One of my first Bach recordings, and one which I still have, is the B Minor Mass performed by Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble. Rifkin insisted that Bach's choral works were intended to be sung with one singer to a part. The result was light, feathery, transparent. Every other performance I'd hear sounded clogged and soupy by comparison. But haters still reject Rifkin's purism. They insist that although Bach only had limited space and personnel at his disposal, he would probably have welcomed greater forces to perform his choral masterworks, and composed them with this aspiration in mind. And I have to admit, Rifkin's recording often sounds a bit underpowered.
And now Ensemble Pygmalion has come along, a new original-instruments baroque ensemble from France. I had the good fortune to see them live last Thursday in the Cologne Philharmonic, performing the St. Matthew Passion. And a stellar performance it was. The strings sounded crisp and robust for historical instruments, with secure intonation. The chorus was modest — about 20 singers in all, many of whom peeled off from the group to come to the fore and sing arias. The balance was ideal: Just enough singers to provide a real bite to the choral interjections, but not so many as to obscure contrapuntal lines. The instrumental soloists were all solid, especially the viola da gamba player, who sawed out an electrifying accompaniment. The tempi were crisp but not hasty, pretty much perfectly judged. And the Evangelist was nothing short of stunning, declaiming with absolute conviction.
You can judge for yourself: Directly after performing in Cologne, they did the St. Matthew in Versailles, and French TV has made it available to all on the web.
Trigger warning: I'm about to criticize Bach. Don't clutch your pearls. In the immortal words of Primus, they can't all be zingers. And the St. Matthew, if you ask me, ain't no zinger, at least not all the way through. The second half especially features some long and, if you ask me, pretty tedious arias. Many of the most ingenious ideas — budding choral fugues, appealing melodies in the obbligato to the Evangelist's recitative — are cut short by the demands of the text or of forward plot motion before they can really develop. And then comes another seemingly 14-minute setting of 5 lines of charming but mediocre poetry by Picador.
Come on, admit it: You've checked your watch one hour into Part II of the St. Matthew. But not when Pygmalion sings it. The musicianship invested even the tedious stretches with enough verve and energy to keep me awake. And made the many good bits sublime. Their recording of the short masses by Bach is stellar, go buy it now. And if they perform anywhere near you, don't miss them.