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As part of the cultural rebuilding of post-1945 Germany, the Americans appointed conductor Karl Ristenpart (1900-67) to direct choral and orchestral music for the new broadcasting corporation in Berlin. With all musical resources and equipment having been seized by the Russians, the project started from absolute zero. From September 1946, when radio transmission began, the organisation became known as RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), as part of which were founded the symphony orchestra, chamber choir and chamber orchestra. The most visionary concept of the time was Ristenpart’s project to broadcast and record Bach’s complete cantatas, of which 29 have been transferred to the nine CDs now released. The project was never completed, but what remains is a legacy of Bach cantata performances that marks the beginning of Bach recordings that led to Richter, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Koopman, Suzuki, Gardiner, and all the ‘complete’ cantata performances ever since.

The 29 cantatas recorded are: BWV 58, 32, 22, 127, 4, 31, 42, 108, 37, 176, 39, 76, 21, 88, 178, 199, 164, 47, 56, 180, 38, 52, 140, 19, 79, 202, 106, 73, together with Telemann’s TWV1 (formerly attributed to Bach as BWV 160). Ristenpart’s musical vision contradicted the then current ‘monumental’ aesthetic of Bach performances, as well as the ‘objectivism’ movement that propagated performances that were intentionally devoid of emotional aspects. Ristenpart’s use of chamber orchestra and chamber choir was ground-breaking, and he gathered a group of extremely talented soloists, including Helmut Krebs, Agnes Giebel and the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all of whom shared the ideal of a legato melodic arch as a basis for vocal expression. It is marvellous to hear Fischer-Dieskau at the very beginning of his career singing Cantata 56 in this collection.

It is not difficult for purists to criticize. There are no ‘authentic’ instruments, the harpsichord is brittle, instrumental playing is vibrato-laden; but this is pioneering historical recording that has an intensity and an integrity that is deeply moving. Tempi are unfailingly convincing, and Ristenpart’s preoccupation with every detail of the text, melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint leads to performances of the utmost clarity. The philosophy and context of the recordings and broadcasts are well recounted in the CD booklet, as is the career of Ristenpart (who refused any cooperation with the Nazis). These recordings are a real treasure, serving as a historical document revealing so much about the history of Bach interpretation.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing