For over half a century the names Helmuth Rilling and JS Bach have been inextricably linked. By the time Rilling became music director of Stuttgart’s Gedachtniskirche in 1957 he’d already founded his Gächinger Kantorei, then in 1965 the Bach Collegium Stuttgart. Five years later he instigated the Oregon Bach Festival, and with a pioneering set of the complete church Cantatas nearing completion, (the complete secular Cantatas followed); in 1981 he also set up the International Bach Academy Stuttgart. ‘You never stop learning with Bach,’ he insists, ‘I’m just grateful to have had the chance to explore these remarkable works’.
When you started to record the Church cantatas there was no precedent for a complete set. Did you always intend to blaze a trail?
Well as an active Church musician I’d performed some of the Cantatas liturgically and was struck by just how good they were, and yet there were perhaps only 15 or so discs available. For anyone wanting to get to know the Cantatas other than by reading scores the situation was difficult. The Passions and B minor Mass were well represented of course; I wanted to make the Cantatas better known.
Having recorded 30 or 40 of them and becoming more and more excited that we were exploring really great music, one day I thought well why don’t we do them all? From the early Mühlhausen Cantatas, through Weimar to the Leipzig Cantatas marks an astonishing journey, but the calibre remains high throughout. Bach knew what he was doing right from the start.
And having decided to do them all, the Bach tercentenary of 1985 provided an excellent goal, spurring us on to complete the project 15 years after we’d begun.
Did your experience of the Cantatas as liturgical works rather than concert pieces inform your approach?
Absolutely! You have to start by asking what Bach was getting at behind the notes; you have to understand the theology, to know that just as the Minister preaches a sermon, so Bach preaches a sermon in music. These categorically aren’t concert pieces; they explore the readings and prayers for the relevant day of the Church’s year and send carefully considered messages to the congregation – messages, which, incidentally, I like to explain in lecture-concerts talking about the theological context and Bach’s use of musical symbolism.
Tell me about how your use of instruments, voices and tempos changed during the cycle.
When I started out I was a Bach lover not a Bach scholar, and in my youth the prevailing ethos was dominated by Karl Richter. The whole approach was really quite Romantic. I knew I wanted to do something different, and with the Gächinger Kantorei I was already using small forces when larger ones were the norm.
If you listen to the recordings you will hear how my style evolved during the 1970s and ’80s; my attitudes to articulation, vibrato and tempi changed for sure as scholarship expanded. In the early discs I was also keen to capture a fine tradition of German Bach singing represented by people such as Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. As the cycle progressed we forged a new tradition with young singers such as Ingeborg Danz.
And my contacts with Bach’s Leipzig had a profound impact: it was fascinating to see and hear instruments associated with Bach, to stand inside the church in which he worked, and above all to experience the acoustics of the Thomaskirche and of course the Thomanerchor itself with its roots going back to Bach and earlier. A choir which lives together and is bound into a musical family in the arms of the church has a different spirit to others.
Did the secular Cantatas, sometimes seen as the Cinderellas of Bach’s output, require a different approach?
Well there’s wonderful music there, full of pomp and humour, but have you read the texts? No wonder they’re Cinderellas. With the exception of the Coffee or Wedding Cantatas, they’re full of sycophantic reverence for kings and princes, hard to take nowadays – although in the old DDR the Peasant Cantata used to be cited as evidence of Bach as a man of the people!