SAVING THE SACRED PAST : And welcoming the future - Brief Article

SAVING THE SACRED PAST : And welcoming the future - Brief ArticleThe Haenssler Classic recording company, based in the southern German city of Holzgerlingen, is an anomaly: a small independent firm specializing in sacred music that has produced quality recordings and made a profit. Not content to record only the classics in the genre, Haenssler, established in 1919, has offered a fascinating presentation of what sacred music can signify in our own era. It recently released splendid versions of rare oratorios like the Swiss composer Frank Martin's Golgotha, Franz Liszt's Christus, and Franz Schubert's Lazarus. The firm's interest in religious music is admirably ecumenical and includes a fascinating recital of Jewish chamber music by the sublime viola player, Tabea Zimmermann.

Haenssler has also sponsored ambitious attempts to regenerate large-scale sacred music by commissioning anthologies by contemporary composers. This approach received some criticism in 1995 when Haenssler's Requiem of Reconciliation, meant to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, involved fourteen composers in an unsuccessful attempt to combine highly disparate styles. A more recent effort, Passion 2000, in honor of Bach, narrowed the participating composers to four major names, Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov, and Tan Dun, each setting one of the Gospels. The latter recording is scheduled for release this spring.

These wide-ranging and multifarious activities on behalf of modern sacred music began in a humble southern German sheet-music publishing house. In the difficult aftermath of World War I, a Sunday composer named Friedrich Haenssler (1892-1972) founded a publishing firm, in part for his own output, which included the popular song, "Carried on Eagles' Wings." Industriously producing liturgical music for Swabian churches, Haenssler made a go of his company until the rise of Nazism in 1933. Suddenly, the beloved composer Mendelssohn, a standby of church performance, was persona non grata to the Nazis because of his Jewish roots. By 1941, Haenssler was hit by a ban on all publishing, leaving only his bookshop untouched. But this in turn was closed by official order in 1944. Haenssler was given the option to renounce Christian music--as well as Mendelssohn--but chose the path of resistance. He cannily packed his printing plates and backlist of works by Jewish and other banned composers into an abandoned chicken coop, preserving them from destruction.

These events had a permanent impact on the publishing house. Even today, it maintains a keen awareness of how the persecuted must retain a sense of identity. Thus, Haenssler continues to publish books of Jewish theology, such as Ludwig Schneider's recent Keys to the Torah. Friedrich Haenssler himself pointed out how, despite persecutions and the diaspora, the Jewish people did not forget their home and traditions but strengthened them "like a young plant."

Carrying these lessons through the slow recovery that followed World War II, in 1951 Haenssler received a large order for sacred sheet music from a young choir leader in the Swabian Alps, Helmut Rilling. Later known as the Gaechinger Kantorei, Rilling's group became one of the most recorded sacred music ensembles in the world. This was in no small part due to a development in the 1970s when, in addition to publishing books of biblical exegesis and sheet music, Haenssler (then run by the founder's son, Friedrich Jr.) began producing phonograph records. Rilling launched a vast project to record all of Bach's works, which became the seventy-CD set the company presented with justifiable pride last year during the Bach anniversary.

By obsessing on Bach, the company was taking a considerable risk because, apart from generally excellent singers, Rilling's recordings are in distinct contrast to more historically accurate renditions by specialists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Bruggen, and others who offer a fleeter, lighter Bach than Rilling does. Still, Rilling attracted a series of distinguished soloists, from the late American soprano Arleen Auger to baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Today, Rilling hires the finest crop of younger singers, including soprano Christiane Oelze, baritone Matthias Goerne, and bass Thomas Quasthoff. In addition, Haenssler has had the smarts to employ some of the best sound engineers available for love or money, notably the legendary producer Teije van Geest, who had previously achieved miraculous results in a series of Bach cantatas on Warner-Teldec, conducted by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. As producer, van Geest is an interventionist. In the recording he produced of Bach's violin concertos, he managed to have Rilling and his forces display unsuspected qualities of speed and grace. Similarly, the version of Bach's often-recorded cello suites by Boris Pergamenschikow is one of the finest in recent years, in part because of the splendid sound quality of the recording and the way it captures the cellist's artistry.

The Haenssler ([less than[www.haenssler.de[greater than]) trajectory suggests that by looking imaginatively to the future, while keeping a sense of history, a religious publisher may surprise the world.