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Helmuth Rilling

Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

RV: Please comment

Mario Zama Escalante wrote (March 1, 2002):
I recently bought Complete Bach -Hanssler Edition, I am new to Bach's music but I found something strange:

I was reviewing the booklet information regarding strength (instruments used) in the first cantatas (I have listened up to number 20) and in the index they state, for example bassoon, but then when you read the track by track information regarding the cantata, there is nothing saying bassoon. This happens also the other way around: you find that on track number "x" there is a viola, but you can't find out who is playing the instrument.

Thank you for your reply

Michael Grover wrote (March 1, 2002):
[To Mario Zama Escalante] I don't have the booklets in front of me, but as I recall, the bassoon is usually labeled "fagott" (the German word for bassoon). That might answer your first question.

I can't explain the other question without looking at one of the booklets. Someone else can have a go at it or I will look at my cantata booklets tonight and then respond.


The weaknesses of Rilling’s cantatas

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 10, 2002):
As I listen to more cantatas recorded by various conductors, and, especially, go through the Rilling set reviewing the recent release in three boxes, I am starting to understand the main weaknesses of this set. Listening to the newest Suzuki - vol. 18 - today, and comparing his recording of BWV 66 with Rilling (and Herreweghe), it is clear that Rilling's sound takes too much precedence and does not let the music come through enough. While Suzuki maintains a fine balance between singers and instruments, Rilling focuses too much on the instruments, and, on top of that, I find his string sound disagreeable - too much buzz, too much vibrato.

Just a note - Herreweghe wins on BWV 66 - the Suzuki has an unfortunately out-of-tune-sounding trumpet which mars the work. This is a shame, since Blaze is excellent here, as are the other soloists.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 10, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] You have to remember that Rilling uses not period instruments, but modern ones with the concomitant methods of playing them. Astually, it is Rilling's choir sound that is frequently too much 'in your face' rather than the orchestra. One of the most aggravating characteristics of Rilling's 'sound' is that the continuo group is frequently too loud (strong double basses or at times bassoons.) Although I have only heard Vols. 1 through 17 of the Suzuki series, the balance between singers and instruments is not always maintained, despite the fact that he is using period instruments (which produce less volume than their modern counterparts), but his bc is generally less obtrusive than Rilling's. The problem with the period groups, generally, is with voices such as Blaze's: when these limited-range voices are forced beyond their limits as Bach frequently leads his voice parts into a lower range, the balance is upset as the voice disappears in the wash of the period orchestral sound. It is amazing how loud these period instrumental groups can sound when the voices are simply not up to the task!

For all the talk about transparency and clarity of parts in HIP recordings, it is Rilling who usually wins the day if you are listening carefully and reading the score at the same time (as fortunately many more of you will be able to do with the BGA CD-ROMS now available.) There is usually a clarity and balance among the vocal parts (if you can disregard the operatic-type voices used) that is unmatched by the HIP choral groups. Without a score in hand, you would be amazed at how many notes that Bach composed are completely inaudible or nearly so, and this despite the microphones that we have at our disposal today.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (May 10, 2002):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: You have to remember that Rilling uses not period instruments, but modern ones with the concomitant methods of playing them. Astually, it is Rilling's choir sound that is frequently too much 'in your face' rather than the orchestra. One of the most aggravating characteristics of Rilling's 'sound' is that the continuo group is frequently too loud (strong double basses or at times bassoons.) >
Yes, you are right. The choir is indeed in my face, but that tends to bother me less than the orchestral sound.

< Although I have only heard Vols. 1 through 17 of the Suzuki series, the balance between singers and instruments is not always maintained, despite the fact that he is using period instruments (which produce less volume than their modern counterparts), but his bc is generally less obtrusive than Rilling's. The problem with the period groups, generally, is with voices such as Blaze's: when these limited-range voices are forced beyond their limits as Bach frequently leads his voice parts into a lower range, the balance is upset as the voice disappears in the wash of the period orchestral sound. It is amazing how loud these period instrumental groups can sound when the voices are simply not up to the task! >
Hmmm... I'll have to listen more closely to that. It's true that in BWV 66, in the opening movement, there is some loss of clarity in the voices. And the continuo is indeed less present, but that seems to be a plus rather than a minus.

< For all the talk about transparency and clarity of parts in HIP recordings, it is Rilling who usually wins the day if you are listening carefully and reading the score at the same time (as fortunately many more of you will be able to do with the BGA CD-ROMS now available.) There is usually a clarity and balance among the vocal parts (if you can disregard the operatic-type voices used) that is unmatched by the HIP choral groups. Without a score in hand, you would be amazed at how many notes that Bach composed are completely inaudible or nearly so, and this despite the microphones that we have at our disposal today. >
I would have to look at that. I don't have any cantata scores yet.



