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Cantata BWV 1
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of March 25, 2001 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (March 25, 2001):

This is the week of Cantata BWV 1 according to Pablo Fagoaga's suggestion. I do not know why was this special cantata chosen to be the first in list of the oeuvre of Bach Works, and I hope that somebody from the list (maybe the knowledgeable Thomas Braatz) will be able to draw some light on this corner. However, here is what Alec Robertson wrote about this cantata in his book - 'The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach':

"It was a happy thought of the editors of the Bach Gesellschaft to choose this cantata to open its first volume, for it is not only one of the most beautiful but one of the happiest." And W. Murray Young in his book – ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’ wrote: “For those who think Bach’s sacred cantatas are full of gloom, this chorale cantata for the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary will be a revelation. It is happy, with a joy-motif shining in every number. Bach’s use of the orchestra to provide the imagery of local colour is equal to that of his 1724 Epiphany cantata BWV 65 in their opening choruses.”

Review of Complete Recordings

I am aware of 7 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 1. Of those I have been listening last week to 5. The other two are AFAIK actually unobtainable. I also heard a recording of one individual movement from this cantata. See: Cantata BWV 1 - Recordings.

Cantata BWV 1, Movement No. 1 (Opening Chorus)

I could not resist the temptation to compare the various recordings of the 1st movement of Cantata BWV 1. Regarding the discussions of the last two weeks about the meaning of Numbers in Bach work, Gematria, etc., I wonder if this choice of mine has any symbolism. As a short background I shall quote again from Robertson’s book:

Mvt. 1 Chorus
SATB. 2 Corno, 2 Oboe da caccia, 2 Violin concertante, 2 Violin ripieno, Viola, Continuo
“In the introductory ritornello the horns’ theme is preceded by one for the concertante violins. Sopranos have the chorale melody in long notes of shorter value, to one or other of the lower voices. This is most effective.

The Morning Star is, of course, Jesus, ‘Son of David from Jacob’s stem, my King and my Bridegroom’. There is a touching moment when the chorus sing, in chords, ‘Gracious lovely’ (‘Priceless treasure’). Vocal and orchestral basses have a splendid series of sequences in the last part of the chorus.”

[3] Karl Richter
Richter’s rendering of this movement is full of grandeur, glory and joy. I found myself conquered by his vitality. Richter does not have any interest in drawing the nocturnal scene, which is so beautifully portrayed by other conductors. Nevertheless, I find his approach justified on its own terms.

[4] Nikolaus Harnoncourt
With Harnoncourt all the good characteristics of his cycle come forth. He started his long traversal of recordings all Bach sacred cantatas (a combined effort together with Leonhardt) on the right leg. The two violins portray the calm of the dawn that lays on the ancient fields of Bethlehem and the horns the send the beams of the Morning Star. We hear the caravan of the Magi moves slowly toward Bethlehem. Than the sublime choir enters and it seems as if the angels are welcoming Jesus. When I have moments of disappointment with Harnoncourt’s rendering of a certain cantata I remind myself that no one has ever described the picture of this movement so visually.

[5] Helmuth Rilling
Rilling’s approach is very similar to that of Richter, but he adds a certain softness, which makes his rendition more attractive. The joy-motif is heard more clearly, but I found that the playing of the horns dominate the scene a little bit above what is needed for a balanced performance. However, this is still a sweeping rendition.

(6) Hans-Joachim Rotzsch
Rotzsch’s recording belongs to the same school of Richter and Rilling (the three R’s). It is calmer and the playing of the violins in the opening ritornello set the right mood. Much more details than in the other two recordings can be heard here. It is more pictorial and more charming, but some of the energy of both Richter and Rilling is missing.

[8] Pieter Jan Leusink
There is some naivety and chamber quality to Leusink’s rendition, which differ it from the other four recordings and make it irresistible. All the components are so well balanced. Nothing is exaggerated. With him you feel the nature, you see the fields of Bethlehem, the gleams of the Morning Star and you join the people in their spontaneous happiness from the event. In that mean, it reminds me of Harnoncourt’s rendition. But Harnoncourt’s primeval picture is portrayed so impeccably, that it put Leusink somewhat in the shade.

BWV 1 is one of those cantatas, in which every movement (including the recitatives) is a masterpiece. Choosing the first number for my review does not in any way mean that I undervalue the other movements. I shall leave to other members of the BCML to have their word.


As much as I appreciate the other four recordings of this cantata, if I was forced to choose only one, it would be Harnoncourt (4).

