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Joshua Rifkin & The Bach Ensemble
Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works
General Discussions - Part 1

Rifkin and alternative versions of BWV 131

Ehud Shiloni wrote (March 9, 1998):
Greetings to Mark Dennison,

No need to apologize for the "phantom" BWV 198. I guess we'll have to wait for Rifkin to hopefully re-embark on cantata recording action (I read an interview in which he said he abandoned the field because he couldnt make any money there! ).

As for BWV 106/BWV 131 - I have this CD and it is one of my favorites, especially BWV 131. Of the six versions I have of this beautifull cantata, Rifkin's version is by far the best (for me.. of course). I seem to have failed in drumming-up supporters for Gardiner's dynamic version of BWV 198, so I doubt that many on the list will share my enthusiasm for Rifkin's BWV 131 - after all, his is the version with the quickest tempo!!

Any comments?

P.S.To Bob Halliday:
Thanks for your BWV 198 recommendation of Teldec/Jürgens. I shall most definitely try to get hold of this one: Although based on your comment I assume it will not prove to be my best choice, still, this music is so beautifull and touching that even the least preferred version must be a joy.

Any other rocommendations from the list??

Mark Dennison wrote (March 9, 1998):
(To Ehud Shiloni) Thanks Ehud Shiloni for bringing BWV 198 to my attention. It's not a work that I know but I intend to visit my local store and seek out some versions to investigate as soon as possible. I will try and listen to Gardiner's recording. With respect to BWV 106, I listened to the two versions I have - Rifkin and

Pohl (Collegium Aureum - Harmonia Mundi LP) over the weekend and found both very beautiful in their own way. Rifkin really does bring amazing clarity, his approahc being helped by very clean Decca recording. The older LP was a little fuller but this may just be the different format. I also noted that a female alto was used.

I must try and find an alternative version of BWV 131 to Rifkin's. Any suggestions?

Pieter-Jelle de Boer wrote (March 9, 1998):
Marc Seiler wrote, concerning Cantata BWV 131:
< I've heard the version of the
BWV 131 by Concentus musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourtwith the Tölzer Knabenchor. It's the oldest sacred cantatas of J.S . and so must be have a very "lightly interprtation" a real service of the words and no emphase. The simplicity of this work give all the emotion,without needing the emotion of the singers. His interprtation must be techiquelly perfect with precises voices. >
I don't know if I can totally agree on that. These early cantatas always have a profound, pietist (is that proper English?), almost mystic atmosphere about them (like BWV 106), so in my view, they need not an over-emotional approach (I do agree on that one), but not light, or, even worse, light-hearted. These cantatas concern very profound subjects (well... they all do, but these in particular). Actually, I'm speaking mostly about BWV 106, BWV 131 and (which is a bit newer) BWV 21, since I don't know many more of Bachs oldies. Which other cantatas did he write in his youth? Anyway, IMO they need a somewhat distant approach, though very intense, you might say: emotional from within. I find it quite astonishing how Bach, in his youth, seems to be able to touch upon all the different emotions that these cantatas involve so well. One can hear that he went really "into" their texts, and while their compositional level is perhaps not as high as in the later ones, their profundity is enormous. Question: Do the Leipzig cantatas "lack" a certain amount of this profundity due to the fact that Bach had to write them in such little time?

< Bach work the first chor in the grave, necessary for the introspection When come the "Herr, Herr,hre meine Stimme " the choir must not exprim joy. Of course, the rythmus must be faster besause it's like a window whose open about hope, but not joy. Perhaps in the version of Harnoncourt it's a too big difference between the two parts of this first chor. The third part, chor Ich harre des Herrn, is alone a motet. like a dialog beetwen all the voices. but before singing , very good heard what singing the others. The dimension of this chor resid in this: hear the others when we sing our part. It's the condition for all the old cantatas of bach. I have't an other version >
I agree very much with the word "introspection" and your remarks about the transition from the Grave to the "Herr..." (is that Allegro?), so that I really don't understand why you still want it to be "light". Maybe you mean, not to emphasize too much the "greatness" Bach, for me, developed more and more when he became older.

I don't know the Harnoncourt recording, but I do know (of course...) Herreweghe's. It's together with BWV 73 ("Herr, wie du willt, so schick's mit mir", one of my favourites, also in this performance) and BWV 105, already recommended by one of the listers. You might want to try that one, I think it's terrific, with some great oboe playing by Marcel Ponseele. Has anybody ever heard a better baroque oboist? Now I have to say it's quite a while ago since I last heard this recording, and I don't know if you'll like the transition we mentioned before, in the first part. For me, though, it touches the right atmosphere. I heard Koopman's version once, which wasn't bad, but I can't really judge on that one; Koopman uses a' = 465Hz, Herreweghe 440 Hz! Maybe not a baroque tuning, but it makes the sound darker, warmer, less tense than in a higher tuning. And since I believe the question about the early Bach tuning isn't quite resolved yet, it's justified anyhow IMO. Hope you'll enjoy it.