Rilling / Rillingbis

Bernard Nys wrote (June 2, 2002):
As you know, I'm always complaining about the lack of Bach recordings. I bought the Bach Edition on Brilliant Classics for budget reasons, but I'm not really happy with the Holland Boys Choir. I'm looking for a recent DDD complete Cantatas cycle.

How good is the Rilling series in the Hänssler edition Bachakademie ?? I like, of course, Herreweghe, but his cycle is very incomplete, and as far as I know, he doesn't want to complete it.

I also know Herreweghe is HIP and that Rilling is not, but I don't care to much about that. Is the Rilling cycle a first choice recommendation ? Who has it ? Who can give me a small comment ?

Kirk McElhearn wrote (June 2, 2002):
[To Bernard Nys] I don't think they are all DDD...

I am enclosing my review of the first set of 20 CDs. See: Rilling – Cantatas Vols. 1-20

François Haidon wrote (June 2, 2002):
< Bernard Nys wrote: "As you know, I'm always complaining about the lack of Bach recordings." >
A "lack of recordings"... What would it be if you had taken to another composer! I think there is no shortage of Bach recordings compred to other composers. I don't think there are a lot of them who have left such a sizeable legacy and of which you are able to find a recording of virtually every single work (that was "François H's adventures beyond language" Book 4, Chapter CCLVIII).

< "I bought the Bach Edition on Brilliant Classics for budget reasons, but I'm not really happy with the Holland Boys Choir." >
Flemish accent in German vocal music is definitely something of its own... Haitink's recording of Mahler's Eighth Symphony has some very weird moments in that respect... ;)

< "I'm looking for a recent DDD complete Cantatas cycle. How good is the Rilling series in the Hänssler edition Bachakademie ?? I like, of course, Herreweghe, but his cycle is very incomplete, and as far as I know, he doesn't want to complete it.
I also know Herreweghe is HIP and that is not, but I don't care to much about that. Is the Rilling cycle a first choice recommendation ? Who
has it ? Who can give me a small comment ?" >
While being a sucker for full sets myself I don't see the point in buying Bach's 200+ cantatas at once. At the moment I try to follow the ongoing Suzuki cycle, I like to discover the whole corpus by sets of three to five by Suzuki rather than going for the whole enchilada at once, because that would feel industrial. I have two CD's of the Rilling cycle and they're great, to me he tries to combine the best of both worlds, modern instruments with energetic playing. By the way, it was recorded between 1970 and 1985, the sound is impecable but, since you seem to insist on it being DDD (which I think shouldn't be a criteria at all, but anyway), the major part of it is analog.

Happy listening, and please be patient! :)

Bernard Nys wrote (June 2, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn & François Haidon)Thanks François & Kirk,

For your reaction.
For François : I NEED a complete set of Cantatas, because every Sunday, I try to listen to the Cantatas that Bach wrote for that Sunday. I didn't know that the Rilling set was so old...
For Kirk : thanks for the review, that confirms that the Rilling set is very old, with old glories like Fisher Dieskau and Peter Schreier.

As you both say, the Suzuki and the Koopman are "in process" and Koopman is stopped. So this means I'll have to stick to my Leusink complete Cantatas and that unpleasant, hard boys choir sound.

Any advise is welcome. Many thanks.

Do you confirm that Herreweghe does NOT intend to do the whole Cantata series ?

Any news about Koopman ? How far did he get ? Is he going to finish with another record company ?

Suzuki is a little bit to thin and slim for me...

HELP !

François Haidon wrote (June 2, 2002):
< Bernard Nys wrote: "Thanks François & Kirk,
For your reaction.
For François : I NEED a complete set of Cantatas, because every Sunday, I try to listen to the Cantatas that Bach wrote for that Sunday." >
Well, since he composed over two hundred cantatas and there are some 52 weeks thus 52 sundays in a year maybe this doesn't inexorably call for a full set, does it? Try and find some literature to find out which cantatas suit which sunday, and thus try and "schedule" your CD-buying accordingly. And remember that here in Belgium (well, at least for us lucky southerners) there are media libraries (our beloved mediatheques)...

< "I didn't know that the Rilling set was so old...
For Kirk : thanks for the review, that confirms that the Rilling set is very old, with old glories like Fisher Dieskau and Peter Schreier." >
Very old? Come on!!! To me "very old" means early post-war at least. You shouldn't buy into this DDD-only dogma: there are excellent recordings that date back to the mid-fifties! And not only are they absolutely listenable, they have character, a quality you don't necesserily find in today's recordings.

< "Any advise is welcome. Many thanks.
Do you confirm that Herreweghe does NOT intend to do the whole Cantata series ?" >
Maybe he has secret plans to build up his cycle slowly to make it coincide with his own centenary... His new cantatas disc will be the first in two years, isn't it? Comparatively Suzuki and the BCJ have already released three instalments this year...