And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 26, 2001):
About the number 1 in BWV 1: No gematria, no numerology, no nothing!! It was a purely arbitrary choice. The BG had planned to publish as the opening work in the BG the B-minor Mass, but a Swiss publisher was still holding on to the autograph copy. If I read the detailed notes in the BGG I p. 1003 correctly, then BWV 1 (not known by that number, of course) was published in two separate parts (at different times) at the beginning of the 19th century. It may have been the first cantata ever to be published. In any case here is the definitive statement that explains what Aryeh wanted to know:

"Die durch BA (read this as BG) eingeführte Zählung der Kantaten ist willkürlich, aber allgemein gebräuchlich und auch von Neumann, 'Handbuch der Kantaten,' 1947, und von Schmieder BWV, 1950, beibehalten worden."

The numbering system introduced by the BG (1851) is completely arbitrary, but is generally used, and has been maintained by Neumann in his 'Handbook of the Cantatas', 1947 and by Schmieder, 1950, in the BWV numbering system that is used today.

Note that this cantata is from the second Leipzig cycle.

The original score of BWV 1 is lost, but we have the original parts copied under Bach's supervision and corrected by him. These parts are the primary source for determining the printed copy in the NBA. The voice parts look like this (sorry, no picture - just a description): (the sequence of numbers at the end indicated the number of staffs on each page)

Soprano part - one large double sheet containing 3 pages of actual musical notation 13, 13, 14, 13.
Contains mvts. 1, 3, 6 and tacet for all other movements

Alto part - one sheet with 2 pages notated 14, 13.
Contains mvts. 1 and 6 tacet for the rest

Tenor part - one large double sheet with 4 pages notated 13, 14, 14, 13.
Contains mvts. 1, 2, 5, 6 tacet for the rest

Bass part - one large double sheet with 3 pages notated 13, 14, 14, 13.
Contains mvts. 1, 4, 6 tacet for the rest

Looks like another point in favour of OVPP, or, at the most two looking at the same page.

Marie Jensen wrote (March 27, 2001):
Listening to the first movement I think Epiphany and not Annunciation of Virgin Mary. Like in cantata BWV 65 camel riding Bach appears again, the gentle swaying rhythm, the horns (wise men do not enter stage to trumpets) while the violins twinkle like a star: A wonderful chorus...

The text filled with expectations and the music with joy. The soprano aria deals with "Himmlischen Flammen", illustrated by an oboe and a pizzicato bass; burning so gently compared with the flames of hell (Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle! (BWV 244)).

The tenor aria
"Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten
Sollen dir
Für und für
Dank und Opfer zubereiten.
Herz und Sinnen sind erhoben,
Mit Gesang,
Großer König, dich zu loben."

does exactly what the text says. As a whole this elegant dancing cantata is very nice. I only have the Leusink version [8] and I like it. Marjon Strijk is the soprano here. IMHO Ruth Holton sings a little better.

Jane Newble wrote (March 28, 2001):
Sunday 25 March 1725 in Leipzig.
For too many weeks there have been no cantatas in church, because it was Lent. It is difficult to remember the last one. But today is Palm Sunday and the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated. The church is bustling. Herr Bach is there, and the instrumentalists and singers are getting ready for performance. Silence falls when the cantata is announced...

- What on earth must those in church that morning have felt when those first violin notes broke the silence of long weeks, leading into an exhilarating chorus of orchestra and voices announcing the coming of the Morning Star? I can only imagine. How I would have loved to have been there! What an exciting and wonderful start to a new year of cantatas.

Like Aryeh, I could not resist the temptation to compare the first chorus of the recordings I have. (I also compared the last chorale). They are: Rilling (5), Leusink [8], and Robert King with the King's Consort (on Hyperion) [M-6], who only records the opening and closing movement. The King's Consort is an experience, and I only bought it for these two tracks, although the rest of the CD is very good too. I dearly wish he had recorded the whole cantata, because these two are incredibly beautiful. Especially in the last chorale, the second horn is a joy to listen to. In the Leusink recording it is hardly audible, although it is slightly better in Rilling. Yet, on the whole, I like Leusink better than Rilling. And, I would have loved to have left church that morning with that joyful sound of the horn still in my ears, and the words:
"Komm, du schöne Freudenkrone, bleib nicht lange, Deiner wart ich mit Verlangen."

Ehud Shiloni wrote (March 28, 2001):
(3) (Karl Richter) This is the only version I have [I expect to have Koopman [9] and Suzuki [11] in due course, when they finally appear on the scene...].

