Rilling's Classic Oratorio Recordings Reissued


(all on Hänssler Classic)

These two-disc sets, reissued from now-classic mid-'90s recordings led by legendary choral conductor Helmuth Rilling, boast similar virtues. Primarily, Rilling -- who celebrated his 80th birthday at the end of May -- understands as well as any conductor alive that the key to an oratorio performance that will stand up to repeated straight-through listening is to keep things moving. This might seem obvious when dealing with works clocking in upwards of two hours, yet the recording catalogs are littered with renditions that drag because their conductors couldn't pass up any opportunities to be expressive.

This is not to imply that Rilling's conducting produces flat-affect performances; rather, he shapes each monumental work more as a giant whole than as a succession of smaller pieces. All three of these works, especially the two by Mendelssohn, are full of emotional potent moments that Rilling molds with quite effective expressiveness, but within taut structural readings that never bog down -- though even Rilling can't quite make Paulus cohere ideally; it's a problematically episodic work written for attention spans longer than common nowadays (Mendelssohn worked with a more dramatically suitable librettist for much of Elias, having learned from Paulus, so even though the actual plot of Elias is more fragmented, the overall flow is superior).

While it looks at first glance as though Rilling's got all-star casts of soloists, remember that these were recorded almost twenty years ago; sopranos Schäfer and Banse in particular are famous in part because he used them so regularly to such good effect. So unlike some superstar productions where superstars grab their moments in the spotlight and milk them for all they're worth, here the soloists operate within Rilling's philosophy. There's still plenty of room for expressive singing; some of the arias in Paulus -- especially, of course, those for the title character, sung movingly by bass Andreas Schmidt -- are as sweetly delivered as one could wish. The same goes for choral moments, such as "Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir" (For He shall give his angels charge over thee) in Elias.

Also worth mentioning, though some might consider it a drawback, is that Rilling, recording for a German company, presents all three works in the German they were written in rather than the more popular English versions the composers prepared for performances in England (both owe much of their fame to concerts there). And, though Rilling is certainly well aware of period performance practice, the orchestras use modern instruments; the performances certainly don't suffer from this decision. The sound is fine, perhaps highlighting the soloists somewhat and leaving the chorus a bit in the back, but then, that's not necessarily an unrealistic concert experience. It remains only to be said that the new packaging, with the fat booklets outside of the jewel case, both within a slipcase, is a good compromise that allows for full notes and translations. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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