< "Suzuki is a little bit to thin and slim for me..." >
Well, maybe if you find Suzuki too thin (that's normal, he's a Japanese, you know?), I think you should like Rilling, much more robust in sound. I love his choir(s).

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (June 3, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Rilling's cycle is definiely NOT "DDD", in some cases it's not even ADD, but just AAD.

As a matter of fact, I guess the only candidates for a fully DDD cycle are Suzuki and Koopman, the later recentry truncated by Warner, the first still incomplete, and going on in "slow motion".

Anyway, if you like a more romantic aproach, the Rilling set sounds ok.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (June 3, 2002):
< François H wrote: While being a sucker for full sets myself I don't see the point in buying Bach's 200+ cantatas at once. At the moment I try to follow the ongoing Suzuki cycle, I like to discover the whole corpus by sets of three to five by Suzuki rather than going for the whole enchilada at once, because that would feel industrial. I have two CD's of the Rilling cycle and they're great, to me he tries to combine the best of both worlds, modern instruments with energetic playing. By the way, it was recorded between 1970 and 1985, the sound is impecable but, since you seem to insist on it being DDD (which I think shouldn't be a criteria at all, but anyway), the major part of it is analog. >
Yes, in a way you are right. But given the fact that complete sets in the pursuit of "completeness" are the only ones who record some obscure, not-so-popular works, they happen to be a wise choice if your goal is to get all of the cantatas.

And, of course, we have to take in account the fact that with such a large corpus (more that 200 works), getting ALL of them would necessarily mean a zillion repetitions of best known titles, not to mention a significantly larger investment to get "all" the cantatas, which would surely mean at least three or four times the number of CD's that takes a "complete set".

In the end, you can get the complete set and take your time to listen to it!!

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (June 3, 2002):
[To Bernard Nys] If your source of dislike is the fact that they are boys (logically less mature and experienced performers), don't go to Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, on Teldec). The use boys for soprano parts!!.

Bob Sherman wrote (June 3, 2002):
To Kirk's comments I add, as I have mentioned before, that IMO Rilling's finale to BWV 21 is the most soaring, emotionally satisfying Bach I have heard anywhere.


Rilling's view on performance practice.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 5, 2003):
From the link supplied by Thomas Braatz:
http://bachfest.uoregon.edu/bachground/bachbits/sig7.shtml

Apart from his thoughts on Bach and religion, notice this, also from Helmut Rilling:

"First, the proponents of the "historical" approach direct their attention too much to microstructure. Short individual notes or groups of notes that are separated after a tie emphasize momentary events and distract one from more important interrelationships. It seems to me that this might be a possibility for small-scale movements, but it is an encumbrance for complexes of large dimensions.

Second, a certain form of tone production, the so-called "bell tone", has achieved entirely too much prominence. This crescendo diminuendo of each note is, by its very nature, not particularly well suited to the conveying of a linear character."

These are the two major criticisms I have had of HIP, since its inception. Hopefully, of late, I am detecting a change away from this distracting over-attention to microstructure, and "bell-tone" articulation (in HIP) - perhaps sensible musicianship is prevailing after all?

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 6, 2003):
< Neil Halliday wrote: Apart from his thoughts on Bach and religion, notice this, also from Helmut Rilling:

"First, the proponents of the "historical" approach direct their attention too much to microstructure. Short individual notes or groups of notes that are separated after a tie emphasize momentary events and distract one from more important interrelationships. It seems to me that this might be a possibility for small-scale movements, but it is an encumbrance for complexes of large dimensions. >
That sounds like a cop-out: like an unwillingness to spend any rehearsal time on details.

< Second, a certain form of tone production, the so-called "bell tone", has achieved entirely too much prominence. This crescendo diminuendo of each note is, by its very nature, not particularly well suited to the conveying of a linear character." >
"By its very nature"? Bologna. It is just as possible to fashion a convincing musical line with this type of tones, as with other types of tones; it only takes open-minmusicians, and a willingness to experiment and to read books and to think differently from mainstream conservatory training.

And it's more interesting to listen to (linearly) than the usual competing default sound from "modern" orchestras, the attempt to liven things up: constant vibrato, even on short notes. Ugh. Give me the bell-shaped tones any day, over that.

Alez Riedlmayer wrote (July 6, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: "By its very nature"? Bologna. It is just as possible to fashion a convincing musical line with this type of tones, as with other types of tones; it only takes open-minded musicians, and a willingness to experiment and to read books and to think differently from mainstream conservatory training. >
You're saying that it isn't usual conservatory training?

Neil Halliday wrote (July 6, 2003):
Bradley Lehman writes: < "And it's more interesting to listen to (linearly) than the usual competing default sound from "modern" orchestras, the attempt to liven things up: constant vibrato, even on short notes. Ugh. Give me the bell-shaped tones any day, over that." >
But note that Rilling preceded his proposition about the "bell-tone" with the words: "the so-called "bell tone", has achieved entirely too much prominence."