I listened to BWV 1 this morning on my car stereo while driving to work, and indeed it does provide for an upbeat ambience to start the day! A very nice opening chorus, especially with the Richter "grandeur" that Aryeh was referring to. But, I hope that I hurt no one's feeling if I say that although it is a NICE chorus, somehow it did not involve me emotionally in any significant way. I'll have to do some more listening.

Aryeh Oron wrote:
< BWV 1 is one of those cantatas, in which every movement (including the recitatives) is a masterpiece. Choosing the first number for my review does not in any way mean that I undervalue the other movements. I shall leave to other members of the BCML to have their word. >
On the other hand, I was captivated by two other "numbers": The second Bass recitative by DFD and the long [over 6 mins.] Tenor aria by Ernst Häfliger. This one-two combination towards the end of the cantata really blew me away. What power, energy and determination and what fantastic singing. Both these legendary performers must have been at their prime during this recording, and for me they provided much joy this morning. They both set a very high standard for Mertens, Kooy, Türk and Prégardien when their time will come to tackle this splendid material.

I am looking forward to repeat listening later this evening on my way home...;-)

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 28, 2001):
I only have 4 recordings to compare. My Leusink [8] is in still in transit (possibly via slow boat to China). Perhaps I should try a different approach than Aryeh's by examining each movement separately.

The opening movement (what a Bach masterpiece this is!) really has the ability to allow your imagination to see the word pictures that Bach is trying to create musically. The most relaxed (gemütlich) tempo is Harnoncourt's (4). I just love it when the horns tell Harnoncourt through their playing that they need to get all the notes in and they don't want to be rushed. This gives this performance an additional 'live' quality, where circumstances are being dictated by players who have just mastered their 'new' instruments which we know are replicas of the one's used in Bach's day. The choir, obviously trained by an experienced choirmaster, has not yet succumbed to the fractured, breathless, heavily accented singing style that typifies many of the subsequent recordings in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series. In this series you will need to be ready for frequent surprises and, unfortunately, disappointments. From the standpoint of individual movements, I find the very best performances coupled with the very worst that I have heard on recordings. In embryonic form I discovered with score in hand the beginnings of Harnoncourt's phrasing and heavy accent problems occurring in the first movement. I hope to post an example from the score on that point.

Turning to Rotzsch's (6) first movement, I was truly surprised by the limp sound of the choir somewhat overshadowed by the forceful playing of the horns. As exciting as the sound of horns can be, I think the horns here have an 'in-your-face' quality that distracts from the singing. Despite the fact that the tempo was relatively fast (compared to Harnoncourt's [4]), a certain element of firm dignity in the Thomanerchor did not prevail if you discount the sopranos who received strong support for their line from the horns.

Rilling's recording (5) of this movement moves quickly with a tense, but very precise forward motion. There's no time to think about what the inner voices are doing as in Rotzsch's recording (6). The latter recording has a 'funny' violin sound (too much vibrato), but Rilling's is clear and precise, as is everything else. This type of recording wants to make me sit up straight and marvel at the precision of Rilling's choral and orchestral forces.

Richter (3) with his immense (romantic) musical apparatus, utilizes the opportunity to create suave string orchestra sound. Listen for his non-tiered dynamics approach -- there are wonderful crescendi and diminuendi. The choir (the exact opposite of OVPP!) can pull off spectacular effects. When these voices are 'having a good day,' rest assured, they sing with utter conviction. I then have the feeling that I am sitting in the ideal congregation of worshippers who really believe every word that they sing. That is what, to my surprise, I missed in Rotzsch's performance recorded in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. With Richter (3) I have a real problem with his attempt to accompany and direct the choir from what must be a modern organ. I am familiar with Mattheson's advice in "Der vollkommene Kapellmeister" that a good choir director should not only be able to sing well, but also direct while playing a keyboard instrument. If you listen carefully enough, you will hear him duplicating, with the help of some rather strident (awful IMHO) organ stops, all the inner voices of the choir! Is he simply following Matthe's advice, or is he very concerned that his large forces might go 'off pitch?' I believe that latter to be true. There are quite a number of cantata performances in the Richter set, where the organ is even louder and the choir is definitely 'off pitch.' Perhaps it was very difficult to hear oneself and others in the Hercules Hall in Munich. Using this technique, Richter has spoiled quite a number of Bach's cantata masterpieces for my ears, yet I would not throw or give away this set because there are too many excellent recordings of individual movements that I would not want to be without, OVPP notwithstanding.

