Richter’s Great Bach Orchestral Suites Reissued

WS121.375 - cover

WP 2019 - 2BACH: Orchestral Suites [Overtures} Nos. 1-4, BWV 1066-69 / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / Urania WS 121.375

It’s hard to believe that Karl Richter, at the time of this and other recordings by him (1961), was considered the greatest Bach conductor in the world. Yes, he had competitors, among them Karl Ristenpart, Karl Munchinger, elder statesman Mogens Wöldike and, a few years later, the younger Helmuth Rilling. When I was growing up and getting into classical music I liked them all, but gravitated towards Ristenpart and Rilling because their LPs were less expensive.

But Richter, more so than all the others, suffered the most in the early years of the historically-informed movement spearheaded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt himself never attacked Richter, but the critics sure did. His classic Bach recordings were suddenly considered to be too “heavy,” wrongly phrased, lacking straight tone, blah blah blah, but his real blasphemy was in recording Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. In addition to damning him for using the non-authentic Mozart orchestration, Richter was slammed for his “smooth” phrasing,” by then completely at odds with the new, clipped style that was suddenly considered de rigueur. Richter tried to defend himself, but to no avail. His reputation and career were in ruins. Thus did one of the most gifted and talented of Baroque conductors have his reputation ruined. Already suffering from health problems, he had one heart attack in 1971 but a fatal one ten years later. He was only 54 when he died.

When writing for a classical music magazine, I praised his recording of Mozart’s Requiem as being the most intense and moving ever made, and to a slightly lesser extent I will make a similar claim for these recordings of the Bach Orchestral Suites (often considered to be long, multi-movement overtures). Comparing Richter’s timings of each movement of each suite to the famous performance by Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra, we find that all the “overtures” to the suites are longer, which is almost predictable (most Bach conductors of that time took more stately tempi in the overtures), but except for a few other movements, particularly the famous “Air on the G String” (the second movement of the third suite), I discovered that Richter’s pacing was surprisingly similar to Rilling’s if not sometimes faster:

Richter Rilling
Suite 1, 1 8:18 6:24
Suite 1, 2 2:26 2:29
Suite 1, 3 3:23 3:30
Suite 1, 4 1:58 1:22
Suite 1, 5 3:05 3:35
Suite 1, 6 2:37 2:36
Suite 1, 7 3:31 3:37
Suite 2, 1 9:18 7:35
Suite 2, 2 1:54 1:45
Suite 2, 3 4:00 2:19
Suite 2, 4 2:05 1:49
Suite 2, 5 3:29 3:12
Suite 2, 6 1:28 1:16
Suite 2, 7 1:28 1:25
Suite 3, 1 9:08 8:16
Suite 3, 2 5:45 4:58
Suite 3, 3 4:03 3:27
Suite 3, 4 1:15 1:17
Suite 3, 5 3:09 2:47
Suite 4, 1 9:50 9:02
Suite 4, 2 3:02 2:43
Suite 4, 3 2:00 1:54
Suite 4, 4 3:37 3:47
Suite 4, 5 2:43 2:42

The differences one hears are those of phrasing and a facet of Baroque performance that has virtually disappeared in the HIP era, orchestral color. Although most of Richter’s orchestral textures were bright, which is of course appropriate, he did not shy away from softening the string tone to produce an extraordinarily opaque sound, both delicate and haunting, when he felt the music called for it. Apparently the modern Religion of Straight Tone considers this a heresy of the worst sort. All string passages must sound virtually the same whether loud or soft. And of course Richter’s phrasing was varied as well. There are several moments, even in the slower movements, where he separated the notes to give the music a more definite rhythm, but he was not averse to using a fine legato when he deemed it appropriate. This, too, is considered heresy today.

Thus, with Richter, we find ourselves in a different aesthetic world but not one that runs counter to our idea of how Baroque music should sound. Conductors of older generations, such as Wöldike, used reduced orchestras and a harpsichord continuo and often played the music as we recognize it today, but just as often phrased more romantically. Wöldike’s tempi also tended, in the recordings I’ve heard (both from the 1930s and the 1950s), to be more relaxed even when his phrasing was clearly in the Baroque style.

Richter Bach

Original LP cover of the Overtures

I bring these issues up in order to explain where Richter was coming from. Of all the non-Baroque specialist conductors who preceded him, Toscanini was probably the closest to correct Baroque phrasing, but there were also some lesser-known musicians who came surprisingly close in earlier decades, for instance British conductor Anthony Bernard in his late-1920s recordings of the Brandenburg Concerti with violinist Samuel Kuitcher, trumpeter Ernest Hall and oboist Leon Goossens. (For that matter, most people don’t even know that Josef Pasternack, a very good but little-known Polish conductor who was Toscanini’s assistant at the Met in 1909 and worked for Victor Records between 1916 and 1927 accompanying Enrico Caruso and other singers on shellac discs, also recorded a surprisingly good Orchestral Suite No. 3 in 1917.)

But Richter had even more to offer the listener in these performances. He used graded rather than terraced dynamics, meaning that he made his crescendos and decrescendos gradually, not suddenly as if falling off a cliff. Put all these things together, and what Richter offers you is Bach as music, not as a succession of clipped sounds in regular rhythm, played by anemic-sounding instruments and pretending to be music. The end result is that, instead of coolly admiring Bach’s counterpoint and mathematical precision, you actually enjoy listening to him. In a piece such as the second half of the Suite No. 2’s overture, for instance, you almost feel like getting up and dancing along with the music, and flautist Aurèle Nicolet, in the “Badinerie” of the Suite No. 2, plays her famous solo almost as well as James Galway (I heard Galway play it live). These performances have so much joy in them that it’s hard to resist. At times you can almost imagine the musicians themselves smiling as they played this music. That’s how infectious it is. Every note seems to come straight from the heart. As a commentator named Nick Morse put it on the YouTube upload of these performances:

The love, the love, the love. A friend recently said “Music gives access to the divine.” These performances are perfectly weighted, timed and delivered. No excessive flourish or emphasis, its musicality is expressed implicitly and all the more powerful and potent as a result.

In addition to all of the above-noted assets, Urania has remastered these old recordings with astonishing presence, brightness and clarity. An undisputed great release, formerly available in a 3-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon that also included the complete Brandenburg Concertos and the Triple Concerto.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Richter’s Great Bach Orchestral Suites Reissued

  1. Helen Silver says:

    Richter stepped aside so that we could feel Bach’s presence. The spirit of Bach still lingers in Richter’s playing and conducting

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    • I’m sure that was his intent, but such an assumption is just romantic feeling. Bach didn’t conduct those performances. Karl Richter did. And like everyone else in the 20th century, he had no idea how Bach himself really conducted.

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