Günther Ramin is both a musical and historical legend in Germany today. His tenure as Cantor of Bach's "old church", St Thomas' Leipzig, from 1940 to 1956, spanned one of the most difficult periods in Germany's recent history, to which Ramin responded with musicianship, enthusiasm, conviction, loyalty and persistence. His 100th birthday anniversary on October 15th 1998 was celebrated "officially" by the special issue of a large 3 DM stamp depicting Ramin conducting the Thomanerchor; the occasion also provided an appropriate opportunity for historical, political and musical reminiscences.
In mild October sun a gathering of old friends and ex-Thomanerchor singers gathered at Ramin's Leipzig graveside to hear the Thomanerchor under its new conductor Georg Christoph Biller sing Ramin's own youthful composition: the motet "Out of Zion breaks the wondrous light of God".
A subsequent remembrance service at which several of Ramin's organ and choral compositions were also heard took place in Leipzig's splendid Nikolaikirche, with its columns designed to resemble palm fronds, and rich ornamental decoration on the ceiling, galleries and pews dating from Leipzig's "Golden Years" of the 1780s and 90s. The Pastor gave a short address in which he described the difficulties facing Cantor and Choir during the Nazi and Socialist dictatorships. He was well qualified to do so, having himself presided over the historic "Prayers for Peace" in October 1989 which had proved pivotal in the ultimate overthrow of the DDR Regime, the Wall and Iron Curtain.
The day ended with a chamber recital in the house in which Mendelssohn spent his last years, after which old friends and ex-Thomaners repaired to the Ratskeller for further reminiscences. They had indeed shared difficult times together; but the enduring comradeship between Thomaners can also be explained in part by their way of life as choirboys as well as the choir's long tradition.
Founded in 1212, the choir has maintained an unbroken tradition despite the vagaries and vicissitudes of religious, city and national politics; it has always been associated in Leipzigers' minds with their deepest cultural and religious traditions.
Probably uniquely in Germany - though not of course in Oxford and Cambridge! - the boys live-in, studying, relaxing, playing, and of course singing together. Some ten to twelve boys of mixed ages board together in a "Stube". A Thomaner from the 12th (the oldest) Class acts as "prefect" and is responsible for the good order and welfare of his group. It is a long Thomaner tradition, that the oldest are responsible for their younger colleagues. There is a measure of friendly rivalry between the "Stuben" in their regular football matches; a major yearly event is the match between the Thomanerchor and the Dresdner Kreuzchor!
With the advent of mass transportation in the early 1920s Leipzig began to find itself sharing its choir with an ever-widening circle of European musical centres, providing a new challenge for the then Cantor and Ramin's teacher, Karl Straube. Following extensive choral conducting experience during the 1920s and 30s, in addition to being Organist at St Thomas' since 1918, Ramin was appointed Cantor on January 1st 1940. The choir managed to survive the war, and in 1945 began, like the rest of war-torn Europe, to rebuild. There was little food to be had, and Ramin started a fund to support the choir. He would go on foraging expeditions, returning perhaps with salted herrings, or a supply of codliver oil, a spoonful of which was administered to each boy at breakfast.
In 1948 the choir made its first trip abroad, being invited to an international youth-choir gathering in Bern and other engagements throughout Switzerland. At first the concerts were not particularly well attended. Then the choir gave a concert in Geneva, during which several of the boys became ill and were forced, ashen-faced, to leave the stage. Those remaining looked thin in their sailor suits and short pants, with thick woolen stockings to keep them warm. The local newspaper gave a heart-rending review of these "poor, half-starved little choirboys"; thereafter the good-natured Swiss rallied round and every concert was a sellout. But as one of their number recently recalled, they were not sick from hunger, but from a surfeit of rich Swiss cream the like of which they had never tasted in their lives!
Anyone hearing Ramin's interpretations for the first time (and with the re-issue by Berlin Classics of twenty-seven cantatas on nine CDs we are fortunately able to do so) will be struck by the sharpness and clarity of the boys' voices. The four parts, S A T and B, are all equally and clearly audible, and each section of the choir seems to have been infused with an awareness of its own individual contribution and value, giving a depth of dimension to the sound which defies the limitations of mono recording.
On purely musical grounds the Soprano-Alto Choral-Duet from Cantata BWV 36 more than any other cantata-movement in this series brings out the clear, sharp distinctive sound of the boys under Ramin. It is most beautifully and movingly performed by the soprano and alto sections of the choir, having clearly been most assiduously rehearsed. CD 0090912: BWV 36, BWV 57, BWV 65.
Another outstanding feature is the choir's diction - Ramin always insisted that every single word must be clearly audible and distinguishable.
In stressing the texts themselves and the clarity of enunciation, Ramin was reflecting Bach's own view. Bach was deeply religious. He knew his Bible thoroughly and his family Bible was well annotated in the margins. One can always tell when Bach feels particularly strongly about a specific text or biblical injunction, for he gives it the special treatment of an outstanding choral introduction, or perhaps a variation on each verse of the appropriate chorale running throughout the cantata's movements. Ramin (like his pupil Karl Richter), brings a particularly strong spiritual insight to his interpretations, stressing the text and bringing out significant phrases. Indeed without such spiritual insight Bach's music becomes empty and meaningless. Unfortunately today, spiritual insight is frequently - and quite erroneously - confused with romanticism and rejected accordingly. This may explain why so many of today's renditions are superficial, aiming not to recreate a musical-spiritual experience but, in the words of John Eliot Gardiner, "to excite modern audiences". Here too may lie the explanation for many of today's breakneck tempi, so far removed from the religious devotions of an 18th century Leipzig congregation.
