Rilling’s Last Bach “Mass in B Minor” The Best

Mass in B Minor

J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Marlis Petersen, soprano (Soprano I); Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano (Soprano II); Anke Vondung, alto; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Franz-Josef Selig, bass; Stuttgart Gachinger Kantorei; Stuttgart Bach Collegium; Helmuth Rilling, conductor / Hänssler Classic 98274 (2 CDs)

A couple of days ago, I listened to multiple recordings of the Bach Mass in B Mnor because I was somewhat disappointed with the one I had (Augér, Murray, Lipovšek, Schreier, Scharinger on Philips). And boy oh boy, what a weird trip that was! I heard both Historically Infected Performances, with their whiny straight-tone violins and choruses with no vibrato that sounded like a MIDI (sometimes I wonder if these performers realize just how utterly DISGUSTING they make music sound?), and Bad Old Days performances with their “rounded” rhythms, sensuous phrasing, and pompous, overly-religious approach. And several, like the Karl Munchinger, Robert Shaw and Georg Solti versions, in between. Oh, yes, I tried and tried to like the Gramophone’s whoop-de-doo favorite Mass, John Eliot Gardiner, but I’m afraid that he has become something of a leathery old coot in his performances since the mid-1990s. No longer are his performances flowing as well as energetic; they are simply cold, glassy and choppy. You may like that, but I don’t. Among the other conductors’ versions I heard were Scherchen (both his mono and stereo recordings), Brembeck, Müller-Bruhl, Celibidache, Giulini, Richter, early and late Karajan, Ohrwall, Ericson, Daus, later Gardiner (on SDG), Max, Ozawa, Seymour, Budday, Rifkin (one to a part? no thanks), Christophers, Biller, Junghanel, Marriner, Herreweghe, Beringer, Bruggen, Suzuki, Butt, Hickox, Kuijken, Rademann, Bernius, Funfgeld, Fasolis, Allwood, Radu, three by Rilling, Straube, Minkowski, Jacobs, Parrott, Corboz, another one by Schreier, Mauersberger, Kuijken, Mortensen, Jochum, Klemperer and Herreweghe. Is that enough Masses in B Minor for you? It was for me.

Now, mind you, two of these came close for me: the Beringer and the Funfgeld. But the Beringer uses the Windsbach Boys’ Choir which, though very, very good, didn’t quite satisfy me, and the recorded sound is a little too ambient, with goopy echo around the soloists, chorus and orchestra. As for Funfgeld, his performance is mostly spectacular in both musical feeling and clarity of lines; he uses a HIP orchestra that doesn’t sound revolting, and terrific soloists. But I don’t really like hearing the opening “Kyrie” taken at a little over nine minutes—that’s just too fast for me, considering the feeling of the piece—and although his chorus starts off “Cum sancto spiritu” like gangbusters, they slow it down a bit in order to get all of that breathtaking counterpoint in cleanly. That didn’t cut it for me.

But then I listened to the most recent (2005) Helmuth Rilling performance, and was hooked. This was not as romantic as his first recording from way back when nor as cool as his mid-1990s version, also for Hänssler Classic. Interestingly, he uses a HIP orchestra here but manages to get them to phrase like musicians, not like automatons, and as a chorusmaster Rilling is perhaps unmatched in this repertoire. His chorus is stupendous from start to finish in both technical execution and feeling. As for the soloists, they take a middle approach to the music, not quite as overly-reverential as in earlier recordings of the Mass and not quite as “peppy” as, for instance, Beringer’s and Funfgeld’s soloists (both of which are wonderful, although Beringer’s singers are gold-plated stars while Funfgeld’s are not that well known).

So I looked online to see what others thought of this performance, and was absolutely stunned. The well-informed critics hated it, starting with Jonathan Freeman-Atwood in the Gramophone who wrote the following in 2007—and please note the passages I’ve put in bold for emphasis:

This is his fourth B minor Mass and it’s something of a homecoming, judging by the familiar pacing and dynamic arches of the opening Kyrie and a general consolidation of the exacting corporate values which Rilling has promoted so vigorously over the years.

The issue, as ever with Rilling’s Bach, is whether his terse and regulated phraseology is to your liking. The matter-of-fact articulation of the “Christe eleison” is musically grounding for some and distressingly unyielding for others. However, the consistency of the vision and standards he imposes are still deeply impressive [here he damns with faint praise]. Without the searing incision and intensity of Richter’s 1969 performance (DG DVD, 8/06), he scuttles through the Gloria and Credo with all the energy and bravura of his earliest performance and arguably with rather greater control.

