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Cantata BWV 126
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Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 18, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 18, 2001):
Background

This is the week of Cantata BWV 126 according to Andrew Oliver's suggestion. After some weeks in which we discussed cantatas from incidental channels (but not necessarily of lesser importance), we are now back to the mainstream with full blooded chorale cantata. The form is classical - a bold opening chorus, two arias, two recitatives and concluding chorale. The only thing missing here is a movement for the soprano singer, but in last week we discussed BWV 84, which is a solo cantata for soprano, so that we are somehow compensated. As a background I shall use this time the linear notes to EMI Electrola LP (the recording of Wolfgang Gönnenwein [1]). Those linear were written by Otto V. Irmer and translated into English by John Wilde.

"This cantata is one of a series of chorale cantatas dating from Bach's period in Leipzig between 1729 and 1744, when he showed an increasing preference for this new cantata form in his vocal music for the church. The composer was seeking to move his music away from the sphere of real life's joys and sorrows into a higher realm of mystical communication with God and in the process his cantatas grew away from free choruses and madrigal-like texts to acquire stricter forms, the principal basis for which was to be the chorale. For this cantata, which dates from 1735 (I assume this is a mistake, because this is the only source mentioning 1735 and not 1725 as the year of composition, A.O.), chorales by Martin Luther have been used at the beginning and the close while in the central sections, texts from verses of further Luther chorales have been arranged to suit the recitatives and the arias, although the message of the original text remains intact. The aggressive mood of his musical arrangement of the opening chorale led Bach to extend the melody in the form of a chorale fantasy and to invest the subsequent arias with an intensity of realistic expression which characterizes the whole work, inspired as it is by the message of the text. In the aria: 'Sende deine Macht von oben', (Send thy might from above), the words: 'Deine Kirche zu erfreuen und der Feinde bittern Spott augenblicklich zu zerstreunen', (To delight thy church and instantly to destroy the enemy's bitter scorn), are sung with breathtaking coloratura while the duet of the accompanying oboes together with the organ offers a heartfelt glorification in musical terms of God's mercy. Similarly, in the bass aria: 'Stürze zu Boden, schwülstige Stolze', (Cast down arrogant pride), the organ accompaniment realistically reflects the collapse, the recovery and then the final downfall of evil. There is immense beauty in the cantabile adagio introduced several times into the contralto recitative and in which tenor and contralto pray together for God's help. In the final chorale: 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich', (In thy mercy give us peace), the restlessness of the work hitherto gives way to a certain calm in both the melody and the unchanged words of Luther's original text."

Complete Recordings

During last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of BWV 126 of the 5 I am aware of existing. I do not know of any recording of individual movements from this cantata. See: Cantata BWV 126 – Recordings.

[1] Wolfgang Gönnenwein (Late 1960’s?)
This is a first rate recording from almost every aspect. There is beauty in the clarity of the recording, each inner voice is distinct, the textures are well balanced, and one is able to follow Bach's involved musical thought. The singers are authoritative and aware of their roles. All of them have rich, sensitive and beautiful voice. Janet's Baker light coolness matches splendidly the velvety voice of Theo Altmeyer. Hans Sotin has dark and deep voice with penetrating quality that is simply irresistible. It is very rarely that we can hear such a unique voice nowadays, when most bass roles are given lighter voice baritone singers, who sounds as their main ambition is to sound as similar to each other as possible. And Gönnenwein is a conductor who gives you the impression that you are in safe hands, because he knows exactly where he wants to take you.

[2] Karl Richter (1973-1974)
I remember reading somewhere that Richter's cantata recordings from the first half of the 1970's were not recorded as integral performances, but were built up number by number according to the availability of the singers in his hometown Munich. As a result the final product was unpredictable. I have to admit that although generally I like Richter's approach, he might sound from time to time dry, ponderous, dogmatic and insensitive. But that is not the case here. I find that Richter's approach suits this cantata like a glove. He is lively and imaginative and the sweeping opening chorus is grabbing you in. Richter's singers are in fine form. He takes the tenor aria at a spanking pace, making the aria with its elaborating coloratura even more taxing, And Peters Schreier accedes to the challenge and succeeds to pass every obstacle. Anna Reynolds and Schreier pray heartily together in the recitative for alto and tenor. Theo Adam sings effortlessly the technically demanding aria for bass and also gives it emotional substance with his rich and warm voice. A special feature of this rendering is the bassoon that Richter adds to the continuo line. Its independent nature causes it to slide into the bass line and jumping occasionally out of it. A fascinating recording, of which the brave late Richter should be proud.