Rifkin and the cantatas

Laurent Planchon wrote (March 17, 1998):
I just got last week-end a double CD L'oiseau-Lyre with some of the most famous cantatas played by Rifkin and the Bach ensemble. Most of you are already probably familiar with it and with Rifkin's options, but for me -although I already knew about his most controversial interpretations options, i.e. soloists doing the choir- it was rather new for me. To tell the truth, because of this famous choices, I was expectinh the worst, but after having heard it, my feelings are kind of mixed, and I thought that I may want to share them with you.

The first thing I should mention is obviously the choir, and for me there is no doubt that he is plain wrong. Having the soloists singing the choir part does not make any sense at all (even Parrott with two singers per part does not make too much sense as well) at least musically speaking, and I doubt that it makes any sense historically, but it is rather difficult for me to be a good judge of that. And this spoiled totally all the opening choirs and chorals for me.

The second thing that bothered me was the tenor (actually there are two of them in my recordings) and sometimes even the bass. I am very sorry to not remember their names FTTOMH, but as far as the tenors are concerned, one is clearly worst than the other, and the comparison with Kurt Equiluz for instance is very tough for both of them. Tenor #1 (sorry about the name, but I believe that he is also a conductor now and he records the cantatas himself, and this should give you a hint of whom he is) sounded very amateurish to my ears. and certainly not up to his colleagues. I may be a little be critic here, but when you are used to singers like Equiluz or Van Egmont, it makes yout rather picky.

The third thing I did not like is that - following his choices as far as the choir is concerned- he uses only one soloist for the choral (cafirmus?) in the duets where one voice would sing the choral while the other would have his own text. I am not sure how these duets are called technically, but I am sure that you see what I mean. Anyway, in those duets, I believe that the choral line should be sung by all the soprani (or whatever voice) of the complete choir (as Harnoncourt would do), and I find Rifkin's choice rather poor.

But apart from these three points, I was more than pleasantly surprised with Rifkin. As I said I was expecting the worst (another Gardiner), but Rifkin stroke me as very involved and familiar with this music. He has certainly something to say and to bring in these cantatas, and it goes beyond simple music historical reendition. At least it is how I feel it.

As far as Gardiner is concerned - and I will stop here, sorry for the long post -, do you know (especially addressed to Gardiner's fans) that he is planning to record the complete cantatas in 2000? From what I know, the idea is to play all the cantatas live and to record them at the same time. It is his way to celebrate the millenium. Therefore if you are a Gardiner fan and if we are considering buying a complete set of the cantatas, instead of going for Koopman, you may want to wait just a little.

Mark Dennison wrote (March 19, 1998):
I was interested in Laurent Planchon's reaction to Rifkin's recordings. In what sense is Rifkin wrong about the use of single voices in his recordings? (I hope this isn't moving outside the scope of the discussion...)

Rifkin writes in the notes to the L'oiseau-Lyre disc of BWV 56, BWV 82 and BWV 158:

The restriction of the chorales to single voices reflects not only Bach's general Leipzig practice but also an explicit indication in BWV 56. The wrapper that contained the autograph score and orginal parts lists the vocal forces with the words 'S.A.T. et Basso Conc[ertato].' This unambiguously calls for only one bass, even in the final number; and it seems doubtful in the extreme - as well as unwarranted by any further evidence - that Bach would have wanted a greater number of singers for the upper parts.

In my program notes for the performance of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) given by the Bach Ensemble in Perth, Western Australia (where I live) in 1997, he writes:

...many considerations suggest that the forces Bach imagined for the Mass would not have essentially differed from those customary in his leipzig vocal music: single voices and winds, doubled violins, one viola and a continuo of violincello, violone and organ.

Whilst neither of these references go into detail about the actual evidence for single voices, I assume there is some. But to the point of all this, Rifkin goes on to say:

...such a scoring, with its finely gradated scale of colour and weight, makes it possible to approach the variety and depth of this music more closely than the tradition of large ensembles inherited from the nineteenth century...In returning to Bach's practice, we can better hear and understand his voice.

Which accords with my experience of the music. The bass in the above recording is Jan Opalach and the tenor is William Hite. To my ears Opalach is very good but I can't claim to have made many comparisons.

Laurent Planchon wrote (March 19, 1998):
Mark Dennison writes:
< I was interested in Laurent Planchon's reaction to Rifkin's recordings. In what sense is Rifkin wrong about the use of single voices in his recordings? (I hope this isn't moving outside the scope of the discussion...) [snip of some interesting quotations]. >
I guess that since we are actually discussing a specific recording, and as long we do not disgress from it, nobody will object to the little discussion.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, I am not a good judge when it comes to historical sources, and therefore I prefer to keep my arguments in the musical domain, but I feel kind of confident on this one since people like Koopman and others who are probably as well historically informed than Rifkin (Koopman stated it in one of his interviews) are rather on my side, and reject this approach. I also believe that an extreme care has to be taken when it comes to jumping to conclusions from the study of historical documents. This is one of the main ideas Harnoncourt himself develops in the first of his books, one of his arguments being that you often find what you were looking for, and you can end up with opposite conclusions studying the same document. I believe that a good example of what I mean but outside the musical domain (sorry for the brief off-topic) would be the so-called revisionism movement.