In other words, he is asking for some balance.

Just as too much vibrato, from both singers and instrumentalists, is annoying, but a little is delicious, likewise a little, tastefully done < > articulation is engaging, but too much is maddening.

Especially so with Bach, where it is the linear structure that is one of the most striking features of the music; such a strong, linear structure is ill-served by too much (Rilling's words again) concern over decorative matters. Bach's music is usually inherently powerful enough, (especially in the cantata choruses for example), that it is best served more by being allowed to speak for itself, and less by musicians 'showing off' various decorative devices.

This matter of attention to microstructure and tone production ought to be, to borrow the title of a Moody Blues album (c.1970), a 'Question of Balance.' I think this is what Rilling is saying, and it's why I enjoy many of his cantata recordings over those from the 'HIP' school.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 6, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Bell-shaped tones at a mainline conservatory, as basic training? Are you joking? Those people are trained to think of Bach as the earliest composer in the Western canon, with all earlier music relegated to a quaint nebulous Dark Ages (and studied dutifully in music history courses, if at all).

It's a backwards view of history: Bach's music is viewed only through the lens of consequences after him, and that's how he is to be played and sung (in this view)...as the BEGINNING of a new tradition. Anachronistic techniques (and a stifling literalism) are read back into him, a weird set of defaults.

That's why a bell-shaped tone is not "very nature" to mainline players and singers who spend most of their time playing/singing much later music; it doesn't even come up as an option that they think about using when a part is placed onto their music stands. If a note is not marked with < and > explicitly, they are trained (by notational conventions of later music) NOT to do it. [That also seems to be the default assumption of some of the most prominent contributors to this list.]

Obviously, there are some of us who think this reversed approach is wrong, even if it sometimes yields some pleasing results. It's better to get to know Bach's music through study of his own past that shaped him: to understand what he's refining and summing up, to understand what's fresh about it, to understand what his notational choices meant in HIS context, and to understand the tools and techniques that fired his own imagination.

Bach is not "Early Music" to those of us who specialize in the music on the other side of him, and who more rarely play the music written after his demise. Bach, Handel, and Haydn all seem bracingly modern to me, already. I spend most of my time in the (itself wonderful) music of their past, getting to know the same defaults they dealt with; and find that the stuff they do is then really shocking and delightful.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 6, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] In other words, Rilling is asking for a lukewarm approach, a wishy-washy interpretation: one that challenges neither his musicians nor his listeners to "think outside the box", or to take any risks for the good of putting the music across vividly. Lukewarm/mediocre/average/bland approaches (to anything) always garner a decent market share because they don't displease or startle the average Joe. The listener can smile and nod and not really pay attention, secure in the knowledge that it will all be not unpleasant.

Tom Brannigan wrote (July 6, 2003):
< Bradley Lehman wrote: The listener can smile and nod and not really pay attention, secure in the knowledge that it will all be not unpleasant. >
You certainly have spunk........Josquin DesPres would be proud!!

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (July 6, 2003):
Abosultely, THAT'S the point. In my opinion, musical education often is based on a false premise, that is, that music "evolved", in a Darwinian way.

So on a basic context, you conclude that "the latter, the better". I guess it would be more appropiate to describe music in time as a process of "development", but not "evolution", meaning that music "changes", but not neccesarily for better. (In fact, even in biological terms evolution not always means "better", but that's off topic). So the common mistake is to assume that Bach & Co. are monkeys, and Schöenberg and Cage are "human".

Mozart is the smartest primate, and Beethoven would be the dumbest homo sapiens. That's a big underestimation.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 6, 2003):
Bradley Lehman writes: "Lukewarm/mediocre/average/bland approaches (to anything) always garner a decent market share because they don't displease or startle the average Joe. The listener can smile and nod and not really pay attention, secure in the knowledge that it will all be not unpleasant."
Speaking for myself, I always pay close attention to Bach's music, including having perused the full score at least once (and by the way we can all do that now thanks to Aryeh's work on the Bach-Cantatas site) - if I have decided, from previous exposure or knowledge, that I like the piece concerned.

As a consumer of recordings, however, I do object to approaches that I feel are "displeasing or even startling" in an unpleasant way.

I suspect, Brad, we may be at cross-purposes here because you are looking at this matter from the point of view of a performer, wishing to play the music in a manner which you hope engages the audience, while I am approaching the matter from the point of view of a listener, to CD recordings, who wants to be able to return again and again with enthusiasm to the same CD recording.

I'm sure in a discussion of actual CD recordings, you, myself, Rilling, and many others, would often find ourselves in agreement over many of the elements of a particular recording.

