliotGardiner in the Bach cantatas - and of Fritz Werner too. Eliot Gardiner can bebrisk in his tempi but I can recall very few instances in this set where I feltRistenpart was too slow. In any event, tempo is about more than speed; it'sabout finding the pace that's right for the music and, in vocal music, for thesentiments expressed in the words. Here I think Ristenpart's judgement ispretty well always spot-on. I said at the start of this review that he wasahead of his time and this is especially true of his determination to use slimmed-downforces at a time when this was far from being the norm. This, together with thefact that he articulates rhythms so well brings to his performances a fineclarity of texture and excellent energy.
As to the recorded sound, I think it's astonishingly good, especially when oneconsiders that these recordings were made sixty or more years ago. Clearly theRIAS engineers knew what they were doing. Audite's re-mastering engineers,Ludger Böckenhoff and Karsten Zimmerman, who have worked from the originaltapes, deserve plaudits for such fine work. Their skill has been vital inallowing today's listeners to experience so satisfactorily the integrity,dedication and sheer excellence of Karl Ristenpart's performances.
These performances constitute a major addition to the discography of Bach'scantatas. Their reappearance after all these years is a cause for rejoicing.This is one of the most important Bach issues for many years and the set isurgently commended to all who love Bach's cantatas.