Anyway, back to my recording of Rifkin, what makes me believe that he is wrong is that first it does not sound like right at all, but this is a matter of personal taste I agree, but also that the opening choir does not make any sense to me then. If you use four soloists, then it is not a choir anymore but a quartet (like you would have duet), but in most of the cantatas I am familiar with the music seems to me written more for a choir than a quartet. I mean it is an very idiomatic choir music, which is very different from the music Bach uses for mutiple soloists arias. And then why would have Bach started most of his cantatas with opening choirs (again idiomatic music) and not with arias or sinfonias (like he did sometimes) if he hadn't any choir for that. As I said, I have not studied the historical sources, and it is rather difficult for me to say, but I would believe that my remarks are common sense.

I should also briefly add that I don't understand why chorals, which are in the lutheran tradition a assembly song, should be sung only by four singers ? I would be very amazed if it was indeed the case, but the bottom line is that we will probably never know for sure -unless we start to travel in time- and therefore we end up having to trust our musicla instincts, and in my case they tell me that Rifkin is wrong.


Two cantatas on unique indexed CD with follow-along analysis

Mike Flemmer wrote (October 15, 1998):
This limited time offer at HBDirect looks very interesting:

Joshua Rifkin/The Bach Ensemble/Cantatas
"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (BWV 147) & "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" (BWV 80)
Originally $25.00 per title, Now Only $7.99

"Full length CD, handsome hardcover book with over 150 pages of biography, history, and a digitally indexed "play by play" analysis of the music."

"The CD included with this book has been embedded with a series of inaudible codes that allows you to access particular events in the composition, be it the start of the recapitulation section in a sonata, or the entry of a voice in a fugue. The book references these access points to provide a detailed analysis of the composition. The excellent performances are drawn from the London, DG, and Philips catalogs."

Scroll down at the bottom of this site:

Is Rifkin a worthy purchase?

David Earls wrote (October 17, 1998):
I have this recording and enjoy it from time to time. However, with Rifkin, it might help to be a bit familiar with what you're getting into.

Rifkin argues persuasively (to those who enjoy his recordings) that the vocal forces available to Bach for most of his choral works were very small. And so Rifkin deploys very small forces himself, in order to capture his vision of Bach's vision (?!). There are many who do not agree with this premise (the Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example). A large number of musicologists are also completely unpersuaded.

It's a variant on the Bach-on-piano discussion. Many argue persuasively, from their hands to my ears, that Bach on piano is OK. Thank goodness this doesn't preclude Bach on harpsichord. So in my view it's OK to have the choral works on small forces. Actually, given the large number of people on the list who perform in choirs, I think it woube interesting to hear from the performers what the pros and cons of small forces are.

If small-scale isn't to your taste, you may not enjoy this recording. Otherwise, go for it. Rifkin also recorded the B-minor mass with similar forces. It may or may not be the best B-minor (BWV 232), but it is easily the most controversial.

Incidentally, the indexing thing may or may not work, depending on your CD player. There are "marks" embedded in the music (discussion points in the accompanying analysis), but most CD players can't find them.


Rifkin's Defense

Johan van Veen wrote:
Last Friday German radio (WDR Cologne) broadcasted extracts from a concert given in Germany in January 1998 by the Bach-Ensemble, directed by Joshua Rifkin. (snip)

As far as the performance is concerned, Rifkin may be a good musicologist, but he will never be able to convince me with his performances that his theories are right. My impression that he is a very boring musician ... (snip) Goebel has more feeling in his little finger than Rifkin seems to have in his whole body.

Piotr Jaworski wrote (July 18, 2000):
Having only B minor Mass (BWV 232) and four CD's with cantatas, I can't proclaim myself an expert on Rifkin.

However, I do not feel a need to become "convinced" by any artist - and if not convinced to label him, as - for instance - being "boring". The final comparison of 'feeling contents' between Goebel's finger and the whole Rifkin's body is at least ... strange. I think that we - as fellow listers - do not necessarily deserve such very personal comments.

Rifkin's works speak for themselves (here I completely share Don's views).


Harry's Game / Rifkin

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 23, 2000):
If I had my druthers, this List would stick to the cantata of the week. Period. That's one man's vote. No recount needed.

Charles Francis wrote (November 23, 2000):
(To Harry J. Steinman) The postman came today with some OVPP recordings: Rifkin, 6-favourite Cantatas (BWV 147, BWV 80, BWV 140, BWV 8, BWV 51 & BWV 78); Parrott Hearts Solace (BWV 198, 229, 227); Parrott B-Minor Mass (BWV 232); Rifkin B-Minor Mass. Not to mention Scherchen's St. Mathew Passion (BWV 244).

Guess I should look at the schedule!

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 24, 2000):
(To Charles Francis) Charles: Interesting! I'd be especially interested in your reaction to the OVPP (One Voice Per Part) masses. Is the Scherchen SMP also OVPP?