Since the final chorale uses essentially the same instrumentation of the first, I would like to discuss it here. Let me precede this by saying, that I have a number of instances (Suzuki [11]) where, for a given cantata, I would select an OVPP performance of the final chorale as the best of all the recordings that I might have. An example of what I am talking about is Suzuki's Vol. 4, Track 14, the final chorale to BWV 165. When I first heard this (I had already heard others in this style Rifkin, for instance), I could hardly believe what I was hearing. What a revelation! Only 35 seconds of spine-tingling joy for me. This may not be your epiphany, but it definitely was a turning point for me. After this I could live with both styles of performance. Returning to Richter (3) for this chorale (BWV 1), I would choose his as the one that speaks with the greatest conviction. Suzuki's interpretation (BWV 165) is extremely personal. It speaks to me intimately and goes directly into my heart, whereas Richter's is much more like sitting in a great congregation of singers who, through their convincing, believing attitude make me want to stand up to join this powerful group. Having said that, I need to point out that I do not like Richter's extremely long pauses on the fermatas at the end of each phrase. In one of the chorales to a Bach cantata, Bach has a bass line stepping along in eighth notes while the choir sings the quarter notes. Bach indicates the fermatas just as he always does, but he keeps the bass line going. There is no way to stop the forceful momentum of a Bach bass line. What does Richter do? There is no escape! He relinquishes his usual fermata style to accommodate Bach's incessantly moving bass line. But this is an exception to the rule with Richter. Rilling's performance (5) of this chorale (BWV 1), although less massive and powerful, also has force and dignity despite its energetic tempo. Harnoncourt [4] has already managed to 'adulterate' the cantabile singing style of the Vienna Choir Boys. In spots, in the middle of a phrase, whether because of consonant pronunciation or for no reason at all a quarter note is cut short, the voices 'die-off’ momentarily before attacking the next note in mid-phrase. Harnoncourt (4), as an instrumentalist, is trying to inflict an instrumental style of singing on young voices, who still have a problem of lung capacity. Harnoncourt, in doing this, makes the choir appear even more breathless, in phrases where no breath marks are indicated (commas, for instance) nor extra emphasis through accent. As the accented note is emphasized, more breath is needed. The unaccented note that follows directly is sung very softly, or as more frequently happens, the unaccented note has its time value cut short, so that a rest or pause occurs where Bach did not intend to have one.

Mvt. 2 - the tenor recitative
Equiluz (4) is very dependable. His style of singing sound very genuine to me, that is, he seems to be singing as if he really believes the words as he sings them (who knows? Perhaps he does.) Schreier's (6) delivery is much brighter in sound compared to Equiluz who gives me a warm feeling when I hear him. It's as though Schreier is saying, 'Here's the story. I'm telling you truth, so if you listen carefully as I enunciate the text, you will understand what I mean. Adalbert Kraus (5) is at the bottom of my list of recitative singers (in almost all cases this is true). He button-holes me, holds onto my collar, then screams at me at the top of his voice. When he begins a recitative on a high note on the text, "Ach...," I have to run to another room. I personally do not like his vibrato when he tries to become dramatic. He seems to lose control of the voice. In contrast, his work in many, if not most arias, is first class, particular in the fast melismata where each note is remarkably just there, where it is supposed to be. A remarkable feat. Also, it is a time when his vibrato is squelched. There is no time to wobble on those notes! My favourite, however, for this recitative is Ernst Haefliger (3). Although there are recordings where is voice has a metallic quality or sings off pitch (too low), when he sings at his best there is a 'round', very smooth quality in his voice that I like. It nearly blew my mind when I first heard him sing the "Erwäge" Aria in the SJP (BWV 245). This is not the commonly available 1961 recording, but rather the Archiv 1954 recording conducted by Ramin. Just listen to how he sings the word "Regenbogen!"

Mvt. 3 - the soprano aria
All very good renditions here. It seems a bit unfair to single out Arleen Augér (6) here, because her performance was at least as good as all the others. I have three non-cantata CD's of her singing, but in the cantatas I invariably notice a 'quirk' in her singing, probably because I am reading the score at the same time. If I have just heard a Harnoncourt recording (4) at the lower pitch (half-tone) and then hear her rendition, her voice seems to be 'way up in the stratosphere' as though she were singing notes on the high end of the coloratura soprano range. If you look at the notes, you will discover that they really are not that high at all. In this aria the high notes are G (the note resting on the top line of the treble clef) and the Ab above it. Listen to other sopranos that sing the same aria, you will hear that they effortlessly touch (probably scale back the volume consciously) these high notes, which are often not be emphasized particularly in the phrase. Augér, however, can not back off softly, she hits these notes with force and then they sound much higher than they really are. Is this an 'aural' illusion? I think not. Perhaps she had to accommodate an irregularity in her voice as she moved through that part of the scale. There are some arias in the Rilling set where this 'quirk' is more apparent than in others.

