S&H Concert review

BACH St John Passion in theatre, concert and on CD, with thoughts about other Passions and the
Bachakademie's multi-composer Requiem of Reconciliation (PGW)


Penny Plain; Tuppence Coloured! Many readers may not know, or remember, that common tag? Nowadays promoters are engaged in a quest, sometimes a desperate one, for eye-catching ways to renew the appeal of familiar music and sell ticket, DVDs and CDs to new audiences. It may well be that an incomprehensible clash the same night with Deborah Warner's staged version of Bach's St John Passion at ENO (they happen all too often in London, splitting potential audiences) explains the poor turn-out for Helmuth Rilling's Stuttgart team at The Barbican?

Rilling's credentials are stupefying. Do click onto that link. He is responsible for the Hänssler Edition Bachakademie's 172 CDs of the complete works of J. S. Bach, which of itself warranted an effort to hear him with his regular team of players and singers (several of the same ones are featured on the Christmas Oratorio). They all sang easily, with complete confidence, enjoying The Barbican's transformed acoustic, which makes small forces sound full and carries voices without any need to force. Rilling may not be trendy, but nor is he unaware of modern 'authentic' practises. His tempi are fast and forward driving and he keeps a firm grip on the proceedings (even conducting the continuo's every chord in the recitatives) but he carries his singers with him and there was never the problem experienced with Christopher Hogwood and the AAM.

The first view of the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on the platform is disconcerting, the strings backed by an array of modern woodwinds from gleaming silver flute to fat contra-bassoon. James Taylor's ringing tenor was a match for them, but two oboes and bassoon seriously compromised Ingeborg Danz in her low-lying first aria. Soprano Sibylla Rubens, who had to sit patiently on stage for a whole hour between her two brief appearances, was almost too charming in her high, floating phrases declaring woe that Jesus is dead! The men have the best opportunities and all were good, Marcus Ullman (Evangelist) and both baritones memorable. Some of Rilling's instrumentalists have probably been with him a long time and perhaps their not taking to period instruments made this a 'historical performance' of a particular, unfashionable kind. The choir, Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, was keen and alert, revelling in the drama of the intricately contrapuntal choruses and punctuating the story with grave, comforting chorales. Nearly two hours without a break, this performance held attention easily and I confess I preferred it to the ENO staging (in its first run) and even to Herreweghe's (one of my current Bach idols) in Zurich's Tonhalle, where the acoustics can be a serious let-down, depending on where you sit. There is no absolutism and circumstances alter critical responses.

Shortly after their live appearance at The Barbican I received Rilling's studio recording of the St John Passion (Hänssler CD 92.075), together with a recent contemporary Requiem, both involving his Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart. Two of the singers heard in London took part, James Taylor and Ingeborg Danz, who was brought forward by the balance engineer so that she easily dominated the accompanying woodwinds. Matthias Goerne and Juliane Banse were among the more starry cast, and both in good voice, but I found Andreas Schmidt's hectoring Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen, and Himmel, reise in the Appendix, not to my taste. Overall the recording failed to recapture the special atmosphere of the shared live experience and with the best will, I found myself emotionally untouched by this document, recorded over five days in March 1996 at the Stadthalle Sindelfingen. Perhaps Bach's Passions are by their nature works that should only be received in live situations?

The Requiem of Reconciliation (Hänssler CD 98.931) proved a wonderful surprise, a live recording from Stuttgart of the world premiere in 1995 of an inspired commission by the Bachakademie in memory of victims of the Second World War. The Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei are joined by the Cracow Chamber Choir, with distinguished international soloists and The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Helmuth Rilling, who distinguishes himself in coordinating music, much of it in advanced modernist idioms, by a roster of leading composers, including Berio, Kurtag, Nordheim, Penderecki and Rihm, Rands and Weir of UK, with several others less well known to us, each of them allocated a portion of the text. The notes by Rilling indicate that he 'steered' the composition process but not whether the composers were in touch with each other with a view to adjacent sections fitting together? The 'lightness and transparency' of John Harbison's simpler Juste judex is described as 'creating a clear counterweight', but its idiom jarred for me so I felt that may be special pleading.

After a natural break between the two CDs (was there an interval?) Rands' Interludium leads into a more 'accessible' and overall serene group by Dalbavie, Weir and Penderecki, who use Gregorian chant overtly; Ingeborg Danz (Rilling's Bach alto in London & on CD) notably expressive here. The temperature rises for Rihm's wordless Communio which leads into Schnittke's canonic Communio II, completed by Rozhdestvensky after Schnittke's stroke in June 1994 and then to the climax of the whole work, the Japanese Joji Yuasa's Responsorium which unites horror and reconciliation, before a touching Epilog by Kurtag to an 'Inscription on a grave in Cornwall', touchingly rendered in English by the Polish choir.

Heard on Good Friday, this multi-composer Requiem was deeply moving and if I am asked for my MusicWeb Record of the Year 2002, this must be a strong contender, even though it is not a new release. Requiem of Reconciliation is a natural successor to Britten's War Requiem (premiered with English, German and Soviet Russian soloists) and would be a marvellous choice for the opening of next year's Proms; whatever may be the state of our war-riven world by then, the theme of reconciliation will be paramount.

I have reviewed Bach's St John Passion (and many other Passions and Requiems) over many years and in many different guises, live and on CD and in this report have included an unusual number of hyperlinks, instead of illustrations and photos, which take precious time to post with reviews, and can often be found on line. Explore those links for a broader picture. The most recent St John Passion is Sofia Gubaidulina's, one of four commissioned by the Bachakademie for the Millennium, premiered in Stuttgart and all recorded, three by Hänssler (Hänssler Verlag 098405000) and the fourth, Tan Dun's St Matthew Passion, by Sony. Read also about two of the most moving of many 20th C. examples, Martinu's Greek Passion (very belatedly staged at Covent Garden) and Kjell Mørk Karlsen's austere St John Passion, eminently suitable for local churches, but not yet given in UK despite my advocacy.

Following all my links would take you on a reading tour, requiring half an hour or more to digest all the connections that Rilling's Bach at The Barbican brought to mind, similar, I hope, to the pleasure of browsing an encyclopaedia. It would be helpful to know whether visitors welcome that possibility, for me one of the glories of the Web, to learn if you generally prefer expansive or succinct concert reports and also to have your views about pictorial illustrations?

Peter Grahame Woolf


Bach, J S St. John Passion
Vol 75 (BWV 245, Johannes passion)
hänssler Classic edition bachakademie

Hänssler Verlag 092075000


Requiem of Reconciliation  
Berio, Kurtag, Nordheim, Penderecki, Rihm, Rands, Weir, Schnittke, Yuasa etc
Helmuth Rilling
Tobias Janzik, Donna Brown, et al.
Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei, Cracow Chamber Choir
Label: Hänssler
Catalogue Number: 98931
Released: 1 November, 1995

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