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Classical musicians and all those interested in the music can be a strange lot. After all: Who would care about the fact which instruments exactly a composer used a few centuries ago or whether the tuning of these instruments was any different back then? Well, they do. Maybe this helps to explain why Joshua Rifkin wreaked havoc and made the entire world stand upside down in 1981 with the simple claim that Bach did not intend to use those huge choirs we are accustomed to - but that each voice was originally supposed to be performed by one singer only.

That shouldn't be such a big problem, you might retort - after all, in times of difficult financing, a smaller "instrumentation" might actually be a benefit. Well, it's not that simple. First of all, Rifkin's theory caused fear especially in Germany, where there was a strong Choir-tradition among amateurs, who were now afriad this might prevent them from singing. Secondly, old habits die hard and the magnificence and splendor of a huge vocal apparatus simply sounded "right" and "appropriate" (please note the inverted comas!). And thirdly, many simply disagreed with him. Rifkin had based his argument on a logical reasoning: The fact that Bach applied for several singers, did not mean that he was actually intending to use them - if a soccer trainer applies for two goalies, it doesn't mean he is going to let them both play at the same time during a game. Rather, it's a form of insurance against misfortune. And secondly, the general size of a Choir was simply smaller back then, even until the 18th century, a choir consisting of eight singers was considered to be "big". It makes sense, but of course, there will always be room for interpretation as the final piece of evidence (such as a letter by Bach or an eyewitnesses' account) is missing. Many articles have been written to prove the contrary and their mood is well expressed by Joachim Roller: "Bach was a musician, not a dogmatic".

Sigiswald Kuijken (see picture) has now decided that there's been enough fighting and not sufficient music. Together with his ensemble "La Petite Bande" (you can tell from their name which side of the argument they're on), he has recorded all of Bach's cantatas. Yes, that's right, all of them! Which means that these first two volumes are merely the tip of the iceberg in a series that will span a total of 20 CDs and many years of singing and recording. Instead of continuing the argument on a theoretical basis, you will have the chance to decide by listening. To fit the occasion, Kuijken has furthermore decided to also keep the instrumental section nicely small and hopes that this approach will allow the finely woven texture of Bach's pieces to become more apparent than ever.

Founded in 1972, La Petite Band have turned into experts in the field of old music and original practise, even though they had also made a name for themselves by suprising interpretations of Mozart and Haydn on the last couple of years. With this project, they are returning to their roots again. Even though we don't expect public response to be quite as fiery as it was back in 1981, you never know - Classical musicians and those interested in the music can be a strange lot, after all.

Homepage: Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande
Homepage: Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande at Note 1 Distribution
Source: Interview with Joshua Rifkin
Source: Article on the Rifkin-controversy at the Bach Institut

Picture by Saskia Vanderstichele

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