[3] Helmuth Rilling (1980)
Rilling goes in the same route of his predecessors, which means grand scale, authoritative and respectful. But his rendering sounds more colourful and somewhat lighter in comparison to Gönnenwein's and Richter's. His tempi are less brisk than Richter's are and therefore Kraus has more room to express himself in the first aria and not only to show that technically he has no problem to cope with the twists and turns of the aria. The movement in this aria is kept by the cheerful playing of the oboes. Regarding authority and understanding of his part, Schöne lacks nothing in comparison with Sotin and Adam. But his voice is less flexible, and for my taste he misses something in expression. The happiness that shrouds all this rendering of the cantata adds to it extra dimension, which is somewhat hidden in the previous recordings.

[4] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1982)
The unique trumpet sound that opens the chorus and the timbre of oboes makes this rendering sound very different from the previous three recordings. The singing of the Tölzer Knabenchor here lacks volume and it not as unified as we expect. But the main fault lies in Harnoncourt's approach. It seems that he is working his way against the flow of the music. He almost stops the music from time the time and the opening chorus loses most of its glory and honour. I assume that it is done deliberately, but I do not understand what Harnoncourt wants to achieve. Things are getting better in the aria for tenor, where Equiluz conveys confidence both in his state as a human being and in his ability to perform the taxing aria well. The recitative for alto and tenor also comes out convincingly because Esswood and Equiluz are riding on similar wave and their singing transforms mutual listening. They want to pray together and they do. Thomas Thomaschke is not on the same par with his three predecessors. His voice is impressive but his singing is totally inexpressive and uninteresting. The concluding chorale is the best part of this rendition - clean, precise, sincere and touching.

[6] Pieter JLeusink (2000)
I do not have this recording yet.

Conclusion

It is very hard for me to choose between Gönnenwein (1), Richter (2) and Rilling (3). Harnoncourt [4] is less satisfying, especially in the opening chorus.

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

Roy Reed wrote (February 19, 2001):
I have but one CD for BWV 126: the 1980 reading by H. Rilling (3). Fine performance, but I wish I had an HIP reading for comparison, since I usually prefer them. Rilling, by the way, will conduct the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) here in Columbus, Ohio next year with the Cols. Orchestra and CSO chorus. Jan. 25 & 26.

BWV 126 is one of the particular Luther cantatas, since so much of the text, patchwork, though it is, is Luther text. Sometimes the close tie to Luther is a plus, sometimes a minus. I put this down as a minus. Here is the bellicose Luther. There was plenty of the warrior in him, most of it unattractive. Of course, he was up against some very heavy hitters.

I have a hard time coming up with the rationale for all of this fight and fury for Sexagesima. It isn't really there in the texts. The other cantatas for this day, BWV 18 and BWV 181 are quite obvious in their reference to the Gospel text. Admittedly, both the Gospel and Epistle texts deal with appositives. In the case of the Gospel (Luke 8: 4-15) with seed sown in rocky or good soil, and in the Epistle (2 Corinthians 11: 19 - 12: 15) with true and false and with apposite in St. Paul's character. There are some "warfare" opportunities back in chapter ten, but I don't see them here. Does something in the tensions of politics and local conflict bring this out? There was a peace treaty between Austria and the Ottoman Empire back in 1721, and I think that the conflicts that embroiled Saxony, Poland, Prussia, Russia, Sweden were not at a crises at this time, but I might be wrong about that.

The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is a straightforward concerted chorale setting with martial trumpet obbligato, sopranos on the melody. Straightforward mix of Vivaldi and Pachelbel. You have to love it. Blast at the Pope and the Turk aside.

Mvt. 2 is a tenor aria imploring MIGHT from above. The tenor (Adalbert Kraus) has to put out some serious coloratura singing with really wild melismas on "erfreuen," and "zerstreuen." I have listened and looked at these passages to try to discern a specific "tone" for rejoicing or scattering. I conclude only that it takes three measures longer to scatter than to rejoice. In any case, these melismas seem to me rather alien and forced; rather "over the top," one might say. Extreme, anyway. For me it comes off with loss of conviction. Surely Mr. Kraus is a fine singer and delivers an excellent performance of a most difficult aria.

Mvt. 3 is a special little form of great charm and grace. And do we need it here! It is a lovely blending of recitative and an ornamented chorale melody...the same chorale tune as No.1. The tenor gets to have the tune first and then the alto takes it over. It is a prayer-conversation invoking the Holy Spirit. Thank God for an island of peace here. Not to worry, bellicosity makes a comeback with ruin, bombast and destruction.

