Cantata BWV 120Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille
Cantata BWV 120a
Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge
Cantata BWV 120b
Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of March 4, 2001
Aryeh Oron wrote (March 4, 2001):
This is the week of Cantata BWV 120 according to Andrew Oliver's suggestion. As a background for this festive cantata, I shall quote from W. Murray Young's book - 'The Cantatas of J.S. Bach - An Analytical Guide': "The beginning order is unusual for Bach: an alto aria comes first, then the chorus."
On Friday night I went to visit some friends. I took with me two recordings of BWV 120. On the way to the friends I heard Leusink's rendition and on the way back Herreweghe's. I came to conclusion that some movements, and especially the first number, must have been taken from a lost concerto, like cantatas BWV 35 or BWV 83, which have already been discussed in the BCML. On Saturday morning, when I started to write this review, I read for the first time Young's and Simon Crouch's descriptions of this cantata, and was amazed to find that their views are the same as mine!
During last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of BWV 120. I am not aware of any other recording of this cantata, or of individual movement from it. See: Cantata BWV 120 - Recordings.
 Helmuth Rilling (1973)
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1982)
 Philippe Herreweghe (1999)
 Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)
Review of the recordings
Mvt. 1 Aria for Alto
"The oboes d'amore and the strings play a siciliano melody to accompany this long aria; its text is the only Biblical quotation in this cantata, Psalm 65:1. It is an interesting aria, giving the theme of the cantata - Praise of God by the Town Council and the congregation - but it does not impress the listener as much as he would expect in a first number. Perhaps Bach took the music from one of earlier instrumental works (since lost) and merely super-imposed the text? The coloratura treatment by the soloist of the verbs 'lobet' and 'bezahlet' helps to brighten the aria somewhat."
 The colourful and cheerful playing of Rilling's orchestra prepares the entry of the alto singer - Hildegard Laurich. She has dark voice, a real contralto. There is a certain contradiction between her earthy and heavy voice and the lightness of the accompaniment. She has no problem to cope with the coloratura parts and her pronunciation is impeccable. I find this rendition very attractive.
 Harnoncourt's instrumental opening sounds surprisingly slow and heavy, almost Richterian. Esswood's singing here is almost dull and lacks expression. There is nothing here which will attract the occasional listener to listen again (except the power of the music, of course). Even if you do not know any other recording of this cantata, hearing this, one you know that it could have been done better.
 Authoritative and coherent playing opens this aria in Herreweghe's rendition. The singing of Ingeborg Danz is virtuosic and light. She handles the coloratura part so easily. There is a captivating internal play between her singing and the playing of the oboe d'amore. The recording is so clear that every instrument can be clearly heard, but the weave of them all together is the most arresting factor of this rendition.
 Hearing Leusink back to back with Herreweghe, the former sound a little bit unpolished. Sytse Buwalda singing is surprisingly good. It is as if he feels very comfortable with this aria. Even the coloratura parts sound natural in his singing. The main problem of this rendition of this aria is the accompaniment, which lacks volume and flow.
Mvt. 2 Chorus
"This brilliant movement, with trumpets and percussion added to the other instruments, is a mighty song of praise, involving to the maximum both choir and listener in its terrific joy-motif. Listeners would not find it difficult to identify themselves to as participants in this magnificent song of praise to God, as the chorus urges them to sing. Bach's jubilant music evokes an image of a crowd of rejoicing people. Bach must have impressed himself, for he adapted this music for the Et expecto section of his Mass in B minor (BWV 232). Note the many runs on the first word, 'Jauchzet' (rejoice)."
 When the opening notes are heard, you feel as if the cantata has just started. The glowing trumpets of Rilling sing the 'mighty song of praise' and when the choir joins the 'image of a crowd of rejoicing people' is fully expressed. It is indeed difficult not to be swept by this rendition.
 Harnoncourt improves in this movement, but still the enthusiasm is missing. Every component can be clearly heard, and the singing and the playing are on high level, but this is not enough. Everything sounds forced and lacks true internal conviction.
 With Herreweghe one can easily understand what is the 'terrific joy-motif' about which Young writes. The crowd is heard rejoicing, but I felt somehow that with Rilling the joy was more fully expressed.
 Things are getting better in this movement, when the trumpets and the timpani prepare the jolly atmosphere for the entry of the choir. It sounds less organized than Herreweghe's forces are. But on second thought, crowd of rejoicing people should not sound too organized, as they do with Herreweghe.
Mvt. 4 Aria for Soprano
"With the strings playing an adagio-cantabile melody, the soprano sings this surprisingly melancholy movement, when we would expect Bach to have written a happier tune at this point. It seems as though Bach was wishing for a more harmonious relationship with the Council, with whom he was quarrelling at this time. Possibly the music reflects his pessimism. Did he think that their government could improve, to benefit himself and all the citizens of Leipzig? The personification in the last two lines of the stanza is based on Psalm 85:10."
