Hans Helmut Tillmanns (Organ)
Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 2
J.S. Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 1: Choral Preludes / Choral Settings
Chorale Prelude Wir Christenleut, BWV 719 [2:08] *
Chorale Prelude. Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf, BWV 719 [2:20] *
Chorale Prelude Als Jesus Christus in der Nacht, BWV 737 [2:38] *
Chorale Prelude Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 737 [1:48] *
Chorale Prelude Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt, BWV 737 [2:30] *
Chorale Prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (I), BWV 599 [1:34] **
Chorale Prelude Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (I), BWV 601 [1:45] **
Chorale Prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (I), BWV 602 [0:49] **
Chorale Prelude Puer natus in Bethlehem, BWV 603 [0:58] **
Chorale Prelude Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (I), BWV 606 [0:45] **
Chorale Prelude Vom Himmel kam der Engel schar, BWV 607 [1:07] **
Chorale Prelude Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen (I), BWV 613 [1:08] **
Chorale Prelude Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (I), BWV 614 [2:16] **
Chorale Prelude Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin, BWV 616 [2:26] **
Chorale Prelude Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf (I), BWV 617 [2:31] **
Chorale Prelude Christe, du Lamm Gottes, BWV 619 [1:15] **
Chorale Prelude O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV 622 [4:36] **
Chorale Prelude Christ lag in Todesbanden (I), BWV 625 [1:20] *
Chorale Prelude Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (I), BWV 626 [0:49] *
Chorale Prelude Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (I), BWV 630 [1:28] **
Chorale Prelude Vater unser im Himmelreich (I), BWV 636 [1:20] **
Chorale Prelude Alle Menschen müssen sterben (I), BWV 643 [1:26] **
Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727 [2:18] **
Chorale Prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 [4:08] *
Chorale Prelude Meine Seele erhebet den Herren, BWV 648 [1:52] **
Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (I), BWV 654 [7:27] **
Chorale Prelude (Trio super) Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (I), BWV 655 [4:00] **
Chorale Prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (II), BWV 659 [3:55] **
Chorale Prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (I), BWV 668 [4:22] **
Hans Helmut Tillmanns (Organ) [Historic Wagner organ, 1723 *; Marcussen organ, 1974 **]
CD / TT: 70:02
Recorded at Brandenburg Cathedral, Germany [*]; Methler Church, Germany [**].
Donald Satz wrote (November 13, 2001):
For details of the CD see above.
In Part 1 of my traversal through Hans Helmut Tillmann's series of Danacord recordings, I covered Danacord 557 which presented a mixed program of Bach organ works. My conclusions were rather negative as I felt that Tillmanns did not supply sufficient muscle and grandeur when called for. I also projected that a Tillmanns disc devoted to Bach chorale arrangements might be a better propostion.
Part 2 deals with a Tillmanns recording just having chorale arrangements, and my projection turns out to be a poor one. This disc is less enjoyable than the one having a mixed program. Where did I go wrong? I assumed that Tillmanns would present chorale works which played into his basic preferences for intimacy, smoothness, and soft-toned pieces, but Tillmanns instead tends to take on chorales which need power, angularity, and strong projection. I consider this a poor decision on his part and rather bewildering. As an example, most of the pieces he plays from the Orgelbuchlein are the more powerful ones, and most other recorded versions are much more rewarding. Tillmanns does do very well with the Arnstadt/Neumeister pieces, but the recorded competition is quite slim for these works. The Leipzig readings are not any improvement on the ones from the Orgelbuchlein; actually, Tillmann's BWV 668 is definitely the least rewarding issue on the disc.
Another odd decision is to use two organs - one modern, the other historical. I have no idea what the reasoning might be, and perhaps it doesn't make any difference. It's the Tillmanns performances which are problematic; the specific organ is merely incidental. As for sound quality, the sound tends to swim as its under-toe takes Tillmanns further off course than he already is.
Some listeners will not appreciate the selection of some chorales from this period, some from another, and still more from a third. Personally, I don't have any trouble with Tillmann's regimen on this matter. If he wants to play his favorites, that's fine with me. However, the primary focus is to play them excellently, and Tillmanns does not succeed. Actually, 'excellence' is not good enough. It's a matter of standing up to the magnificent competition provided by the likes of Lionel Rogg, Rene Saorgin, Wolfgang Rübsam, Gustav Leonhardt, and many others.
My more specific musings follow:
The five pieces from Bach's Arnstadt period are included in the Neumeister Collection. Tillmann's selections represent a fine mix ranging from the private/intimate to the public/demonstrative mode. Tillmann performs each selection excellently, although without any significant angularity. In this respect, he's similar to the versions from Christopher Herrick and Kay Johannsen and compares well with them. I must say that I don't think any of these three artists are the 'last word' on the subject, and I would love to hear someone like Martin Lucker record them.