Piotr Jaworski wrote (November 24, 2000):
(To Harry J. Steinman) We are with Bach again. My first impression about Rifkin's cantatas was little less than enthusiastic. I grew up (I mean cantatas!) on Herreweghe and Suzuki. And Rifkin's B minor Mass (BWV 232) had immediately became my most favourite - more than any other frankly... But with cantatas - I have all his recordings - the story was different. It took several weeks of listening, comparisons etc. Some extra readings - on pros and cons of the entire OVPP theory, movement ... But it was worth of that time.

Rifkin & Suzuki .. like two sides of the same precious coin ...IMO (!!!) Send us your thoughts soon.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 24, 2000):
(To Piotr Jaworski) Thanks, Piotr...I'll be happy to share my thoughts...but I actually have never yet listened to Rikin's work! So...I have a small batch of cantatas on order, and I think after I digest that, I'll turn to Rifkin and the OVPP (One Voice Per Part) approach he takes. I can't imagine the Minor Mass as a OVPP production...but I'll be interested in hearing it!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (November 24, 2000):
(To Harry J. Steinman) It seems to have been rereleased this year at a super budget price...

Matthew Westphal wrote (November 24, 2000):
Hi everyone - and Happy Leftovers Day to all the listers in the US!

You may be put off in Rifkin's cantata recordings by the quality of some of the singers - he didn't always get the best ones to work with. Solo cantatas excepted, Rifkin's best cantata performances are (IMHO) of BWV 106 and BWV 131. His BWV 140 is mostly okay; I'm not wild about his BWV 78; his BWV 147 and BWV 80 I don't like at all.

The Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) is probably the best example of Rifkin's work on disc so far. (I keep hearing high praise for his recording of the Magnificat (BWV 243) from a couple years later, but that hasn't been available in the US for probably 15 years.) Rifkin's Mass certainly has its flaws - among other things, the standard of Baroque instrument playing (especially brass) is much higher now than it was in 1981. Yet a lot of it is marvelous, and it has Judith Nelson and Julianne Baird at their best, as well as very good singing from Jeffrey Dooley, a talented American countertenor whose career was sadly derailed for a number of years by a brain tumor.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 24, 2000):
(To Matthew Westphal) Matthew: Nice to hear from you...and thanks for the Rifkin Recommendations, which will guide me when I get to investing in his material.


Another Rifkin debate?

Nicholas Baumgartner wrote (July 5, 2001):
Robert Sherman wrote, reagarding the topic My First Cantata:
< I was 20 and into Brahms,Tchaikovsky etc. Loved Messiah but had no interest in and not much contact with Bach. I was at Oberlin and about the #4 trumpeter. Due to various circumstances the three guys who were better than I was were unavailable, so I was asked to play trumpet with the Oberlin College Choir on the very King of Cantatas, Ein' Feste Burg BWV 80. Robert Fountain conducted and we had some good performers, including Ed Brewer, who now has a baroque chamber orchestra, on harpsichord. >
I'm not trying to start one--just noting what contentions the mention of his name can stir almost 20 years after his findings. Has anyone here ever spoken with him? My bet is that a conversation with Rifkin would convince many skeptics not only that his findings are correct, but also that his musical delivery thereof is equally convincing. As John Butt writes on page 40 of his book on the B minor, "although [Rifkin's] view continues to be opposed by some of the most important figures in Bach research, there have been no convincing arguments, based on meticulous source-study, actually to prove him wrong."

On a lighter note, are there any other Oberlin grads on this list?

Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 5, 2001):
[To Nicholas Baumgartner] Have a look at Parrott's book on the subject. See my review here:

Robert Sherman wrote (July 5, 2001):
[To Nicholas Baumgartner] I won't dispute any scholarly arguments anyone wants to put forward. Rifkin's performances may or may not be authentic. They may or may not be appropriate church style. I don't care about this musicological stuff one way or the other. My only point is that musically, his performance of BWV 80 is yuck.

That being said, I don't know of any other performance of BWV 80 that I find fully satisfying. But if you combine the best sections of Richter and Leppard the result is pretty good. Plus, think of the feeling of power you can get from choosing between Fischer-Dieskau and Ramey.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 16, 2001):
[To Nicholas Baumgartner] Not to be dismissive, but when I read Mr. Rifkin's written comments published in New Grove that the famous painting of Schütz demonstrates the force of Schütz's personali, I winced, thinking it overreactive and subjective. Though, I have not spoken to him, Mr. Rifkin has spoken to me through his written comments, such as those about Schütz's portrait.

While, I agree generally with an historic approach, Mr. Rifkin's CD of Bach Cantatas with "authentic instruments" that I considered purchasing just last night, did not extend itself to include Knabenstimme.

Charles Francis wrote (July 16, 2001):
[To Boyd Pehrson] Apparently in the eighteenth century, boy's maintained their treble voices well into late teens, so unfortunately there's no modern counterpart to Bach's "Knabenstimme". Consequently, the modern "HIP" approach is to use female voices which, it is argued, better approximate the capabilities of Bach's singers. Having said that, I suspect the failure of the Harnoncourt-Leonhard approach, had little to do with age, but rather reflected the absence of top-notch boys-choirs in Germany. To date, I've only discovered one German boy's choir that can compete with the best English choirs:

I'd love to hear some of these kids do a OVPP recording!

