The Bach Cantatas unquestionably constitute the greatest single achievement by a single composer within a single genre in the history of Western music (though Haydn's cycle of Quartets runs it a close second in my estimation). If you love classical music, sacred music, and Bach, you must not deprive yourself of the incredible privilege of getting to know this massive achievement. Perhaps even more mind-boggling than the proportion of quality to quantity in this vast output is the realization that there are probably at least a hundred more Cantatas that have not come down to us! If there is a heaven--and it's hard to remain agnostic after a close encounter with these works--then I can only hope that it will be the privilege of blessed Bachians to hear these unknown Cantatas (and anything else the great master might have cobbled together on the slopes of Eternity).
Returning to the present age for the moment, one notes with some dismay that the consolations of great music do not come without a cost--yes, the cost of intellectual effort, but also financial outlay. And it is on this point that Hänssler-Verlag's reissue of Rilling's Cantata Cycle maintains a distinct advantage, whatever it musical merits or vices. With the Secular Cantatas included, along with exhaustive scholarly notes, texts and translations downloadable (and printable) from the CD-Rom included, this is a bargain that no collector can or should resist at the current asking price. Even if you own other other Bach Cantata recordings in abundance, don't pass this up.
The reason is simply that this is the ONLY complete Bach Cantata cycle performed with modern instruments, ample mixed choirs (not a countertenor among them!, and soloists accomplished in traditional (one may even call it "operatic") vocal technique. Admittedly, a series of this magnitude, directed by a single conductor, and recorded over a span of at least two decades, will sometimes fall below expectations. But the standard of accomplishment Rilling has achieved here is consistently high. Though some of the earlier recordings are lacking in rhythmic vitality and favor too much legato phrasing, Rilling's priorities changed perceptibly during the first decade of this project, so that the bulk of these renditions are stylistically aware without being pedantic, energetic without being rushed, expressive without being romanticized. Indeed, if one compares Rilling's "learning curve" to that of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt in *their* pioneering Bach Cantata series--factoring out, for the moment, differences in performance practice priorities--one notes a conspicuous decline in the latter's engagement with the music, whereas one observes the opposite trend in Rilling's cycle. In other words, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt evidently began to lose interest in the project after it was well underway, whereas Rilling's engagement never faltered, but only became more intense over time.
This is obviously not the place to go into a detailed analysis of Rilling's performances. I have been familiar with them, and impressed by them, since the days of vinyl discs. Certain works, particularly the more festive ones, have rarely been surpassed for heady exuberance. One of my fellow reviewers cites BWV 129 as a salient example, and I readily concur. The opening chorus of BWV 100 provides another example of Rilling's ability to convey rapturous joy, and one could also cite the sparkling display of musical fireworks throughout the incomplete, and rarely heard, wedding cantata BWV 195. Rilling also frequently finds the charm in Bach's writing, particularly in those arias with obbligato winds; the delightful bass aria from BWV 123 provides a good example: the "walking bass" really really swings, with something like a detectable "back-beat," while the flute solo enchants the ear with its florid passagework. Finally, I would note that at least one cantata--the well-known BWV 78--receives a rendition that is as close to "definitve" as any recorded Bach Cantata I know. The famous duet zips along with enormous brio, and elsewhere the drama and pathos of this multi-diminsional score are perfectly conveyed.
There are, of course, also interpretive misfires. The monumental opening chorus of BWV 102 bogs down into something of a sodden slog, and the four great choral pillars around which BWV 21 is constructed are similarly earthbound. Occasionally, one finds Rilling insensitive to the affect of text and music, as in his brisk, mechanical treatment of the ineffable chorale setting with which BWV 105 concludes. That movement should begin in anxiety, and proceed through rejoicing to inner quietude; in Rilling's account, it remains boisterous all the way through. I could cite further examples in this vein, but fortunately for prospective purchasers, they are not numerous.
Overall, then, the ratio of successes to failures, both in terms of entire works, and in terms of movements within cantatas, is remarkably high. Of course, that positive outcome has as much to do with the quality of the vocal soloists (Helen Watts Arleen Auger and Phillipe Huttenlocher outstanding among them), choral singing (nice balance, good diction, sometimes too prominent vibrato) and ensemble playing (not quite in the class of Richter's Munich Bach Orchestra,but expert), as with Rilling's intelligent and unfussy direction.
What of the recorded sound? Some of the earlier recordings in the series suffer from a rather shallow "soundstage" which, together with some close spotlighting of instrumental and vocal soloists, can create a cramped or harsh effect. Elsewhere, I noticed a persistent artificial-sounding resonance that might prove distracting on repetition. However, sonic imperfections scarcely detract from Rilling's achievement--the first single conductor to have run the Bach Cantata marathon--and Hänssler's unbelievably low price tag. As with the other reviewers I can only entreat my readers to obtain this bargain box before it becomes history.