Mvt. 4 - the bass recitative
I choose Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (3) for bringing out all there is in this recitative in the form of a beautiful voice coupled with an understanding of each word's significance. At the bottom of the list I would put Huttenlocher (5) (has IME a pious pomposity that reminds me of religious leaders who try to move people through the quivering, trembling quality of their voice) and Max van Egmond (4) (has a slightly fuzzy quality in his voice that distracts from the delivery of the words).

Mvt. 5 - the tenor aria
What a wonderful variety of voices to choose from! It happens all too rarely that so many fine performances are available from all the recordings. Choose any one of these and sit back and enjoy!

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (March 29, 2001):
(To Thomas Braatz) Your description of these recordings deserves to be printed out, which I did. I have Harnoncourt (4), Rilling (5) and Richter (3) readings, and I heard them with your comments at hand. Great!! (I strongly recommend the other members to do so). My admiration for Fischer-Dieskau grows every time I listen to him. The first time I heard his voice was with Richter, singing "Ich will den Kreutzstab gerne tragen" (BWV 56). It was "instant love". This man undoubtedly is a milestone in recorded music history. In the case of "Kreutzstab" cantata, I didn't find a better rendition than his.

Aryeh Oron wrote (March 29, 2001):
(To Pablo Fagoaga) I agree with your impressions from of Tom Braatz's excellent review of the various recordings of BWV 1.

Cantata BWV 56 has already been discussed in the BCML. I believe that it was before you joined the BCML. Anyway, you can read those discussions in the following page: IMHO, DFD, who recorded this cantata 4 times (!), is in a class of its own. This cantata page (like any cantatas which has already been discussed) is open for future additions. You can write your impressions from this cantata, send them to BCML, and I shall add them to the relevant page.

Enrico Bortolazzi wrote (March 29, 2001):
(3) (Karl Richter) I too have only this version. Recently I heard the Leusink version [8] with a friend of mine. The first reaction was not very good. I was used with the Richter's chorus and said 'Hey, where are the sopranos?'. Indeed in Leusink [8] the choral part is no so evident and the rich orchestration by Bach sometimes hides the choir. Richter in my opinion is more well balanced and I cannot listen to this chorus without having the score in hands.

A little question:
in the CD’s among the soloists are listed two horns and two englischhorns (yes, englisch!), but in the score I have two voices for horns. As I'm not an expert of horns I suppose that Richter [3] used two horns for the first voice and two horns for the other one. Is this true?

Andrew Oliver wrote (March 29, 2001):
(To Enrico Bortolazzi) About your question concerning horns, the term English horn is simply a translation of the French 'cor anglais'. The instrument is neither particularly English nor a horn. It is actually a tenor oboe. Apparently the French name was originally 'cor anglé' (angled horn), but this became corrupted into 'cor anglais'. In my copy of the score, the instruments named are 'oboe da caccia 1 & 2'. This is the instrument for which Bach wrote, but before the revival of 'authentic' instruments (or their copies), parts written for the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) were often played on the cor anglais.

In addition to these two instruments, there are also the modern orchestral oboe, the oboe d'amore, the basset or baritone oboe, and the bassoon, which is sometimes regarded as a sort of bass oboe.

Enrico Bortolazzi wrote (March 29, 2001):
(To Andrew Oliver) Thanks Andrew, this explain everything.

Andrew Oliver wrote (March 31, 2001):
I want to thank Aryeh for extolling the merits of Harnoncourt's recording of this cantata (4). A few days ago I would have said that, of the two recordings of it which I possess, I much preferred Leusink's [8]. Now, I do not like Leusink's recording any less than I did, but, having listened to Harnoncourt's numerous times (in order to see why my view of it was different from Aryeh's), I find that my liking for it grows with each hearing. I think that the main reason I did not really appreciate its merits at first was because of the tempo of the opening chorus, and in this respect I still much prefer Leusink's version. Compare the times: Leusink 7.18, Harnoncourt 9.36 - 31.5% as long again. What has swayed me towards Harnoncourt is the clarity of the voices - I can hear all the parts and the words they are singing, whereas with Leusink there is a tendency for the voices to be masked by the instruments. This is not a criticism of the Holland Boys Choir, nor the Netherlands Bach Collegium, nor of Leusink himself. It seems to be a question of the balance of sound, which presumably is the responsibility of the recording engineer. Anyway, the opening chorus is a superb movement, and I particularly like the 'twinkling stars' of the violins.