On the matter of historical perspective, Rilling says this:

"Even if one could succeed in precisely reconstructing the original sound of Bach's music, this would represent but one side of the Bach performance situation. The listener, the person for whose ears, feelings, and intellect this music was intended, is not reconstructable. We hear, feel, and think differently today. A modern performance that reconstructs Bach's original sound does not reach us in the situation that the creator of the music assumed it would. Bach made music with the forces that were available to him for the people of his time. In order for us to recreate this performance situation, we must perform with the forces available to us today for the people of our time. This is because it is not this or that concept of sound that is of importance, but rather the strength of the message, the meaning of the music for which the sound is the vehicle of communication. The goal should not be to make us hear differently, but rather, to make us learn to understand bette."

You can agree or disagree with this; but I'm not sure that anyone has claimed that music is always evolving (in a Darwinian sense) into something better, (apart from certain technical points about the capabilites of some instruments), which appears to be a charge against proponents of "modern" performance practice, or educators, that Pablo seems to be making, in a later post.

In conclusion, I noted in a previous post that I liked much of what the Gabrieli Players, under McCreesh, did with the SMP; if it were possible to actually discuss, bar by bar, the reasons for this, we could come to a better understanding of why this is so. My own understanding of it is that the strings of the Gabrieli Players eschewed extreme "bell-tone" characteristics, the first and second violin parts could always be heard, they sounded strong and not weak (have another listen to the Taverner (violin) Players in Parrot's Messiah, or Gardiner's (string) support for Emma Kirkby in BWV 51. - they are oh so discreet and retiring to the point of timidity and inaudibility); and (back to the Gabrieli Players) there were no extremes of forte and piano in the same musical line, with the right amount of gesture; his vocalists were sparing , or tasteful, in their use of vibrato etc, etc. As I said before, I would not be surprised if we both liked the same performance, even if sometimes for different reasons. Other times we may disagree, but we will at least understand why.

"The goal should not be to make us hear differently, but rather, to make us learn to understand better."

Rilling acknowledges the contributions of HIP to this goal (in this same article), but I think he is gently warning: don't get lost in the rhetoric.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 6, 2003):
Messa di voce in a modern composition

A convincing musical line can have plenty of those swells within the individual notes, without disrupting the overall flow of the phrase. Modern players and singers can do this, of course. I'm referring to the recent Rilling quote here:

< Second, a certain form of tone production, the so-called "bell tone", has achieved entirely too much prominence. This crescendo diminuendo of each note is, by its very nature, not particularly well suited to the conveying of a linear character." >

...to which I replied:

'"By its very nature"? Bologna. It is just as possible to fashion a convincing musical line with this type of tones, as with other types of tones; it only takes open-minded musicians, and a willingness to experiment and to read books and to think differently from mainstream conservatory training.'

The point I was making was: they're trained to do this only when given 'permission' by the marked parts, or by the conductor's rehearsal remarks and physical motions. Modern musicians (in ensemble, anyway: orchestras and choruses) are trained to give a neutral delivery unless instructed otherwise. Once they are told or shown what the desired sound is, the musical effect or gesture, they can reproduce it. The conservatory training is to have both that basic neutrality (a blank slate, on which one can then write instructions) and the flexibility to deliver whatever is asked of them.

BUT: that neutrality is not a Baroque goal! That's the "problem" here. When that default neutrality is applied backward into music of the 17th and 18th centuries, in which the expression was not fully notated and in which improvisatory elements were so basic, this literal/neutral approach changes the music into something else. Baroque expression seems, to such players, like artifice, like something pasted on afterward. But...that's a reversed way of thinking about it...expression is in no way extra, it's just not notated in the same way these musicians (and some critics here) expect it to be.

=====

As for the _messa di voce_ effect itself, I've found an especially good example recently in the soundtrack of the film "A Beautiful Mind." It's the scoring of the tea room scene near the end. James Horner (the composer/conductor) brings in a simple melody in which each note has that gentle, graceful "bell shape" of dynamics, played mostly by the strings. It illustrates beautifully the way the protagonist's mind is working at that moment, as he begins to realize what's happening to him in this scene. It's like little puffs of fresh air into his world.

Then, a bit later over the closing credits, Charlotte Church sings this same melody in the same manner, gently and tastefully swelling each word. Again it works beautifully: interesting individual notes build up a longer line, giving us two dimensions (at least) to listen to simultaneously...the natural life of each note, and the life of the phrase moving forward, both in continuous flux. Bell-shaped tones are quite WELL suited to the conveyance of linear character!

