MUSIC / Economy of means, plenty of expression: Adrian Jack on the Bach Ensemble and the St James's Baroque Players under Joshua Rifkin at the Proms

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The American musicologist Joshua Rifkin (he of Scott Joplin fame) has been stripping away the accretions of tradition in performing Bach's choral music more thoroughly than anyone, notably in the B minor Mass, in which he gives each choral part to a single singer. At the Proms on Sunday, Rifkin gave a similar face-lift to the St Matthew Passion. His view doesn't suggest, perhaps, 'the romantic dramatic masterpiece before Wagner's Ring', as the British Bach scholar Malcolm Boyd puts it. But then 'monumental' needn't mean heavy, which is what most performances of the work sound compared with Rifkin's.

He placed his two choirs, each consisting of four soloists, at the far left and right sides of his two 12-piece bands: his own Bach Ensemble from the United States and the London-based St James's Baroque Players. The Evangelist, John Elwes, and Christus, Stephen Varcoe, were the tenor and bass respectively in Choir 1, but everybody in both choirs took a solo in at least one of the reflective arias, while three more soloists in character roles (Judas, Peter, Chief Priest and Pilate's Wife) stood a short distance apart, to the left.

The Albert Hall has a highly directional acoustic, but the very fact that the forces here were so small made for unexpected clarity. Most astonishing of all was the great opening chorus, with Rachel Platt - a soprano with quite a small, bird-like voice - standing next to the conductor in the middle and sustaining the long, steady notes of the chorale against the antiphonal polyphony of the choirs on either side. Such economy of means had a strong effect.

Platt also made an interestingly soubrettish contribution as Pilate's wife, in contrast with the stronger voice of Nancy Argenta, who took the lion's share of the soprano solos. Unconducted, she sustained the aria 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland streben', accompanied by a flute and two oboes da caccia, which plodded along like contented goslings, with effortless control. For this feat alone she deserved a round of applause.

Rifkin could hardly have chosen better soloists for his purpose. John Elwes got better in the demanding role of the Evangelist as time went by. Stephen Varcoe, though billed, as he usually is, as a bass, has a much lighter voice than usually associated with Christus; yet if some of the notes lay a bit low for him, he still sang beautifully and with real warmth. True, crusty basses were provided by Christopher Foster and Jeremy White, both taking smaller character parts.

The altos were men, strong and agile counter-tenors, Steven Rickards and Ricard Bordas. I particularly enjoyed the single solo contribution of the tenor in the second choir, Mark Padmore; he sang the aria 'Geduld, Geduld' in Part 2, often merely a test of endurance; it was a real pleasure to listen to, unusually refined, full of warm feeling.

Dramatic musical settings of the Passion like Bach's did not go unchallenged in his own day. Just like an operatic comedy, wailed some of the faithful. And no doubt modern listeners brought up on Klemperer, or even the local choral society, will feel much the same about Rifkin's lightness of touch. For my part, he gives the music a buoyancy and grace without mannerism. After all, we're talking about the 18th century. Rifkin's tempi usually seem right (with Bach, one will never be satisfied all the time), and he has the great gift of allowing his singers to sound airy and free while making sure that they blend with perfect tact.