February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

The Bach Ensemble, Joshua Rifkin, director

Did Bach entrust the performance of his choral works to an army or a platoon? Joshua Rifkin, the adventurous Boston-based conductor, pianist and musicologist, has looked into the matter and concluded Bach was more of a minimalist than most of us bloated moderns assume. The B Minor Mass, one of the most sublime pieces of religious music ever composed, is usually rendered by a chorus of at least 12 singers and an orchestra sometimes numbering 100 pieces. Arguing that “Bach’s materials rarely include more than one copy of each voice line in the score,” Rifkin has recorded the Mass accordingly, using just eight singers and a 20-piece ensemble playing on 18th-century instruments or faithful copies. The music world has taken Rifkin’s challenge like a slap in the face. “Has Mr. Rifkin never seen those old prints and paintings of choral singers crowding around a single piece of music manuscript, bawling away happily?” asked the New York Times. Though the question of authenticity is obviously important for musicologists, for music lovers it is not. What seems beyond debate is the transcendent beauty, clarity and vitality of Rifkin’s recording. In climactic sections such as the Cum Sancto Spiritu, the group generates convincing power and awe despite its limited numbers. Rifkin’s Mass is above all an intimate experience, and in spiritual matters, what can be wrong with that?

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