Why should any musical phrase be limited to just one dimension of crescendo or diminuendo, overall? There is so much more to listen to and to enjoy when each note has its own shape. It's like seeing a patch of flowers and enjoying the whole, and then also running the eye along the shape of each individual flower, and then noticing the petals on each flower, and then back out to the whole patch again, and then noticing the breeze that makes them all move, and then focusing on one especially interesting flower again, and then comparing it with its neighbors, etc etc etc. There are multiple levels to enjoy in a patch of flowers, and it's the same with music when the tones each have their own dynamic shapes. Multi-dimensionality.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 6, 2003):
< Neil Halliday wrote: On the matter of historical perspective, Rilling says this:
"Even if one could succeed in precisely reconstructing the original sound of Bach's music, this would represent but one side of the Bach performance situation. The listener, the person for whose ears, feelings, and intellect this music was intended, is not reconstructable. We hear, feel, and think differently today. A modern performance that reconstructs Bach's original sound does not reach us in the situation that the creator of the music assumed it would. Bach made music with the forces that were available to him for the people of his time. In order for us to recreate this performance situation, we must perform with the forces available to us today for the people of our time. This is because it is not this or that concept of sound that is of importance, but rather the strength of the message, the meaning of the music for which the sound is the vehicle of communication. The goal should not be to make us hear differently, but rather, to make us learn to understand better." >

There we go again. "We hear, feel, and think differently today." Do we? Maybe he does, but how on earth can he know I do?

This argument is used time and again, and I strongly challenge that view. It seems to me that this view is a generalisation from personal experience which is both unscientific and arrogant.

If someone like Rilling believes that he can't experience Bach's music the same way the original audience has experienced it - how does he know that? - because he "hears, feels, and thinks differently", on what basis can he conclude that other people "hear, feel, and think differently" as well?

I prefer to make my own decisions. If I am so different from the original audience, and "hear, feel, and think differently", then why are Rilling's performances - or any non-HIP performance - bore me to death, and why I am enjoying HIP-performances - not all of them, but al least some of them? Am I kidding myself on? I don't think so. If someone like Rilling wants to argue why using period performance practices is wrong, he should come up with something better.

He is right that the strength of the message is the most important thing, that the cantatas are about communication and about a better understanding of Bach's music. But it is my experience that the use of period performance practices just does that: it enhances my understanding of Bach's music and makes the impact of its message stronger than the tperformance practice does.

Johan van Veen wrote (July 6, 2003):
< Neil Halliday wrote: Especially so with Bach, where it is the linear structure that is one of the most striking features of the music; such a strong, linear structure is ill-served by too much (Rilling's words again) concern over decorative matters. Bach's music is usually inherently powerful enough, (especially in the cantata choruses for example), that it is best served more by being allowed to speak for itself, and less by musicians 'showing off' various decorative devices. >
I have never understood what exactly this concept of "let the music speak for itself" really means. Does it mean that the performer should stay away from any 'interpretation'? Should he do nothing than just play the notes as they have been printed?

How do we know what the music wants to say? If the performer just plays the notes as they have been written, does the music really "speak for itself"? Or does it in fact speak the language of the performer?

Any performance - whether HIP or non-HIP - is an 'interpretation': an interpretation of what the composer has written down. The only important question is: does the performer understand the 'language' of the music and its composer and is he willing to speak that language?

In my view only a performance which does pay respect to the 'language' of the music, its composer and his time will be able to "let the music speak for itself".

Neil Halliday wrote (July 7, 2003):
Johan van Veen writes: < "I have never understood what exactly this concept of "let the music speak for itself" really means". >
It is best understood by refering to the fugue form, of which Bach is undoubtably the greatest exponent.

It is the logic of the structure of the various elements of a Bach fugue that is always so admirable, apart from any appreciation, at an emotional, 'musical' level, derived from listening to this music.

If we look at the score the '48', we can see the contrast between the improvisatory (not always, of course) nature of the preludes, and the logic of the structure, sometimes very complex, of the subject and counter-subject, with all sorts of devices, such as augmentation, diminution, stretto, inversion, etc, etc, in the fugues.

In the former case (preludes), where there is often no apparent logic to the structure, more 'musicianship' is required in the realisation of the music; in the latter case, the structure of the fugue itself is a highly significant aspect of the music - and needs less of the "language of the performer", (but not less of his skills!) for its realisation, hence the expression "let the music speak for itself".

I have both Herreweghe and Rilling in the opening chorus of BWV 93. Have a look at the score. The sheer architecture of the music, with its exposition of various figures piling up and combining with one another in all sorts of ways, is impressive, and the best realisation of this is what I want to hear in a recording.

For example, with Herreweghe, in the upper string writing in bar 3, we get a marked contrast between the 'swelling' with forte on the dotted quarter notes, and the contrasting light treatment of the 32nd notes. In my view, this is distracting, and draws attention away from what is happening with other equally important elements in the structure. In other words, the message is getting lost in the rhetoric.

With Rilling, these same figures are presented straightforwardly, yet with craftmanship, enabling undistracted appreciation of the architecture as a unity, leading to a better apreciation of the power, and hence the message, of the music itself. (Of course, sometimes Herreweghe is "better" than Rilling, but I used this example to make a point.)

I hope this explains "let the music speak for itself", even if you disagree with everything I've said!