Boyd Pehrson wrote (July 16, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] Yes, I too would love to hear it recorded by those boys!

Apparently, as far back as the 1500's boys voices were more commonly changing at 15 years according to translated records from Old Seville, (see "Spanish Cathedrals in the 1500's"). Choristers in Old Seville were given full scholarships after their voice changed provided at least three years service was given in the choir. The age limit for admission was 8-12 years old. So, the expectation must have been change of voice around 15 years old. Most of the choristers cashed in for their scholarships at 15 years old. Also, according to Geoffrey Webber's work "North German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude" (1996, Clarendon Press) Friderici's 1618 treatise on boys' voices warns that vocal ornaments are too difficult for boys' voices, and are the provence of only the best singers. Praetorius, Bernard and Crüger likewise gave similar advice, as well as describing easier forms of accentus and passaggi as appropriate for boys. These would have been the very works Bach would have had contemporarily concerning ornamentation in the new Italian style (if he consulted any). Also, the lament that a good boy singer was one in a thousand is recorded in Webber's work. Bach would not be unfamiliar with these issues and limitations. Criag Wright's work "Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris" (1989, Cambridge University Press) mentions in Parisian records that boys were advancing to lay clerks at 15 years of age. Lay clerk duty was reserved for those boys with changed voices. Ian Payne, in his work "The Provision and Practice of Sacred Music at Cambridge Colleges and Selected Cathedrals C.1547-C.1646, A Comparative Study of the Archival Evidence" (1993 Garland Publishing), provides the following note on page 14:

"I am grateful to Dr. leHuray for kindly placing at my disposal his unpublished paper entitled "The Cathedral Music at Chichester during the 16th and 17th Centuries," which contains the following statement: "nowadays most boys will spend six or years in a cathedral choir, having been admitted at the age of eight or nine.At Chichester from 1545 to 1603, the boys seemed to have spent an average of 6 years in the choir, and in the the latter period [1603-42]4 1/2 years." It follows from this that an average voice broke between the ages of thirteen-and-a-half and fifteen at the latest, if one assumes that the ages of admission were the same then as they are today. (Old Foundation statutes often do not refer to age at all; and even those of New Foundations only specify "boys of tender years" (pueri tenerae aetatis).) Roger Bowers, "The Vocal Scoring, Choral Balance and Performing Pitch of Latin Church Polyphony in England, c.1500-58," Journal of the Royal Musical Association (JRMA), 112 (1987),pp.38-76,(p.48 note 23),offers conclusive evidence (from, inter ailia, chantry certificates of the 1540's) that boys' voices broke at about fourteen or fifteen." This is supported by the known ages of admission of eight out of a total number of seventy Lincoln choristers admitted between 1576 and 1639: they range from eight to fourteen years (see LAO D&Ca/3/7, fol. 118r; A/3/9, fols 11v, 78v, 86v, 1414r, 142v,159r)."

Mr. Payne, is not able to reconcile such records of the Cathedrals to views such as David Wulstan's view that boys' voices did not change until 18 years of age. But even Wulstan admits that some boys' voices broke at fifteen and sixteen in the 1550's and 1560's (Wulstan, Tudor Music, 1985,p.241). J.S. Bach's own voice changed when he was 15 years old. Bach's records upon entering Cantorship at the Thomas-schule show that the majority of the boys were fourteen and under. After some years the amount of choristers 14, 15, 16 years old increased, but those ages are the upper limits. So, really I do not see a vast difference between Bach's time and now. Possibly on average, and generally speaking, between two to three years at most. We have seen the records indicate 15 years old as an average age of voice change in 16th-17th centuries. Also the expectation of a boy's performance ability and the demand on coloratura singing was to be limited for boys according to those contemporary sources.

The arguments put forward by people who believe no boys can be found to match the boys of Bach's time say that boys' voices broke several years later, and therefore must have had more time to develop their voices, become more mature musically and/or had time to grow larger because they kept their voices into late teen years.

To answer those arguments I would remind them that nowadays boys are larger (in fact the "Average 6 foot Man" is a foot taller and probably 100 lbs. heavier than his ancestor of 500 years ago. This would include women who are also quite larger that their ancestors.) Also, boys today have the advantage of accumulated knowledge of voice training techniques, a greater repertoire to learn new skills from, and technology such as recording devices, music can be printed and handed out, so that each boy can take a musical score to his room to study it at leisure, unlike 16-17th centuries when music had to be memorized to save on vastly expensive paper. Boys these days have the luxury of having private voice coaches, above and beyond their normal Director. Devices that electronically measure tone and pitch, as well as computers that can analyse voice patterns, etc...are able to be utilized as well. So, boys today have, in my opinion, vast advantages in their world compared to what their ancestors had when learning their music.

