In 1723, the Lutheran church (and thus, the city) of Leipzig was looking for a Kantor to compose and coordinate the music for at least at two churches, the well-known of which was the Tomaskirche (St Thomas' Church). Although J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was not their first choice (they wanted Telemann), they settled for him because he was the best they could get (!). Thus began perhaps the single most important tenure of employment in the history of music. Most of Bach's cantatas, (numbering well over 200) as well as the great Passions were created during that period at that place.
But for nearly a decade before coming to Leipzig, Bach was in charge of the music at the Court at Weimar (1708-1717). (Bach held a position at Koethen between Weimar and Leipzig; 1718-1723). Bach was in his 30s during the Weimar period and it was there that Bach developed the basic structure of the cantatas (Bach called them "sacred concertos"). These three examples are among the finest he ever produced. In fact, in later, more massive works like the B-minor Mass, Bach revisited music he made at Weimar and mined it for the new works. For example, the opening chorus in BWV 12 is a prototype of the music Bach would provide for the Crucifixus in the B-minor mass. Far, then, from being "immature", the cantatas recorded here, for Palm Sunday, the Third Sunday after Easter and Pentacost, must be counted among the great musical literature of the world.
I have been a student and lover of Bach's music for all my life. Because my musical education has been self-directed if not self-taught, there are huge gaps. One of those gaps used to be Bach's sacred vocal music. It is fair to say that the choral music, including the Cantatas and the St Matthew Passion, constitutes Bach's own most sublime creations. Keeping in mind JSB's vast output, including the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Cello Suites, the organ music, to name only a few, that's saying a lot. The fact that they are not as well known as lesser works such as the Brandenburg Concertos may be because of their religious character, and specifically, their 18th century Lutheran religious character. As Bach scholar Simon Crouch wrote, "[t]hey are sacred works, mostly written with a specific function in a Lutheran church service and I believe that they should be listened to with that context in mind, whether you are a believer or not." Enough said.
Joshua Rifkin's one voice per part (OVPP or "no choir") recordings of Bach's Cantatas (there are 3 sets: this one, "6 Favorite Cantatas", "Actus Tragicus": 106, 131, 99, 56, 82, 158) remain the gold standard, not just in "period performance-practice" recordings, but in any and every sort of performance. In the 1980s, when Rifkin began to publish and record Bach's sacred vocal music, the OVVP was controversial. No longer. Although you will definitely find more "with choir" performances out there than without, OVVP has been firmly established. Others approach (especially some of Andrew Parrott's recordings; certainly Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan's amazing with-choir performances), but none get it right like Rifkin.
The present recording is the only one of Rifkin's I know of without the great Jan Opalach singing the bass parts. In fact, except for the alto, Steven Rickards, all the singers on the present recording were new to the Bach Ensemble, or at least new to the recordings. Everyone acquits him/herself well here. Michael Schopper has a lyrical bass voice that, unlike some who approach this difficult music, is truly a bass, not a baritone. Alto Steven Rickards is honest and clean, although not as good on this as on earlier recordings. Susan Reyder has a beautiful clear soprano. But the star of this record is tenor John Elwes, whose clarion voice sounds as much like a high trumpet as any lyric tenor I've heard. If you want to try it before you buy, you should buy the MP3 "song", "Sei getreu" from Cantata 12; it's the next to last track on that cantata composed for the 3rd Sunday after Easter. Mr. Elwes's technique sounds as though he knows where the music is in the ether above, and throws up his voice to catch it. The result is of a beauty that leaves me nearly speechless, especially as under the singer's melody, a real trumpet "sings" a variation of the hymn, Jesu Meine Freude. This is as thrilling as music gets, for me anyway.
So absolutely download this album. If you've never heard Rifkin's OVPP performances, I would get the Actus Tragicus set first while you can - it appears to be only available as a very expensive import from Amazon - a sure sign that it's going to be impossible to get before long, and Rifkin's 106 (called Actus Tragicus after a heading on an early edition) cannot be beat. I would recommend this as almost a tie with that set, followed by the "6 Favorites", which has sound engineering problems and slightly uneven singing, but still contains the best and most authentic versions of music you thought you already knew. And if you are so fortunate as to be discovering Bach's sacred vocal music for the first time, you are in for what the previous reviewer accurately called, a revelation.