The 'Weimar' selections are from Bach's Orgelbuchlein excepting for BWV 727. Unlike with the Neumeister works, there's plenty of competition for these Weimar selections. My reflections are:
BWV 601 is a wonderfully uplifting, driven, and exuberant work. Lionel Rogg and Rene Saorgin give exceptional performances which seem to stretch upward for recognition. Tillmanns presents no competition. Although he isn't slower than Rogg, his stodgy rhythm certainly makes the piece sound slower; exuberance is low, and the 'drive' is only horizontal. Another negative aspect is that the sound has a 'symphonic" aura to it as if we were in 'Widor' country.
BWV 602 is another driven work which is more severe than BWV 601. It reads like a good match for Wolfgang Zerer on Hanssler, and he does it proud; Zerer dives right in and muscles his way to completion. Werner Jacob provides a fine alternative with a much slower reading having reduced muscle and drive but compensating with great majesty. Tillmanns is not competitive here either. He evidently wants nothing to do with drive or majesty, preferring a hazy and meandering interpretation that never quite comes to life.
BWV 599 presents Tillmanns with the opportunity to show his affinity for the calming and devotional Bach. Although he fares better than in the two previous performances, his rhythm is a little square and the organ sounds like one at the ballpark. Rogg is much better with a drawn-out conclusion that's mesmorizing.
BWV 603 takes us back to optimism and great drive, two qualities which permeate the version from Simon Preston. Again, Tillmanns is not a role-model for muscular and driving performances. He surrounds the music in a romantic haze and essentially misses the essence of the piece. Yet, I must say that it's a lovely and mysterious performance.
I'm going to move along a little faster since Tillman's style in these Orgelbuchlein works is easy to discern. BWV 607 needs some angularity; otherwise, it becomes a component of the 'glue factory'. Tillmann's version has more glue in it than any other I know, and he again takes the symphonic approach. In BWV 606, God is streaking at me from all directions; there's no way I can dodge him. With Tillmann's relaxed and ever so smooth performance, nobody is trying to corral me.
I love what Saorgin does with BWV 613 which is a piece for the new year; he invests it with an immense power that's seething to blast out of its hiding place. Saorgin sees much danger in the new year, and I'm certainly not going to tell him otherwise. Tillmanns is timid and congealing. In BWV 614, Werner Jacob revels in the dark and heavy side of life; he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and matters are in terriblshape. It's a slow and magical performance which pierces my soul. Finally, Tillmanns gets on the scoreboard with a reading as slow as Jacob's and also loaded with weight and even strong remorse.
BWV 619 is quite memorable music with its descending scales, ceremony, and projection of peace. These qualities are highlighted in Zerer's performance which is stunning and bold. Tillmanns is delightful but not well animated - the opposite of bold.
I'm going to spend some time on BWV 622 because it well displays Tillmann's failings with these Weimar pieces. I used Nicholas White's version on Pro Organo for comparison. Although his disc is not one of the best, the BWV 622 performance is a winner; it's smooth as I would expect Tillmans to play it. However, White provides a vital reading with vivid projection. Tillmann's equally legato reading uses unattractive registrations and isn't close to being vivid. This is the difference between a good and superb issue.
Well, there isn't much point in detaining ourselves any further on Tillmann's performances of Bach Weimar works. What really screws things up is Tillmann's decision to play mostly strong pieces which benefit greatly from angularity; this does not play into his strengths, but it's perfect for his weaknesses. Tillmanns is easily enjoyable, but the comparisions reveal deficiencies which are pervasive; there's no magic at all in the readings. Also, his registrations are average at best, and he has a tendency to romanticize the music. For pieces from the Orgelbuchlein, versions from artists including Zerer, Rogg, Saorgin, Weinberger, Jacob, and Preston are preferable to Tillmanns.
The "Leipzig" selections cover two of the six Schubler Chorales and four of the eighteen "Leipzig" Chorales. Recorded competition is even more fierce for these works than for the Orgelbuchlein pieces.
Tillmanns actually performs BWV 645 quite well, capturing the interchange between the two voices providing the melodies. But when compared to Lionel Rogg, Tillmanns still is living with a swimming acoustic and too thick a legato. These conditions continue in BWV 648 and are quite pronounced in BWV 655 and 654. Speaking of BWV 654, I like some strongly projected ceremony, but Tillmann's intimate won't go in that direction. Tillmann's BWV 668 just might be the least appealing performance on the disc. He plays in such a listless manner as if it's Bach's 'swan song' instead of Bach's entering God's throne. Tillmann's is a downer perception of the culmination of a magical life of music-making and a deep faith in one's religion.
Don's Conclusions: Syrupy sound, average at best registrations, overly smooth performances, and a poor match of artist to program make this Tillmanns chorales disc a non-starter. Although his BWV 668 is particularly unrewarding, most every other reading has its problems. Only in BWV 614 does Tillmanns stand up to the compeition. All this adds up to a strong recommendation to bypass the recording. Part 3 will cover Tillmann's Bach disc of Toccatas & Fugues, and I am looking forward to hearing what he does with these majestic creations.