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 7, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] I collect cantatas from both HIP and non-HIP camps (Herreweghe, Jacobs, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt and Rilling). I find the wide range of choices a blessing, and each conductor has his own character and power musically. Rilling's strong point, to me, is his ability to capture the essence of the German language and translate it to a powerful meaning that touches both heart and mind. I feel humbled by all the interpretations, especially making note of the highlights and strong points each and every conductor has to offer. No one conductor can pull everything off, but he or she certainly warrant a keen ear for their paricular strengths.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 7, 2003):
[To Johan van Veen] Oops, forgot to mention Mauersberger too! Check out his BWV 140 and BWV 80! They ring with unabashed joy and festivity!

Johan van Veen wrote (July 7, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] Thank you for the explanation. But I am still very critical about the whole concept. If you specifically refer to the fugue, you refer to a musical form. It is certainly true that this form is very clear and easier to follow than something like a prelude or a fantasia. But it seems to be that a musical form is only a tool to communicate a message. Stressing some motifs within a fugue is something which distracts you from other elements in the fugue which are euqally important. But whether these elements are really equally important is a matter of interpretation. The performer who gives all elements equal treatment is interpreting just like the performer who stresses some motifs - maybe at the cost of others.

I simply can't understand how the message can be lost in the rhetoric. Rhetorics is one of the key elements used by the composer to get a message across. In my view it is quite possible that the listener just misses the message because all elements of a composition are treated equally. If a performer stresses some motifs it is probably just because he believes that the composer is asking for stressing them, and that by stressing them the message is coming across.

I strongly believe that every performance of music is interpretation. Music always "speaks for itself" but it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the music really has to say.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 11, 2003):
Johan van Veen wrote: "I simply can't understand how the message can be lost in the rhetoric."

(In relation to "letting the music speak for itself", I perhaps unnecessarily spoke about fugue, which is a subcategory of polyphonic music.) [See: Performance – General Discussions – Part 4]

Rilling's concept of linearity is what is important, by which I take him to be refering to, in 'multi-voice' music, the conception of the totality of the music, as a combination of each of the horizontally (linear) forward moving parts.

It could be that professional musicians are able to easily grasp this totality, and 'play around' with individual elements of each line as a way of introducing 'interest' to the music; but for non-professional music lovers like myself, being able to grasp the overall architecture of the music is challenging enough; nevertheless, this is extremely rewarding in the case of Bach, who for reasons unknown to me, seems to construct the most fabulous architecture in all music.

In other words, 'distortions' of the linearity, by a "bell-tone" on individual notes in the line , alluded to by Rilling, can be a distraction to 'visualising' the complete architecture, hence the request, in my understanding of the expression, to "let the music speak for itself".

Certainly, this should suggest the need for a balanced approach, by performers, involving the use expressive devices - devices that I referred to as "rhetoric".

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 11, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] Trying another analogy here, from auditory to visual:

Neil, this request of yours for a "balanced approach" looks to me like a request for a black-and-white photograph because a colour photograph would be too vivid. Wash those musical details (the rhetoric, the gestures) down to a monochromatic palette so they don't bother .

That might not be what you're saying, but that's how it comes across to me.

Myself, I prefer the vivid colour, and as many dimensions as possible. There's more to notice and resonate with and enjoy in the music that way. Even if someone's viewscreen may be mis-adjusted so the colours and balances are a bit out of whack, it's still richer than a black-and-white picture. And the architecture is CLEARER as these differences help the eye [ear] follow the lines and shapes; just as stereo sound helps a listener place his/her attention all over the place more than mono sound does.

Brad Lehman
(who spent many years with only a B/W television)

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (July 11, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] It seems as if "letting the music speak for itself" cannot be disputed. Still, I cannot agree if it means that the musician isn't allowed to put expression to words or parts in the total phrase. Of course, it is necessary to keep the musical lines in motion. But let us not try to forget that with cantatas it is words/sentences put onto music. In the combination of words and music Bach's mastership is coming to the fore.

I do not see much difference between HIP and non HIP in linearity or bell-tone. Sure, we are now talking about what has been said in interviews of different conductors. But in practice, these differences are faided out, IMO. The big difference between, let's say, Rilling and Herreweghe is that with Rilling I get a permanent high voltage vibrato music, with thick, massive choirs. Herreweghe is taking a far more baroque approach. Nobody knows for sure, but I believe Herreweghe comes much closer to original performance practice.

Uri Golomb wrote (July 11, 2003):
Just a general note on this debate.