For the soprano aria, I personally prefer Ruth Holton's voice [8] to that of Harnoncourt's unnamed boy soloist (4), though he seems to cope quite competently. I find that, in the Teldec series, the quality of the boy soloists varies considerably, particularly as regards their ability to convey the necessary expressive interpretation of the text. What I really like about this particular aria is the pizzicato continuo throughout the movement.

Bach excelled himself with the tenor aria. I am quite happy with Schoch's rendition [8], though I prefer that of Equiluz (4). The descending pairs of semiquavers which we hear in the strings (there is a technical term for this feature but I can't remember what it is) seem to me to be the inspiration for the downward series of suspensions which we hear from the second horn in the final bars of the chorale. Alternatively, perhaps Bach wrote the chorale setting first and then enlarged on this feature in the preceding aria. As regards the chorale, here I like the more stately tempo of Harnoncourt. Leusink's [8] is just too quick. Also, the important second horn part is barely distinguishable with Leusink, whereas it is prominent with Harnoncourt. On the other hand, as Tom Braatz rightly pointed out, Harnoncourt's tendency to produce a choral sound in which the notes seem detached, if not actually staccato, is already beginning to appear, though it is not as bad here as in some of his later recordings. The noticeable instance at and around 'klopf' seems deliberate to me, presumably to illustrate the word, though a slight sforzando might have been preferable.

To my ears, the choral sections of a cantata such as this sound much better sung by a small choir than by either a large choir or OVPP. I have Rifkin's OVPP cantata recordings and I like them. I like other recordings with small choirs better.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (March 31, 2001):
Joyfully, I read the contributions by Aryeh, Thomas, Jane, Marie and others on Cantata BWV 1. I especially love the authentic angle from which Jane granted us a look in the Thomaskirche with Herr Bach probably at the organ, conducting. The atmosphere of expectation she evoked, matches so perfectly the sensations of longing and desire, prevailing in the cantata that was to be performed that day. It must have been a real feast during that particular service.

Unfortunately, I only have the complete Leusink recording [8], in which I was happy to participate as a member of the choir. Strange as it may seem, I will try to give some comment on “our own” recording. Between performances of St John Passion (BWV 245) and St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in this period of Lent leading up to Easter, there must be some time for reflections on Christmas as well. As a matter of fact, I also have the choral parts by Harnoncourt [4], which we studied at home in preparation of our own recording, which, however, did not turn out to be quite the same as Harnoncourt’s (4). Before going into some details, I would like to give you some general information.

Cantata BWV 1 derives its title from one of the numerous names for Jesus, in which the Bible, and indeed the cantata itself, abounds. Revelation 22:16 says: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star.” In this cantata we also find: the Sweet Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1and 10), David’s Son (among other places Romans 1:3), Great King (a.o.p. Matthew 2:2), True God (1 John 5:20b), Bridegroom (a.o.p. Matthew 9:15), Mary’s Son (many places), King of the Chosen (Revelation 17:14), Sweetness (cp “Bridegroom” and “Beloved”, Song of Songs 2:3 and 14, in the Christian tradition also referring to Jesus), Bread from Heaven, Bread of Life (John 6:31-35), My Treasure (cp Luke 12:34), Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last (Revelation 22:13). All of them honorary names for Jesus, at times even affectionate, reflecting the intimacy of the relationship between the pietist believers of Bach’s day and their Lord and Saviour.

BWV 1 was composed for 25 March 1725, the Sunday of the Annunciation to Mary. In the previous year, Bach had already composed and even performed BWV Anh. I 199, but unfortunately the score of this cantata “Siehe, eine Jungfrau ist schwanger” (the Epistle reading of the day: Isaiah 7: 14) got lost. BWV 1 is the last cantata in the cycle of 1724-1725, Bach’s second year as cantor at the Leipzig Thomaskirche. The cantatas he composed in this period are called chorale cantatas, because each of them was based on a chorale to be sung in church at that particular Sunday. The first and the last stanza of the chorale were used respectively for the opening and final part of the cantata. The remaining stanzas were adapted for the recitatives and arias.