All this to say I heartily disagree with those who would say that Women better approximate the capabilities of Bach's singers, than do boys, say at the Thomasschule in Leipzig do today. Bach wrote all of his regular church music as Cantor of St Thomas School, with his boys' voices in mind. I agree with the current directors of German Boys' Choirs today who say that the abilities of boys today are not too vastly different than boys in Bach's time, and that boys today do make an instrument much closer to the one Bach used than today's modern adult women.


Rifkin and others

Ken Nielsn wrote (October 18, 2001):
I'd be interested in some suggestions of recordings that best present the one voice per part approach to JSB's works. I don't want to provoke a discussion about HIP and such, just to give my ears a chance to judge. Can anyone help?

If it's relevant, my current preferences for the Cantatas are the Suzuki recordings. I found myself tiring of Koopman.

Feanor wrote (October 19, 2001):
[To Ken Nielsen] Are there any cantatas recordings by Andrew Parrott? That should do...

Sybrand Bakker wrote (October 19, 2001):
[To Ken Nielsen] Purcell Quartet Lutheran Masses (so-called Missae Breves) on Chandos, 2 volumes
Cantus Cölln Cantatas BWV 4, BWV 12, BWV 106, BWV 196 on Harmonia Mundi France
Andrew Parrott, Magnificat (BWV 243), Easter oratorio (BWV 249) and several cantatas on a Virgin double CD (cheap)
Paul McCreesh Epiphany Mass : reconstruction of a church service in Leipzig including both readings and the communion singing chorales, Deutsche Grammophon
Paul McCreesh Magnificat (BWV 243) and Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) also on DGG

Rifkin has recorded the B-minor Mass (initially on Nonesuch, now on Ultima CD) and several cantatas (BWV 106, BWV 131, BWV 140, BWV 51, BWV 78) on several discs with Virgin.

I hope this will be sufficient to get used to it and wet your appetite for more.

I also find myself tiring of Koopman, and I know by design there are cuts everywhere on his recordins, ie the ensemble never came together to record the work in full, he is recording the arias and choruses separately, so he may record all arias for one particular soprano for several volumes.

I think Mr. Suzuki is a bit too 'clean' and to unidiomatic, and when not One Voice per Part, I use to prefer Herreweghe.

Tom Hens wrote (October 19, 2001):
[To Ken Nielsen] A good place to start might be the recording of the motets BWV 225-230 by Cantus Cölln, directed by Konrad Junghänel (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77368 2).

Charles Francis wrote (Octobewr 19, 2001):
[To Ken Nielsen] In your place, I'd be inclined to go to the source - Rifkin. Failing that try his disciple, Parrott.

C. Ng wrote (November 4, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] Neither Koopman nor Gardiner capture the religious feeling of Bach's vocal works. The absolutely most overrated St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) is Gardiner's. The only people who love it are those who don't really listen to Bach anyway.

Anyway, Andrew Parrott's Mass in B minor is more satisfying than Rifkin's. Try that. But the Rifkin cantatas are very good. I like them a lot though on some of them the soprano is given too much volume.

Also Rifkin has a new recording of Bach cantatas out (it's not a reissue as far as I know).


Major article on Rifkin / Michael Schopper

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 9, 2002):
Ha'aretz: Rifkin Article

Sorry that this has so long a URL which you will have to copy and paste into your browser. It's a major article in the Israeli Newspaper Ha'aretz.

Dick Wursten wrote (January 10, 2002):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Thanks for the tip.

One tiny little remark and one question: 1.AFAIK Sigiwald Kuijken should be Sigiswald Kuijken 2. Can someone shed some light on the last sentence from the interview: "The bass is performed by Michael Schopper, a name that should be familiar to veteran Israeli Bach fans.." , because Schopper is also one of my favorite basses.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (January 9, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] Dick, I personally have never heard of him, let alone heard him. But here is a snippet from

Konzertdebüt 1968 als Solist im Weihnachtsoratorium von J.S. Bach zusammen mit dem Münchner Bach-Chor unter Karl Richter und erwarb sich bald internationalen Ruf als Konzert- und Oratoriensänger; Konzertreisen führten ihn in die europäischen Musikmetropolen, nach Nord- und Südamerika sowie nach Israel.

Charles Francis wrote (January 10, 2002):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Excellent article by one of my favourite Bach conductors! One of the highlights:

"Asked about the impact on him of two leading figures of the authentic school, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, Rifkin says: "I never admired them." He says he came to the historical approach on his own and the first time he heard Bach's cantatas performed by Harnoncourt, it sounded horrible to him. He still doesn't like the sound."

and another one...

"Summarizing his approach to baroque performances, Rifkin says that initially the big mistake of the historical school was that its starting point was the harpsichord.

The starting point should have been singing. Except that when this school started out 40 years ago, there weren't any singers who could follow through with the required production and interpretation methods. Rifkin believes musicians have to strive to use their instruments, when playing baroque music, the same way a good singer uses his voice. Musical performance is like talking; a good musical delivery is like speaking your own language, he contends.

