Helmuth Rilling has exactly the right approach to "ancient" music. As he states in the notes which accompany this recording, "Every conductor or performer of Bach's music has to know about the performance practice of Bach's time. You must know what kinds of instruments they used, how many people were playing and singing, what the rules were with regard to dynamics, tempos, and articulation – even the kind of audience for whom the music was intended. A composer of the genius of Bach expressed not just a sound, but his ideals." The performer then uses this knowledge to bring the music to life for a "modern" audience.
I can't imagine a better Bach ensemble that this one. Using modern instruments, they produce an other-worldly sound of incredible beauty. Rilling's band is energetic, light-footed and filled with joyous wonder at the glory of this magnificent music. The orchestra's bright, clear trumpets produce a heavenly effect that their "authentic" cousins could never hope to match. And like the soloists in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's phenomenal recording of Handel's Water Music (on Delos, conducted by Gerard Schwarz), Rilling's wind soloists have been encouraged to ornament their parts as they see fit, which they do to stunning effect.
Rilling's approach is so fresh and new that you'd swear Bach dashed these two Suites off just yesterday. Even the over-played Air from Suite 3 sounds unhackneyed here. The pace is never allowed to drag, the phrasing is unique yet effective, and the continuo is wonderfully realized. Rilling never forgets the dance origins of much of this music, and his interpretation had me wanting to jump to my feet, grab a partner, and whirl around the room.
Hänssler's sound is naturally balanced yet finely detailed, bright and crystal clear. Normally, I'd be tempted to complain about the chintzy playing time (41 minutes), but this is clearly a case of quality over quantity. You simply can't do better than these delightful, alert and richly-colored performances. And I, for one, can't wait to get my hands on Rilling's recording of Bach's first two suites.
Copyright © 1995, Thomas Godell.
This review originally appeared in the American Record Guide