The text was taken from a hymn, written in 1599 by Philipp Nicolai for Epiphany (Three Kings, January 6, still Christmas Day in Oriental churches). It was also frequently sung at the Feast of the Annunciation, its words matching the appointed readings for the day, both of them looking forward to the birth of Christ and the special role of Mary in that event. The final lines of the concluding chorale even express the eager expectation of the visionary second coming of Christ: “Komm, du schöne Freudenkrone, bleib nicht lange, / deiner wart ich mit Verlangen.”

The unknown poet has transformed the Nicolai poem into the intimate lyrics of this attractive cantata. Bach gave the joyous expectation a festive brilliance by supplementing the standard orchestra with two horns, two oboes da caccia and two solo violins in concert. This unusual choice for horns and caccias, in order to amplify the strings and the continuo, renders an extremely full and warm sound. Here there are no trumpets or flutes playing the high melodic lines, but two obbligato solo violins instead. They shine and sparkle, as do the stars at night above a world in darkness, living in hopeful expectation of the coming of Jesus, the bright Morning Star himself! Interesting though, that the actual Morning Star to be seen in the sky at dawn is Venus, which got its name of course from the Roman version of Aphrodite, the pre-Christian Greek goddess of love.

Mvt. 1. Chorus.
The cantata opens with an introductory 12 bar Sinfonia for the orchestra with a theme of its own. Almost from the start, the two solo violins appear with their sixteenth notes, sparkling like the Morning Star. They are soon followed by the horns with their initial theme. Both of them return in the following vocal part. The other instruments hardly ever have an independent line, being mostly allotted to the various voices. By changing keys regularly, Bach avoided the danger of monotony. He did it so brilliantly, that, to quote Alfred Dürr, “a chorus was created of jubilant splendour, many-coloured abundance and joyful anticipation.” The sopranos have the Cantus Firmus, the actual chorale melody on long held tones, accompanied by the first horn. The other voices are whirling around them in fugal fantasy, sometimes in preparation of the chorale melody, then supporting it. In line 7 all voices come together in two touching, homophonous chords on the words “lieblich, freundlich”. After the impressive conclusion by the choir “Hoch uns sehr prächtig erhaben”, the chorus is perfectly completed with a glorious orchestral part, the horns and the violins rivalling which of them add most to the festive joy of this beautiful musical moment.

Harnoncourt (4) is really at his best here. The atmosphere is one of pastoral tranquillity. You can easily imagine the three kings on their camels, rolling on lazily, the bright Morning Star shining in the firmament above. They ride on (nice image, Marie) for 9:38 minutes and Harnoncourt grants us ample time to distinguish the various instruments and vocal parts. After hearing Harnoncourt’s camels walking calmly (I like Tomas’ qualification “gemütlich”) in the early morning, Leusink’s [8] seem to be eagerly trotting. When listening to Harnoncourt first, Leusink seems to be galloping. However, when returning to Harnoncourt right away, the latter’s vehicles seem to move too slowly, still half asleep. Leusink takes only 7:19 for his camelride. It’s a really festive and exciting performance, to which the direct recording and the superb horns and sparkling violins contribute a lot. You can hear Leusink’s instrumentalists are real experts on their period instruments. They have no problem with the pretty fast pace they are taking. Their playing never sounds hurried in my ears. Of course they have the advantage that a recording in our days makes it possible to make repairs even within one bar, whereas in the seventies they did not have all that digital technology. Yet, I know Leusink hardly ever had to resort to these patchy repairs. Harnoncourt’s recording sounds more spacious, which I find very attractive. I also love the way he brings out all the voices in the choir. I will not comment on the Leusink choir. That’s for others if they wish to. I love both versions in their own right.

Mvt. 2. Recitative Tenor
In this secco recitative the tenor sings how, already from the days of the founding fathers, people had looked out in expectation to the coming of the One who would be a blessing to all people. Their hope was coming true, when Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear a divine child, who was to be called Jesus, Son of the Most High. This part is beautiful in its simplicity. The affectionate words “süß” and “Süßigkeit” are of course given special treatment. Mind also the final lines, in which it is brought home to us that nothing, not even the grave, can rob the love of Jesus from the hearts of his elect.

[8] Nico van der Meel, of whom I once read that he would be equally pleased to sing a folksong text on Bach’s notes, yet renders this recitative quite convincingly. His voice becomes Bach’s music, bright and expressive without any dramatic, romantic fringes.

