A recent J.S. Bach cantata performance reminded me of some reading and listening I had done maybe 10 years or so ago on Joshua Rifkin and his ideas concerning Bach choral performance. Although I had been familiar with Rifkin’s presentations from the early 80s on his controversial theory that Bach wrote most of his choral works, particularly the cantatas, for one voice to a part rather than for larger choruses, it didn’t really sink in until I heard a 1997 CD, J.S. Bach: 6 Favorite Cantatas.
Rifkin’s contention essentially boils down to this: Bach did not have available to him the quality or quantity of choir members that has grown up around choral music since the Romantic era days. So, he wrote for, and used, four soloists for both arias and as the chorus. Needless to say, this idea provoked an incredibly forceful rebuke from mainstream choral experts who were not able to accept such heresy. And many still do not. However, since then, the rational logic of his theory, as well as additional historical research, have swayed more and more Bach experts to his side.
For my ear and eye, though, it was that 1997 CD that stimulated new consideration. It featured the cantatas BWV 147, 80, 140, 8, 51, and 78 with performances from Joshua Rifkin’s Bach Ensemble—originally recorded in 1985-86. These performances followed Rifkin’s premise of one voice to a part…and what voices they are. Among the singers were the incredible Julianne Baird, soprano; Allan Fast, countertenor; Frank Kelley, tenor; and Jan Opalach, bass. Also singing on some of the works were Jane Bryden, soprano; Drew Minter, countertenor; and Jeffrey Thomas, tenor.
Whether or not you fall into the Rifkin camp, it is undeniable that a quartet of excellent singers can have a vocal nimbleness and a freshness that large ensembles cannot. On this CD is possibly my favorite J.S. Bach sacred cantata, Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben, BWV 8. Not only are the performances of Julianne Baird and Jan Opalach stunning, but Bach’s flute and oboe obbligato lines are simply amazing. There is a beautiful musicality and a translucent clarity to the performances that is positively addictive. It’s really hard to stop listening.
If you are unfamiliar with Rifkin’s premise, or not a believer at all in his concept, this recording could offer you some new insights into Bach. If not, you will still be overwhelmed by the musicality. The CD is still available on L’Oiseau-Lyre 455 706-2.