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AUTHENTICITY AT A PRICE
on 11 October 2009
It was Joshua Rifkin who first argued persuasively for the use of single voices per part in Bach's choruses, and that is the manner of performance he adopts here. Whatever reservations I or anyone may feel about this set in general, there can be no disputing Professor Rifkin's scholarship. Everything here is AAA authentic, and I wish that were all there is to the matter.
Unfortunately it's not. The dispute that Rifkin set in train between the single-voicers and multi-voicers has been the deadliest bore to afflict classical music since the onslaught of the repeats-are-compulsory enforcers 40 years ago. For my own part, I am entirely in favour of authenticity, but authenticity subject to a certain amount of discrimination and simple common sense. Just as in sonata-style compositions double-bar repeats mean that the section MAY be repeated, not that it has to be, so it involves a very limiting view of Bach's infinite musical genius to suppose that single-voice renderings are the only choral style possible. There is also the question how the requirement for authenticity affects phrasing, tempo, tone and general musicality. I recall first hearing Joshua Rifkin many years ago when he played the Scott Joplin soundtrack to The Sting, I own some of his other Scott Joplin rags, and I know what a marvellous natural sense of rhythm he has. What a pity then that he seems to feel that `classical' or `authentic' chastity compels him to deliver the melody of Jesu Joy in such a straitlaced and metronomic way. The same problem affects the famous melody of Wachet Auf, and although my growing collection of Bach cantata discs, currently around 50, does not include these famous works in other versions, nevertheless I own by now enough performances from Gardiner's great 2000-pilgrimage cantata series to appreciate in general that commitment to authenticity does not entail commitment to dryness.
As you would expect, much of this 2-disc set is very enjoyable. With music like this it would take genius of entirely the wrong kind to make that not so. Among the soloists I would say that the bass Jan Opalach is very good and the tenor Frank Kelley is even better. Sadly I can bestow no such encomium on the soprano who monopolises BWV 51. Still ringing in my ears is the wonderful performance that Malin Hartelius turns in for Gardiner. Indeed, the first chorus Jauchzet Gott is, for me, the low point of this entire set - slow, lumbering and leaden-footed in a piece that should be effervescent and brilliant as it is from Gardiner, Mme Hartelius and the trumpeter Nicklas Eklund. The final passage in BWV 140 is if anything worse, the only saving grace being that there is less to lose. The text is Des sind wir froh, io io, ewig in dulci jubilo, which being interpreted is `Thus are we joyful, hurrah hurrah, in everlasting sweet joy.' If you want to hear the most hangdog jubilation you ever heard, come this way. Surely nobody could spoil the celestial duet Wir eilen from BWV 78, nor does Rifkin spoil it, but I still prefer the way it was handled by Teresa Stich Randall and Dagmar Hermann (especially the latter) on the old Vanguard disc under the baton of Prohaska. There seems to be another minor issue of authenticity here - on the Vanguard disc the continuo introduction gives the melody in all its glory, whereas here we get a skeleton outline only.
The recording is now a quarter of a century old, and it is not bad at all in my own opinion, although I found myself turning down the volume which had last been set for the thunderous start of Handel's Dettingen Te Deum. Occasionally I wondered whether the voices were a little backward, but maybe not. In any case that is probably a good fault in Bach, whose inspiration is basically instrumental and not focused on the voices like Handel's. What is certainly true is that the acoustic does not suggest churches as Gardiner's, having been done in churches, unsurprisingly does. The liner note is rather humdrum and tells us nothing about the performers, but I can forgive it that and worse for sparing us any further discussion of the rights and wrongs of single voices in the choruses. I readily admit that I found the mighty chorus Ein' feste Burg a novel and interesting experience when treated in this way.