 Helen Donath's participation is a guaranteed success, which uplifts every cantata. She has such a warm voice that flows smoothly along the lines. She belongs to the old school of soprano singers, but she keeps her vibrato minimal. The melancholy is expressed very gently through her tender singing.
 Hearing the opening notes of this aria in Harnoncourt's rendition, I came to conclusion that the conductor must have had a bad day. The inspiration is missing from this aria, as well as from the previous movements. The boy soprano is competent but no more. He screams from time to time in the upper register and his singing is lacking expressive abilities.
 Deborah York (with Herreweghe) sings nicely, but I feel that she does not get into the heart of the matter as Donath does. There is also certain instability in her sing, which is somewhat disturbing. The playing is charming, gentle, delicate and warm.
 Holton's voice (with Leusink) is coming from heaven. Technically she is faultless and here she also adds the needed melancholy to her singing, making it most appealing. If she was the singer with Herreweghe, it could have been the ideal performance of this aria.
My choices - Rilling  and Herreweghe .
During the first hearings of the various recordings of this cantata I though that Herreweghe  outdid Leusink  in almost every parameter, except the singing of the soprano singer. At the last round I came to conclusion that Leusink's rendition has its own virtues. Only Harnoncourt does not make it in BWV 120.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Harry J. Steinman wrote (March 5, 2001):
How different two different versions of the same music can be! I have the Herreweghe  and the Leusink  versions and in listening to them both, I'm struck by some of the fundamental differences that I hear in Leusink, in general, and in Herreweghe.
For better (usually) or for worse (sometimes) I find that Leusink's recordings tend to be very light, airy. Sometimes, that sounds insubstantial, but not with this work, BWV 120. Herreweghe, by contrast, I find to be richly textured...complex, generally, although occasionally (actually, rarely!) I find him too dense, as in the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11), for example.
In this cantata, Leusink shines (with the exception of the alto aria; more about that in a moment) with this lightness, airiness. I like the Soprano aria in particular. Ruth Holton never strains; she's nimble and oh-so-subtly dramatic. Compare this with the wonderful Deborah York, who, in this work, is very dramatic. Listen in particular to her accent on the words, "Soll" and "muss" and "zu" in the second line of the text. But my heart reaches out more to Holton's light and understated treatment. This is personal preference...I would be very happy with York's rendition.
I suppose I must comment on the Alto aria, and the inevitable lamenting over the use of Sytse Buwalda as Leusink's alto. He is just too damned heavy for such a light piece. He sounds like he is labouring; nothing is gracious. Danz's aria, by contrast is most pleasant.
I don't have much to say about the choruses. I do enjoy Leusink's tenor, van der Meel, better in the recitatives. Again, this is because I find his singing lighter.
Well, that's about it for me for this week. Next week, I'll be on vacation in a faraway tropical island, so I'll "see" you all in a fortnight. Till then, "Make Mine Bach!"
Thomas Braatz wrote (March 5, 2001):
From Aryeh's description you already know about some of the parodies. Here is a quick summary taken from the NBA I/32.2 Critical Reports (1994) regarding the key movements 1, 2, 4.
BWV 120a is the wedding cantata that Aryeh refers to, only that BWV 120a came first (Bach borrowed from it for BWV 120)
BWV 120b is the cantata for the bicentennial of the Augsburg Confession on June 26, 1730.
BWV 232 is the great B-minor Mass, movement 21 "Et expecto" from the Symbolum Nicenum.
BWV 1019a is the third movement from the Violin Sonata in G-major.
Friedrich Smend assumed that movements 1 and 4 of BWV 120 derive from a now non-existent violin concerto and a separate soprano aria from the Köthen period. Alfred Dürr is not sure about the origin of the "Et expecto", but does mention Joshua Rifkin's supposition that BWV 120 mvt 2 and BWV 232 mvt 21 may both derive from an earlier, no longer existing source.
Here I would like to interject that as I listened to the recordings and followed the score at the same time, it was interesting to observe how Bach severely modified and reduced the content of BWV 120 mvt. 2 in order to make it fit the Latin text. On the fugal choral entries of a gradually upward-moving figure, BWV 120 mvt. 2 has the words 'steigen' (= 'step upward') and 'erheben' (= 'lift up or uplift') and in BWV 232 mvt 21 Bach uses 'resurrectionem' and 'amen'. BWV 120 mvt. 2 has a wonderful upward-jumping figure (which does not exist in BWV 232 mvt. 21) on the word 'jauchzet' (= 'shout for joy') also as individual fugal entries of various voices (Aryeh refers to this in his description). To me it appears that Bach, knowing how restricted he was by the Latin text, did the best he could possibly do by evoking the feeling of upward-moving joy that he had captured so well in BWV 120 mvt. 2. But this still leaves BWV 120 mvt. 2 with the greater expansive power because the German words are very intimately tied to the musical figures that create the picture images they are meant to evoke. Here he was able to paint with broader strokes. This is truly a remarkable movement.