Native speakers use effective rhetorical tools when they talk. It has to be the same way in music, before anything else. Only after this is there any point in talking about a higher level, which is interpretation."

Charles Francis wrote (January 10, 2002):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] A facinating quote:

'I would say this: I'm the one who's the hard core of authenticity and I take very seriously historical evidence that can provide hints about how they played and sang during the Baroque period," he says. In terms of practical applications today, Rifkin says he implements lessons from historical research only when they speak to him personally.'

Especially given this remark:

'Asked which stars of the authentic school have influenced him, Rifkin answers: "Truthfully, no one."'


Aryeh Oron wrote (January 11, 2002):
Dick Wursten wrote:
< One tiny little remark and one question: 1.AFAIK Sigiwald Kuijken should be Sigiswald Kuijken 2. Can someone shed some light on the last sentence from the interview: "The bass is performed by Michael Schopper, a name that should be familiar to veteran Israeli Bach fans.." , because Schopper is also one of my favorite basses. >
Michael Schopper appeared during the early 1970's in Abu-Gosh Festival and in other Israeli venues, performing Bach's vocal works. You can read his short biography in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website:
I consider his rendition of Cantata BWV 56 with Leonhardt to be among the best recordings of this cantata.


Rhetorical tools (Rifkin) - two more performance essays

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 11, 2002):
Those Rifkin comments about rhetoric sound like like an echo of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's book Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech. It's a book I reread every few years, as I find it inspiring.


I've written several essays myself about related issues: rhetorical interpretation and effective preparation, describing the levels of quality that I expect to find in outstanding performances. They show what I want to receive as a listener, and therefore also what I want to deliver as a performer.

An inside look at preparing a piece for performance...background, foreground, analysis, cultivating expressivity, etc.:


'I am pleased when the performer has considered details carefully and thoughtfully, and then reassembled the piece so that it sounds organic and "in the moment." The music unfolds and grows naturally, with a balance of inevitability and whimsy, a clear structure yet with a sense of play and ease...a delight in controlled irrationality. The performer adds something personal to the music, but short of eccentricity or intellectual pedantry. It has to sound as if the music is presenting itself convincingly, with a life of its own. (I suppose I've already said that with the word "organic.")'


Levels of quality important in performance:

That one has six downloadable musical examples: six recordings of the same music, showing different levels of success (or failure) at excellence in performance.


"Summarizing his approach to baroque performances, Rifkin says that initially the big mistake of the historical school was that its starting point was the harpsichord.

The starting point should have been singing. Except that when this school started out 40 years ago, there weren't any singers who could follow through with the required production and interpretation methods. Rifkin believes musicians have to strive to use their instruments, when playing baroque music, the same way a good singer uses his voice. Musical performance is like talking; a good musical delivery is like speaking your own language, he contends.

Native speakers use effective rhetorical tools when they talk. It has to be the same way in music, before anything else. Only after this is there any point in talking about a higher level, which is interpretation."


Bad performances by famous people

Robert Sherman wrote (April 22, 2002):
Bernard Nys wrote:
< I know that Kirk was not positive about those DVD's but who are we to say that people like Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance &Co are not singing well ? >
We are the audience and of course we can say that anyone is not singing well or has not been recorded well on a particular occasion. A big name is no protection against a stinking performance. On the contrary, some of the most famous performers sometimes seem to take the attitude that they're doing us a favor by letting us bathe in their golden tones, and they don't need to put much thought or effort into the music.

In order to serve as a deterrent against this kind of thing, I propose to start a thread in which people will nominate really bad performances by eminent performers. I am a performer myself and don't like to insult others' efforts. But threat of embarrassment could be the best guard against complacency.

So I start that ball rolling with these nominations:

Joshua Rifkin: Cantata BWV 80. OVVP effect totally lost by being overwhelmed by orchestra, particularly the organ doing zero-content harmonic fill.

Kiri te Kanawa: Messiah conducted by Solti. Total lack of concentration on either music or technique.

Joan Sutherland: Messiah conducted by Bonynge. Like te Kanawa but worse.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 22, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Well, I've said this before but OVPP by Rifkin for Bach's H-moll Mass (BWV 232) is way out of line. The voices sound strained and forced because they have to compete with the instrumental ensemble. I mean even Ockeghem has two voices per part in most of his masses (by the Clerks' Group). And I'm not a musician either. A Bach mass as a 'barbershop' quartet? I felt very sorry for Rifkin's singers!

Robert Sherman wrote (April 22, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] I strongly agree. Moreover, the atrocious thing about his BWV 80 is that even in the parts without big orch, the balance is still terrible.

Piotr Jaworski wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] You're kidding..., yes? Cause you MUST be kidding.
"Barbershop" Qt.???

Well, in case you're absolutely serious, and the above was something more than just a provocative remark, I have to add my two pennies.Rifkin's Mass is certainly one of my favourite ones. The one - I most frequently return to.

The OVPP concept works - IMO - perfectly well in B minor. Perfectly well! This is great and inspiring performance.

So, "Vive la difference!"!!!