Mvt. 4 is a lively aria for bass. And he is out there alone, with only a downward racing cello and the continuo realization for company. The cellist here, Jakoba Hanke, is wonderful. Fine precision and right in the mood of the aria. The Neue Ausgabe calls for organ on the continuo, but Rilling [3] uses harpsichord. Big mistake, I think. The piece wants the drama of some sharp organ sound. I like the singing of Wolfgang Schöne, except mss. 116 to 124 where he must carry on with a lengthy passage of bouncing 16th notes on the vowel "O." In order to do this he sneaks in a tiny "h" before each note to help with the articulation. Big "no, no" in my book. In this case it seems to me to be over-accentuation and also leads to distortion of the "O" sound.

When I get to the final chorale (Mvt. 6): "Grant us peace, graciously," I want to say, "Not likely!!"...given the hostel tone of the whole presentation. I think that the parable of the sower deserves better than this. Ah, but the tunes are terrific.

Sounding off on postings for a time. We are off to Malta, Rome and Istanbul. Happy listening!!

Harry J. Steinman wrote (February 21, 2001):
Well, this has been an interesting cantata for me, one that I really haven't quite come to grips with. I did not own this cantata, so I went to Tower (always a dangerous trip; fortunately, I only purchased one other CD!) and picked up the Rilling version (3), the only one I could find.

And I turned to the discussion of the cantata in Malcolm Boyd's "Oxford Composers Companion: Bach" which I recommend to all.

The opening chorus...well, Boyd refers to the chorus glowingly, "Even among the jewels of Bach's second cantata cycle...the opening chorus of no. 126 shines brightly, if more briefly than in some other works." I like the chorus, but it doesn't hit me as hard as it does for Boyd. I really like the trumpet and oboes, and the way they are, again in Boyd's words, "busying themselves with independent ritornello material."

I think that this chorus is a really good candidate for an OVPP (One Voice Per Part) treatment. The movement is set as a soprano Cantus with the other three voices adding a contrapuntal flavour but I cannot hear the soprano well enough. I think that Junghänel and Cantus Cölln, or the Purcell Quartet need to record this!

As much as I enjoy the opening movement's accompaniment, I'm a bit puzzled by the libretto, as translated in this recording, for the line, "And fend off murderous Pope and Turk" Were the Lutherans under siege from the Catholic Church and the Moslem world (assuming that's what 'Turk' means in this context)

I did not care for the tenor in the Rilling recording [3], not at all! The melisma on the word, "erfreuen' sounds awful to me. First of all, if I understand a melisma correctly, it's an elaboration on a single syllable, but it sounds like two different sounds, an "ah" and an "uh" sound, and it sounds like the singer's voice is sort of closed off. I don't have the vocabulary to describe what I hear but I don't like it! Sounds goofy. The melisma on the word, "zerstreuen" was OK, but I guess I'm not a fan of tenor Adalbert Kraus.

But I did enjoy the interplay between oboes and bassoon (?) very much!

Loved the continuo accompaniment to the Bass aria!

Not much to say about the final chorus...it's very nice.

So, my overall reaction is not so much to the cantata than it is to the recording. Liked the opening chorus, but I'd love to hear it done with reduced forces. A big ugh! to the tenor aria (with an enthusiastic nod to the accompaniment). Bass aria is just fine, especially the continuo. OK to the chorus.

Well, that's it from sunny, chilly Boston this week. See ya' next week for BWV 127 which, happily, is on the same Rilling CD [3] I just bought.

Jane Newble wrote (February 22, 2001):
This is one of the weirdest cantatas I have heard for a long time. I haven't had much time to listen to it this week, but I just wanted to say a little bit about it.

I have the feeling that Bach must have greatly enjoyed composing this, but it sounds a bit hodgy-podgy, aif he had mixed feelings about it all.

(5) A tenor who can't have been 'erfreut' singing that aria...I wonder if he had nightmares before singing it...I would! (Knut Schoch, the Leusink tenor, actually does very well here.) The bass (in my case Bas Ramselaar) who loves (that seems obvious) singing his bit in competition with the cello... And then in the middle, a lovely, unusual duet recitative...like I have never heard before. All very strange, and weird, and yet, so very beautiful.

Marie Jensen wrote (February 23, 2001):
Hello group (again)! Just a few remarks on cantata BWV 126, which I know in Leusink's (5) and Harnoncourt's (4) versions.

The tenor aria:
< Jane Newble wrote: I have the feeling that Bach must have greatly enjoyed composing this, but it sounds a bit hodgy-podgy, as if he had mixed feelings about it all. A tenor who can't have been 'erfreut' singing that aria...I wonder if he had nightmares before singing it...I would! (Knut Schoch, the Leusink tenor [6], actually does very well here.) >
This aria reminds me in a way about the aria "Es kömmt ein Tag" from cantata BWV 136. It is the same odd, quiet "Dies Irae" type.