The Berlin Classics recordings were made by the SRK (Staatliches Rundfunk Komitee of the DDR) between 1947 and 1956 in conjunction with weekly radio broadcasts. Ramin had managed to convince his political "masters" that the Thomanerchor was a major potential foreign currency earner; the regular Sunday morning broadcasts were a further "coup" for this tireless Cantor. Clearly there were major political/historical factors at work here, and indeed one should not listen to these recordings without bearing in mind the conditions in which they were made.
Ramin is remfor his loyalty and persistence, his loyalty in remaining with his Leipzig choir after the division of Germany in 1946, despite numerous tempting offers from the West, and his persistence in keeping the choir alive, visible and audible through two dictatorships, Nazi and Socialist, fundamentally different ideologically yet identically antagonistic towards religion. In 1945 most of Germany was in total ruins. From the war's end until 1950 both Germanys were struggling to rebuild. Then as the 50s progressed, the weight of oppression and economic stagnation settled over East Germany in a cloud of depression; music was the people's lifeline to sanity and they clung to it desperately. The few visiting foreign choirs were received with tearful acclaim, and for all musical events large and small, the lineups would often form several hours in advance. It was against this background that East Germans tuned in at 11.30 on Sunday mornings to the hear boys and men of Ramin's Thomanerchor who dared to sing Lutheran cantatas and somehow managed to get away with it.
The choir was rehearsed during the week without orchestra, to be joined by the Stadt- und Gewandhaus-Orchester and soloists for the Divine Service on Sundays. This served as the only full "rehearsal" for the recorded performance which followed immediately. The performances were taped at 30 inches-per-second (giving a significant improvement in quality over the normal professional speed of 15ips) and the tapes were then taken directly to the studio for broadcasting. It was from these tapes that the present CDs were taken. The "privilege" of re-takes and editing was not permitted by the SRK; each cantata was, as one old Thomaner remembers, "an all-or-nothing" performance.... and the world would be listening with high expectations. This sense of pressure and importance may help to explain why many of the performances on these CDs can only be called electrifying. There are occasional intonation or interpretation problems due to inadequate rehearsal time with the orchestra, but these are indeed exceptions.
Of the technical recordings themselves one can only marvel at the level of clarity, the limitations of mono not withstanding. With a few exceptions, the general technical standard is excellent, and the broadcasts were regularly picked up by western stations. For these recordings SRK used several high quality condenser microphones, the only problem being that overcrowding in the Organ Gallery of the Thomaskirche where the recordings were made often left little space for microphone stands. The first, and indeed the most important element in the recording "chain" is the microphone, and here too hangs an interesting tale.
In 1927 Georg Neumann pioneered the high-quality condenser microphones used by all professionals, and his company has subsequently been responsible for the development and manufacture of some the world's finest professional microphones. In 1943 Neumann's Berlin factory was bombed; Mr. Neumann took his car and went south to find a place outside the allied bombers' flight-paths. The allied bombers dropped a material somewhat like Christmas-tree "tinsel" to confuse the Germans' radar and deflect their anti-aircraft defenses. Mr. Neumann was searching for a place without any traces of this "tinsel", and he found it in a little village called Gefell, just three miles on the "eastern" side of the Bavarian border. Here he set up shop in a vacant textile mill. He was not to know at the time, but by establishing this sister-factory in what was to become the DDR while retaining a presence in (later West) Berlin, Mr. Neumann was to ensure that both East and West would benefit from his pioneering technology. The high-quality "Neumann/Gefell" studio and broadcast microphones made in the DDR were distributed throughout the Eastern Bloc. Most of the microphones went into the broadcast systems and recording enterprises, to be used for example by the DDR recording company Eterna, and by the Russians for their MK and Melodyia recordings. Another Neumann/Gefell model went into the public address systems; virtually every town hall and auditorium in the former Soviet Union has one.
It was Günther Ramin's custom to review in advance the full scores of the several cantatas appropriate to a particular Sunday and to play them through on the piano, then making his personal selection. Were his choices influenced by the political conditions of the time? If they were, he would surely not have made any such admission. Yet when one follows the texts with the political conditions and the recording date in mind one cannot help wondering, for so many of the chosen cantatas reflect despair or a cry of hope.
On CD 0090992 for example we hear BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefe" - "From the Depths we call to thee"; and BWV 106 "Gottes Zeit" - "God's Time is the Right Time", both so magnificently and intensely sung. The third cantata on this CD is "Preise Jerusalem", BWV 119. Ostensibly it is an outgoing piece, composed for the 1723 City Council Election. The text is politically innocuous in its praise for the city of Leipzig and its fortunate inhabitants. Yet at the heart of this work is a key aria in which the unknown librettist echoes Henry Bracton ("On the Laws of England", 1265) when he warns that "authority comes from God, and he who fails to give it due measure fails to fulfil the will of God." Such an injunction may well have been considered appropriate in 1723; it could hardly have been more appropriate in January 1953, the year of the East German Uprising.
Then again, on CD 0090972, together with BWV 179 and BWV 137, we have Cantata BWV 138. This must surely be one of Bach's most moving works, one of several on the theme of death and its "blessed release". The weeping of the soul and its wish for death is interspersed with reassurances of God's help and support. It grips the attention from start to finish, and is here given a performance which I would never trade for any other. The choir and boy soloists sing with almost overpowering feeling throughout. Can it be any coincidence that this cantata, in which the inherent despair is so powerfully expressed, was broadcast in June 1953, the very year and month of the Uprising?
Musically outstanding, and historically (at least in retrospect) fascinating. These are unique performances indeed.