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Piotr Jaworski] I'm sorry if I upset you! Well, I still own it, so that shows for something. In fact, I got it as LPs when it first came out and I later bought it as Nonesuch CDs. It was my first exposure to that lovely singer Julianne Baird. I like the clarity by reducing the forces involved. However, at some points the poor over-wrought singers just can't be 'smoothed' out. Doubling throughout would help this I think. Sometimes the jagged, breathladened singers can't compete with the instruments. Othertimes it doesn't sound so bad. So if I had to choose an overall B minor Mass (BWV 232) if would be Gardiner's. Another thing: the LPs sounded better because the CDs bring out 'everything', and I mean everything, good and bad, that's inherent in the recording. The LP records sounded smoother.

Thanks for sharing your responses!

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Piotr Jaworski] And before his OVPP Bach adventures, Joshua Rifkin produced the most lovely Judy Collins album, 'In My Life', that is my absolute favorite. And he performed Scott Joplin "Rags". In the latter case, he avoided the stereotype of ragtime and played Scott Joplin very slowly and with great sensitivity.

(Ha! Cackle! But Barber Shop Quartet Masses???!!!)
:) :) :)

Piotr Jaworski wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] I'll forgive you everything, but one - why do you call me PIJAWOR???! This is the name of my mail account - as you must know - mine is Piotr! ;-)

Since I admire (and share) your sense of humour, I'll add only one thing on the subject: for me Rifkin's Mass is exactly like a bit of rare, oriental spices - it causes that the entire dish (Gardiner, Herreweghe, Fasolis, Hickox ... whatever performance you prefer) gets heavenly taste! And of course - you cant feed anyone with spices only.

Donald Satz wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Piotr Jaworski] I really don't understand the problems that some folks have with the OVPP approach on recordings. Microphone placement can take care of any noted weaknesses from numbers of voices. Then add in the greater detail of smaller vocal forces, and the results can be magnificent.

Although I enjoy Rifkin's B minor Mass (BWV 232), the Parrott is my favorite for OVPP. When you don't like the singing, just blame the singers or the engineering, not the approach.


Rifkins too-loud organ

Robert Sherman wrote (May 16, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote to Hugo Saldias:
< You said: "The Richter version does not have a loud organ part. The organ NEVER covers the two ladies singing."
In fact, I decided the organ part was too loud only after hearing the Rifkin. You are correct - I should have said something like: "Richter gives us a conception in which the organ plays a major role, while Rifkin gives a performance in which we hear more orchestral detail from the stringed instruments. Richter's version sounds mono-chromatic (one-colour) in comparison with Rifkin."
It's a complex 'art', this business of music criticism. Thanks for your comments. >
Interesting, I'll have toget this. I've been put off by Rifkin after listening to his BWV 80 in which the organ obscures everything with too-loud no-brain harmonic fill, not even some interesting ornamentation. And below that the strings obscure the voices. But maybe he does better elsewhere.

Uri Golmb wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Are you sure that was Rifkin you were listening? I've put it on again, and all I hear on the continuo front is an unobtrusive harpsichord -- I doubt if he's using an organ at all, let alone an overloud one! And the voices (OVPP) are definitely the most prominent feature, at least in the opening chorus, where the only part of the orchestra that has any real prominence are the oboes -- not surprising, as the strings mostly double the voices. (Rifkin is using the original version -- so no trumpets and drums, prominent or otherwise). You hear more of the instrumnets in the second chorus (no. 5), since their parts are independent here -- but again, no over-powering organ, and quite possibly no organ at all!

Is it possible that you meant "Richter" rather than "Rifkin"?

Robert Sherman wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Believe, me, I know the difference between Richter and Rifkin. The Rifkin recording I have is part of a set that includes (not very useful) discussion material on the music. The OVPP becomes, some cases, ZVPP (zero voice per part) because it's hard to make out the voices. Possibly he's recorded it more than once, and we have different recordings.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 16, 2003):
[To Robert Sherman] Bob, for Rifkin's recording of cantata BWV 80 (and BWV 147) do you have the issue that came with a 159-page book by Alan Rich? That's the one I have here. It says it's part of a "Play By Play" series.
That publication was a reissue from l'Oiseau-Lyre.

There's no organ in this performance...or trumpets, or drums (as Uri noted).

Any chance your copy is somebody else's recording with Rifkin's name misplaced on it? Rifkin was a writer of jacket notes for other people's recordings in the 1970s....

Robert Sherman wrote (May 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad, you're right. My memory was rusty and I mixed the two in my mind. It's BWV 147 that has the obtrusive organ. I listened to both of these with high hopes when I first got them a few years ago, was so disappointed I never listened again. Sorry for the confusion.


Continue on Part 2

Joshua Rifkin: Short Biography | The Bach Ensemble | Recordings of Vocal Works | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2
Individual Recordings:
Three Weimar Cantatas - J. Rifkin | BWV 232 - J. Rifkin | BWV 243 - J. Rifkin
Bach's Choral Ideal [by J. Rifkin] | Article: The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [By J. Rifkin]

Conductors of Vocal Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | Singers & Instrumentalists


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