Whatever the rationale of reconciling “modern” and “period” approaches to performance, Rilling’s own template sets the agenda: a deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum, with a litheness and clarity which ensure that everyone can hear each other. Chamber music bursting at the seams brings its own tantalising thrill to the “Et resurrexit”, “Et exspecto” and “Osanna”, and yet the bass-line always seems so regulated in the solo movements.

Now, it’s true that no two people hear a performance exactly alike, but really…what the hell does this mean, other than the fact that Freeman-Atwood came to this recording with a prejudice against Rilling’s “terse and regulated phraseology,” “exacting corporate values” and “deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum”? I dare anyone else, listening in a blindfold test, to hear such inane values in this performance. While it is true that Rilling uses a HIP orchestra here, which has never been much to his liking in the past, his ability to make them sing and play with joy and energy is enthralling. Where are the “corporate values” or “deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum” in his scintillating performance of “Cum sancto spiritu”?

It would be OK if this review were an anomaly, and others heard this recording for the splendid achievement it is, but guess what? Anything Gramophone says about a performance, particularly of anything Baroque, spreads like wildfire and infects the judgments of others. Note this review, written five years later(!), by an anonymous reviewer on (again, note the comments in bold print):

Conductor Helmuth Rilling, as is his wont, takes a safe course with a moderate-sized choir, which actually sounds a little smaller than it is; and a small orchestra, which is sometimes drowned by the vocal forces.

In matters of tempo it is largely traditional, faster than one would have expected 40 years ago, but unsurprising for today. Phrasing is sometimes quite smooth, occasionally disconcertingly choppy.

This is a performance which few lovers of the work would be made indignant by, but I’m not sure that many listeners will find it as exalting as the greatest accounts that they have previously experienced.

The soloists, a fine team, sing without particular expression: when you think of what the greatest soloists have made of the Agnus Dei, you might wonder whether Anke Vondung, who has a beautiful voice, needs to use it so purely instrumentally.

One can’t help feeling that this should have the quality of a heartfelt prayer rather than just a lovely slow movement. And shouldn’t the sublime ‘Dona nobis pacem’ which concludes the work end more massively?

Now, let’s go to a customer review on from 2015:

Definitely not as interesting as Rilling’s CBS Masterwork version. Here I think he felt compelled to speed up some of the tempos and thin out some of the textures, a la the HIP versions, and that just isn’t his thing. It’s well-sung and well-played, but it’s just too inconsistent in manner to make it really work.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? One caustic (and, in my view, prejudicial) review in Gramophone, and everyone is falling over each other to bash Rilling for his mechanical, overly fast, thinned out, inconsistent and “corporate” reading—none of which it is!

But Gardiner with his harsh sonorities and coarse phrasing? Bracing! Effervescent! Brilliant! Well, you be the judge. Listen to both and see which one satisfies you better.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to start my own rating system for the best classical recordings. Since I’m not part of the ever-popular Penguin Guide, I’m going to call myself the Penguin’s Girlfriend. And this late Rilling Mass in B Minor gets five fish from me, a great rating. So there!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “Rilling’s Last Bach “Mass in B Minor” The Best

  1. Jon B says:

    Love the unabashed candor of this review. I had already ordered this version, as I have Jochum’s and Solti’s (sorry, I love Solti and the Chicago although he is not perfect but a sentimental favourite). I also adore Marlis Petersen, one of the most intelligent and yet underrated sopranos alive, whose sweetness of tone and exquisite execution are enough to sell me on most of her albums. This review, written after what can only be called an exhaustive excursion through the catalogue, makes sense and persuades me, at least, that the reviewer – who has also written a book on the intersection of jazz and classical music (may have to order that next) – has real chops as a listener. She is deliciously fresh in her perspectives, not beholden to critical orthodoxies that can only celebrate the Great and Ponderous recordings of a mythical pre-lapsarian age, nor craven in the face of The Latest Fad, as are so many, with their sonorous banalities and moribund spirits. I love this. Dude! The lady is lit! Savage!


  2. Wilson says:

    Excellent article article, and kudos to you for listening to all of those recordings of the B Minor Mass!
    I had just a couple of things to add; Rilling is in fact not using a HIP orchestra, but does have them playing in a more “historically informed” style than usual, and I did manage to find some positive reviews online of his earlier recording (1999) of the mass.
    Btw, have you had a chance to listen to Veldhoven’s rendition? The recording quality is first class and the performances just as good. I’ll see if I can track down the Rilling recording, though. Would be nice to hear some sample tracks first.


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