Mvt. 3. Aria Soprano
Opening with a beautiful ritornello in the obbligato oboe da caccia, this aria breathes an intimate, loving atmosphere. In the background you hear pizzicato the sometimes leaping heartbeat of the enamoured soul on the plucked strings of the double bass, above which the soprano and the caccia sing their love-song. The soprano text is dripping with sublimated erotic feelings: “Die Seelen empfinden die kräftigsten Triebe der brünstigste Liebe und schmecken auf Erden die himmlische Lust.” “The souls experience the most powerful passions of hot love and are having, already on earth, a taste of heavenly lust.”

[8] Marjon Strijk has a nice light soprano voice. No sultry vibrato from her. She keeps it cool, which is probably the best way to sing these passionate words. As a mother of three young children, she has to devote a lot of her energy to her family. Still I do hope she will find the time to invest in her singing career, because she has the potential to grow further and mature as a musician.

Mvt. 4. Recitative Bass.
The bass soloist takes over the love torch. Again a perfect example of Bach’s abilities to match the music to the words, telling in glowing words that the happiness and gratitude of our hearts should turn us on to joyful music. Listen to the words “Glanz”, “Freudenschein” and “Erquicking”.

[8] Bas Ramselaar is an accomplished bass singer. Both his voice and his expressive powers range him already among the best basses of the Bach repertoire of our day.

Mvt. 5. Aria Tenor
From the very first beat of this aria, it is clear that here the strings play a major part beside the tenor voice. After the dance-like opening ritornello of the violins, we hear Bach’s intentions, when the tenor sings his first line: “Our mouth and sound of violins should prepare Thee gratitude and offerings, for ever and ever.” Three times this vow is being sung, followed by the returning ritornello, whereupon the tenor repeatedly sings out the exultation of his heart and senses to praise the Great King by his singing. Another ritornello leads us back to the threefold initial declaration of grateful love. The aria is concluded by a fine ritornello of the violins and the continuo.

The playful combination of the singer and the violins is made even more attractive because at times two solo violins take the place of the tutti strings section. Striking is also the way Bach illustrates the “für und für”, not only by repetition but by holding on to the final “für” as well. For that matter, practically every word has been given special treatment. Every time I listen tot this aria, I am struck by the extraordinary creativity, joy and devotion Bach wishes to thank and honour Christ with. I would like to add: “Thank God for Bach! Thank Bach for his music!” This aria is a real gem!

[8] The tenor is given every opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity and declamatory powers in the long and demanding aria, 7:06 minutes under Leusink. I think Nico van Meel stands his ground in the long tradition of renowned tenors such as Equiluz, Schreier and Haefliger.

Mvt. 6. Chorale
The short, final chorale is a festive hymn, which, in its instrumentation with horns and oboes da caccia, links up with the opening chorus. In this way the unity, both thematically and musically, of the various parts of the cantata is being accentuated. The joy is even more enhanced by a lively melody of its own in the second horn. Unfortunately, I don’t hear it in the Leusink recording [8], nor can I remember it from the actual recording. In fact I think the horns are doubling each other in their accompaniment of the choir.

In its content, the chorale is a vision from the book of Revelation, chapter 22, dealing with the second coming of Christ, culminating in the surging “Komm, du schöne Freudenkrone, bleib nicht lange, / deiner wart ich mit Verlangen.”

On the other hand it is a reflection of the joyful expectation of the birth of Jesus as it is celebrated annually in Lutheran and other Christian churches. Which brings us back to part 1. The circle is round.

Andrew Oliver wrote (March 31, 2001):
(To Peter Bloemendaal) Reading with pleasure Peter's interesting comparison of the Leusink [8] and Harnoncourt [4] recordings of this cantata, I find that his reactions to them are very similar to my own. However, I now realize that I wrongly attributed the soprano aria with Leusink to Ruth Holton when the singer was actually Marjon Strijk. This makes no difference to the comments I made. The tenor soloist was Knut Schoch rather than Nico van der Meel. Thank you Peter.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (April 1, 2001):
Andrew Oliver wrote:
[8] < The tenor soloist was Knut Schoch rather than Nico van der Meel. >
You're quite right. This makes no difference to the comments I made. Thank you, Andrew.


More Messages

Free 2 wrote (July 5, 2001):
(1) BWV1 was recorded by Fritz Lehmann in June 1952. It's a very poetic and colorful recording, the instrumental playing is magnificent.


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Cantata BWV 1: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern for Feast of Annunciation of Mary
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