Here, then, is the chronology of the movements in BWV 120:
From the Köthen period: a middle movement of a lost violin concerto and a soprano aria (also lost) and BWV 1019a mvt. 3
Then BWV 120a, the wedding cantata, 1729?
Then BWV 120b, Augsburg Confession, 1730.
Then BWV 120 Ratswahl Cantata, c. 1742ff.
Then BWV 232 mvt. 21, during the last years of Bach's life.
Hope this helps to clarify for others a few things that I did not realize until I looked and listened more carefully.
 I agree with Aryeh on the Harnoncourt recording.
Marie Jensen wrote (March 6, 2001):
In BWV 232: "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum" first the extremely slow music illustrates the quiet waiting in the graves: Then resurrection comes as a sudden explosion of joy (Mvt. 2 in BWV 120).
In BWV 120 this joy explosion comes after an aria dealing with the quiet (Gott man lobet Dich in der Stille), not the quiet of death, but the quiet of prayer, musically illustrated with other means.
Perhaps this contrast: Stille/ Jauchzend made Bach remember BWV 120 and reuse the chorus as a part of "Et expecto".
Andrew Oliver wrote (March 9, 2001):
Well, this has to be one of Bach's topmost quality compositions. Does it matter if he plundered some of his earlier works in order to bring the various movements together in this cantata? Presumably, he did what he thought was best, so who are we to disagree?
I am fortunate enough to have three recordings of this work, viz: Harnoncourt , Leusink  and Herreweghe , and they each have their merits, in differing degrees. It is interesting to compare the timings of the individual movements in the three versions.
 Harnoncourt 6.08 6.46 1.04 5.26 0.39 1.14 = 21.17
 Leusink 5.54 6.27 1.15 5.25 0.42 1.04 = 20.47
 Herreweghe 5.19 6.22 1.16 5.03 0.44 1.09 = 19.53
I have to agree with Aryeh and Thomas Braatz that Harnoncourt's recording leaves something to be desired, and I think it is partly due to the comparatively slow pace of the first two movements. With some cantatas, the stately, measured approach works to advantage, but not here. I do like the instrumental sound accompanying the soprano aria, and the last two movements sound fine to me.
Sytse Buwalda sings the alto aria well enough for Leusink, but I prefer the quicker tempo from Herreweghe, and I find Ingeborg Danz very impressive, both in technical competence and in expressive ability. Despite the tempo, Herreweghe and Danz still manage to convey a sense of calm quietness, although the movement trips along in a happy, joyful manner. The impression is that the joy is being restrained and is waiting to burst out in exuberance, which it does in the next movement.
The chorus is indeed a tour de force. Having been privileged to sing BWV 232 four or five times, I can only wish that Bach could have found some way of retaining all of this movement when he adapted it. Both Herreweghe and Leusink are excellent here, but personally I like Leusink's version best, because he is not afraid to bring the timpani into prominence, giving a more dramatic effect. I also like particularly the almost percussive sound of organ registration used here, which complements and answers the trumpets.
For the soprano aria, I would choose Leusink's recording, because I like Ruth Holton's singing, for both voice and interpretation, but, as far as the orchestral playing is concerned, all three of the versions I have sound equally good, though they differ a little in balance and emphasis.
It seems strange after hearing his treatment of chorales in other cantatas, but, in this one, Harnoncourt provides us with a smooth legato rendering, more so than either Herreweghe or Leusink, and, for that reason, his is the one I prefer, though both the others are also pleasing.
I wonder, did the city councillors of Leipzig appreciate this cantata as much as we do?
Jane Newble wrote (March 10, 2001):
One of the nicest things about coming back from over a week in Holland is listening to BWV 120!
I'm not sure why this is one of my favourite cantatas, it was love at first hearing almost a year ago, when the Herreweghe version  came out. Not much has changed with regards to Herreweghe. I can only compare it with Leusink , and apart from the soprano aria, I still prefer Herreweghe by far.
 First of all there is the alto aria. Ingeborg Danz sings it with quiet and deep felt dignity, in empathy with the music and the words. The chorus...in Herreweghe's version I can feel the joy that wants to take me up to heaven. It is exuberant and inviting.
 In Leusink I had the feeling of a war-cry - it sounds so aggressive. The soprano aria in Leusink is unbelievably beautiful...both instruments and voice.
I find it very difficult to say anything detailed about this cantata. To me it is a song of praise, and a meditation at the same time, and I feel words are inadequate to describe what I feel when I listen to this.
Continue on Part 2
Cantatas BWV 120, BWV 120a & BWV 120b: Details & Complete Recordings of BWV 120 | Recordings of Individual Movements from BWV 120 | Details & Complete Recordings of BWV 120a | Recordings of Individual Movements from BWV 120a | Details of BWV 120b | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3