Aufnahmen / Recordings


J. S. Bach: Cantata BWV 106 "Gottes Zeit" (Actus Tragicus) / Cantata BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen"
Ann Monoyios (sop); Steven Rickards (alto); Edmund Brownless (ten); Jan Opalech (bass); Bach Ensemble/ Joshua Rifkin.
Decca / L'Oiseau-Lyre Florilegium digital CD 417 323 or 444 166-2

George Chien, writing in Fanfare (March/April, 1994) singles out Rifkin's recording of 106
(L'Oiseau Lyre 417 323) as "outstanding" among competing versions.


This is the third record of Bach cantatas to have been issued on L'Oiseau-Lyre with Joshua Rifkin and his Bach Ensemble. The earliest one, containing Cantatas Nos. 80 and 147 (417 250-1 OH; CD 417 250-2011) I reviewed in February and LS reviewed Nos. 51 and 140 (417 616-IOH; CD 417 616-20H) last month. Whilst finding weak moments in the performances I enjoyed that February issue, both for the freshness of its approach to the music and for some notable individual contributions from the instrumental players. As before Rifkin applies the one-voice-to-a-part principle which he first demonstrated in his recording of Bach's B minor Mass. On this new issue I feel that Rifkin's approach pays out richer dividends than was so in the last one. Cantatas Nos. 80 and 147 are larger-scale works than the two much earlier ones chosen here.
Cantata No. 131 is almost certainly the earliest surviving work in this form by Bach; he composed it at Mühlhausen in about 1707-08, and the influence of the earlier generation of Buxtehude, Zachow and Knupfer is pronounced. This is especially so in the opening sinfonia, the choruses and in an all-embracing homogeneity more easily achieved in the earlier German cantata structure than in that which Bach adopted in the majority of his Leipzig works. Rifkin gives a convincing account of this music, whose text is a setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis. Texture is light and transparent and, as in the earlier album, there is some lovely oboe playing which conveys the deep pathos of Bach's writing. In a work of this kind, and in the "Actus tragicus" (thus described in the surviving copy of the work—the autograph is lost), for No. 106, the other cantata included here, there is no case to be made out for large-scale forces. Bach's orchestra for No. 131 consists only of an oboe, violin, violas in two parts, bassoon and continuo, whilst that for No. 106, another Mühlhausen piece, consists of two treble recorders, two viole da gamba and continuo. Matching Bach's delicately coloured instrumental palette with disproportionately large vocal forces makes nonsense of the music, and Rifkin's sensitive approach merely emphasizes the folly of the other.
Generally speaking I liked the tempos—they suit the spirit of music and text often capturing the lyricism of the former which, especially in No. 131, eludes so many performers. Rifkin's vocal team strike me as more evenly matched than in the previous issue I reviewed. Only the bass, Jan Opalach, is common to both; the voices of the remaining three singers are new to me. They blend well together and achieve an account of No. 131 which gives a more vivid picture of the music than any previous performance that I've heard. The "Actus tragicus" comes off marginally less well, for although there is some fine playing from the instrumental ensemble, notably in the affecting Sonata which begins the piece, this is not always matched by equally assured singing. As I have already implied, however, the quality of the voices is attractive—high-tenor notes from Edmund Brownless are often beautifully placed and Jan Opalach's contribution is lively and well focused. Ann Monoyios has a light, fresh-sounding voice with a well-controlled vibrato and the alto, Steven Rickards manages his expressive solo in No. 106 with precision and restraint. Any discomfort that I sense in the singing is caused by a feeling that, especially in the two upper parts, the soloists are giving all that they have and that there is little or nothing left in reserve. It does not spoil my considerable enjoyment of the performances but I am aware of artists being 'stretched' from time to time.
No Bach lover should turn his back on this issue and he or she may have to look hard and long to find as convincing an interpretation of Aus der Tiefen. In these two works one voice to a part is fully justified on musical grounds if not necessarily on historical ones. The sound is marginally preferable on CD. A stimulating issue. N.A. (December, 1987)


J.S. Bach: Cantata "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit", BWV.106

First Choice:
 Ann Monoyios (soprano), Steven Rickards (countertenor), Edmund Brownless (tenor), Jan Opalach (bass), The Bach Ensemble, Joshua Rifkin (director)
 (recorded 1985; c/w Cantatas: "Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir", BWV.131; "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan", BWV.99; "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen", BWV.56; "Ich habe genug", BWV.82; "Der Friede sei mit dir", BWV.158)
 DECCA 458 087-2 (2-CD, mid-price)

Choral recommendation:
 Aki Yanagisawa (soprano), Yoshikazu Mera (countertenor), Gerd Türk (tenor), Peter Kooy (bass), Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (director)
 (recorded 1995; c/w Cantatas: "Gott ist mein Konig", BWV.71; "Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir", BWV.131)
 BIS BIS-CD-781 (CD)

A Triumph

Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble have produced the most important recordings of Bach cantatas in the last 20 years, give or take. In 1986, the idea that Bach did not use choirs to sing his choruses, but gave that task to the singers also used as soloists so that each part in the chorale movements are sung by one voice, was controversial. Since then, however, Rifkin seems to have been vindicated, and modified versions of Rifkin's theory have been utilized in performances by, not only Rifkin the Bach Ensemble, but also by others including Andrew Parrot (who wrote a book about it) and Ton Koopman.

The resulting sound from performances where the OVPP method is engaged is radically different from that on full-chorus performances. For one thing, voices are allowed a great deal more room for individual expression - ornaments, dynamics, when to use their vibrato's and when not to. Additionally, choirs have a full, uniform ripeness of sound, that has never seemed quite right in the cantatas (as opposed to the St. Matthew Passion for example). The harmony and counterpoint on most of the cantatas, as well as the precision of musical ideas and the extremely limited instrumental parts - in many movements, there is nothing more than an oboe or a pair of recorders plus continuo - belie an intimacy that big choirs and orchestras (or even little choirs and orchestras) cannot capture by definition.

Included here are six works, including cantata number 106, "Actus tragicus", which is one of Bach's most profound works and three cantatas for bass solo. including the well-known "Ich habe genung." For these three alone, this recording would be indispensible. As it is, the six cantatas recorded here seem not only deeply beautiful, they are definitive. I will never hear 106 again without comparison to Rifkin's. Ditto the bass cantatas. It's hard to imagine anyone more suited than Jan Opalach to sing the bass parts of these works.

Rifkin's first recording of six "favorite" cantatas was problematic for many listeners because of a number of problems. The singing was excellent in places and not so in others. The sound engineering was generally no asset. But that CD set remains indispensible. Most of the sound and all of the singing issues are resolved here. I recommend following along with the texts at first so as to "get" Bach's allusions and compositional technique for each work. Once you become familiar, though, what a joy it is just to close your eyes and be transported to the land of "the persistent sublime."