The article which sparked it all -- Rilling's "Bach's Significance" -- was written in 1985. Much has changed since then, both on the"HIP" side and in Rilling's own practices. On the one hand, some of the features he complains about are, perhaps, less prominent now than they were in 1985. On the other hand, Rilling's own style has changed. Arjen wrote that "with Rilling I get a permanent high voltage vibrato music, with thick, massive choirs". I too get this impression in his 1970s and 1980s recordings (which include his cycle of Bach's sacred cantatas). But in his late 1990s recordings (the new secular cantatas, the 1999 B minor Mass), the sonority is much lighter (I'm not sure he actuallly uses a smaller choir -- but it certainly sounds smaller, which to my ears is a definite improvement), and there is a greater variety of articulation and dynamics and more attention to local figures, creating a much clearer sense of purpose and direction. His speeds have also become quicker, at least compared to his earlier self. In short, Rilling has become more similar to some HIP musicians! Perhpas his collaborations with Robert Levin, and the fact that he shares some of his vocal soloists with conductors like Harnoncourt and Herreweghe -- as well as his familiarity with much performance-practice research -- have influenced him.

(BTW, I assume these changes are also reflected in his later recordings of the two passions, the Christmas Oraotrio and orchestral music -- but I have yet to hear those).

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (July 11, 2003):
< Arjen van Gijssel wrote: The big difference between, let's say, Rilling and Herreweghe is that with Rilling I get a permanent high voltage vibrato music, with thick, massive choirs. Herreweghe is taking a far more baroque approach. Nobody knows for sure, but I believe Herreweghe comes much closer to original performance practice. >
I wonder what is meant by "baroque approach" and "original performance practice". I also suspect that the "permanent high voltage" effect is not a direct consequence of the "thick, massive" sonorities, both of which I perceive more of in Rilling's earlier recordings (made around 1970).

Arjen van Gijssel wrote (July 11, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Original performance practice: the way Bach may have performed its own cantatas. What I don't understand is that throughout his career Bach never used big ensembles, and most of the time used boys voices. How can this be made compatible with Richter of Rilling?

Baroque approach: this is more difficult to define, but let me say that what I hear in earlier Rilling recordings (which are the ones usually discussed here), is more the romantique approach. And opposite to what you suppose, what I call romantism is directly connected to vibrato singing, stressing each note, with dramatic voices and big choirs. As if you get Brahm's Requiem in each cantata. The baroque approach IMHO is singing more lightly, never swelling on individual notes (or all of the notes; AARGH) but tapping through it with a lot of attention to the musical line and the details along the way. You stress important words, through (light!) crescendo and diminuendo, but never forgetting to sing legato.

I am sorry if this doesn't sound as a scholar talking (which some prefer). It is the experience of a performer (guided by expert conductors).

Peter Bright wrote (July 11, 2003):
< Arjen van Gijssel wrote: Original performance practice: the way Bach may have performed its own cantatas. What I don't understand is that throughout his career Bach never used big ensembles, and most of the time used boys voices. How can this be made compatible with Richter of Rilling? >
I expect that these aspects can't be reconciled. But it is entirely possible that both Rilling and Richter have/had enough insight to be responsive to the spirit with which Bach approached his own music. To quote Masaaki Suzuki: "I think we should define the word authenticity. According to one opinion, Helmuth Rilling and Karl Richter were not authentic. Of course they didn't use period instruments, but they were together with the mind and spirit of Bach. I have played with Rilling's orchestra. The way of playing is very different, but it has insight." If Bach had access to larger forces would he choose to use them? We'll never know...

Neil Halliday wrote (July 11, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] I can agree with this:
"...some of the features he (Rilling) complains about are, perhaps, less prominent now than they were in 1985."

I do find myself enjoying some recent HIP recordings, for the simple reason (in my view) that some degree of restraint in the use of expressive devices (HIP rhetoric) is evident.

On this matter of restraint, in another context (to demonstrate where restraint is necessary and where it is not), I know of two cases from Rilling where the timpani are unnecessarily restrained - the opening choruses of BWV 79 and BWV 91. In both these pieces the timpani need to display theit attention-grabbing qualities to the full, but this is not achieved in Rilling's recordings of these works.

In contrast, Harnoncourt's timpani (and trumpets) in the final chorale of the cantata currently under discussion (BWV 171), are quite effective . (But Harnoncourt treats the fermati as short pianissimos, and the tempo is too fast, IMO.)

Peter Bloemendaal wroter (July 13, 2003):
< Johan van Veen said: I strongly believe that every performance of music is
interpretation. Music always "speaks for itself" but it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the music really has to say. >
I quite agree. When thinking about performing music there is no such thing as "absolute truth". Things are not either black or white. There is a vaste range of shades in between. Reading the Rilling interview some time ago, I found it illuminating and realized that here is a great musician with very pronounced opinions, which colour him black in the eyes of some and white in the eyes of others, because he is so outspoken. I respect Rilling, but I disagree with many of his ideas. His performances give evidence of his dedication and integrity, but he certainly is not my favourite Bach performer. Yet, we chose Rilling's performance of the final chorale of SJP (BWV 245) (Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein) to be pat the end of the memorial service of my mother-in-law, because it suited both the deceased and the occasion best.



Continue on Part 4


Helmuth Rilling: Short Biography | Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart | Frankfurter Kantorei | Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
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Last update: ýOctober 19, 2004 ý20:51:05