Gods power to destroy human pride and let it fall down into the depths (the notes too!) is told about in the bass aria. Where the Harnoncourt version [4] (Thomaschke) is very serious and powerful, like Michelangelo's Christ raising his hand on Judgement Day, the Leusink version [6] (Ramselaar) has a twinkle in the eye: "Wait and see. Pride you will fall!".

Finally about the opening chorus: The Catholics and Moslems are (like in cantata BWV 18) terrible enemies according Luther. Bach also wrote masses for the catholic court in Dresden.

But this cantata is a prayer of saving the Word from falsehood. I hear the trumpet as a bright guide (Gottes Wort). The strings as the rein, in which the choir moves on, praying for the right direction.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (February 23, 2001):
Marie Jensen wrote:
< Finally about the opening chorus: The Catholics and Moslems are (like in cantata BWV 18) terrible enemies according Luther. >
And Die Juden also, particularly in the Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) (but that's there in the N.T. itself). So what can we do, but hope that Luther and Bach do not influence persons any more to have such hatreds. If we want to love the music, we have to see that the text does not infect mankind any more than these texts have. These texts have done and/or contributed to some of the worst horrors of history.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (February 23, 2001):
[To Marie Jensen] So good to read your words again. I hope you're doing well!

Sybrand Bakker wrote (February 23, 2001):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] Read the book by Michael Marissen on anti-Judaism in the St John Passion (BWV 245). You can buy it from Amazon and it has a richly annotated literal translation of the libretto. Marissen tries to proof that according to Lutheran theology of the time and according to Bach's interpretation of it, Man killed Christ, not the Jews On a theological side-note: The problem with the Gospel of St-John is how you translate the word 'hoi judaeoi'. You can translate that as 'the Judeans' i.e. the people from Judea as opposed to the Galileans (and the animosity between Galileans and Judeans is important in this Gospel) or you can consider 'Judeans' as a pars pro toto for the Jews, which is why the phrase became translated as 'the Jews'.

As a Christian I can't agree with your comments on the text of the Gospel and I can't agree with your comments on Bach's position. Bach simply wasn't anti-Semitic as he continually stressed 'Ich bin's, ich sollte buessen' This line of thought occurs both in the St-John Passion as it occurs in the Saint Matthew Passion (BWV 244). IMO, the Gospel of St-John isn't anti-Semitic, it is maybe a bit anti-Judean, but in the same fashion as Belgians don't like the Dutch and Dutch usually don't like German It is quite clear in subsequent centuries (starting at 70 CE, after the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem) Christians started to interpret the Gospels in a way that instirred hatred against the Jews, with the Holocaust as a final consequence. It is also quite clear most Gospels received a final review, by people who didn't know anything about the Jewish roots of the Gospels, who weren't aware of the exact situation in Jerusalem some 60 to 70 years ago, when Christ was killed. I believe many Christians nowadays acknowledge this fact and repent it.

Frank Fogliati wrote (February 23, 2001):
[To Marie Jensen] Welcome back Marie. It was wonderful to see your words on the screen again!

Andrew Oliver wrote (February 24, 2001):
As we all know, every one of Bach's cantatas is unique. This one is particularly unusual, and it puzzles me a little, mainly because it seems to have little to do with the Gospel for the day (Luke 8: 4-15) Perhaps it has some reference to the perils suffered by the apostle Paul, as mentioned in the Epistle for the day, which is 2 Corinthians 11: 19 - 12: 15.

The two recordings I have are those made by Harnoncourt (4) and Leusink (5). I like them both, but I think I prefer the Leusink overall. I have not always regarded the singing of the tenor Knut Schoch (with Leusink) favourably, but in the aria here he acquits himself well. It is true that in the melisma on 'erfreuen', the vowel sound is rather variable, but I think that any singer who has the courage to sing this while being recorded deserves only praise.

I can see why Harnoncourt [4] used Thomas Thomaschke as his bass soloist. He may not be as technically proficient as some others (there are one or two questionable entries here), but he has a real bass voice which is what is needed for this aria. It is possible to hear coughing in the background during this number.

One thing I enjoyed in Leusink's recording [6] was the organ continuo. It is not intrusive, but the volume and registration is well judged and combines well with everything else.

Most of all, I enjoyed that very special duet between alto and tenor. Both recordings are good, but I like particularly the almost ethereal performance of Buwalda and Schoch. They seem to have more sensitivity here than Esswood and Equiluz (with Harnoncourt [4]).

I would sum up this cantata as unusual, slightly strange, but beautiful and packed with interesting inventions. More please, Sebastian.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 126: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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