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Cantata BWV 14
Wär' Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of January 28, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 28, 2001):
Background - Bach goes to War

This is the week of Cantata BWV 14 according to Andrew Oliver's suggestion. This is a relatively late cantata from 1735, among the few composed after the five yearly cycles of cantatas had been finished. One possibility might be that Cantata BWV 14 was composed as a supplement to the already existing yearly cycles. Another possibility, which seems to me more logical, is that the cause for its composition was a war of the Polish Succession, which lasted from 1733 to 1738. A war, any war, does not achieve any goal, because at the end both sides stand where they had stood before it began. It leads to despair, misery and agony of the ordinary people, and I think that these feelings are reflected in this unusual cantata. Very rarely we see the outside world expressed in the Church Cantatas, and Bach uses the musical weapons at his disposal to say something about his attitude to this difficult situation. As a background for this cantata in general and for some of its movements, I shall use again the book by W. Murray Young:

"This chorale cantata for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany reflects the uneasy aftermath in Saxony of the War of the Polish Succession. The unknown librettist arranged Luther's translation of Psalm 124, taking verses one and three unchanged for the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) and for the final chorale (Mvt. 5); he paraphrased freely the other verses of the Psalm for the two arias and the one recitative.
The Gospel, Matthew 8: 23-27, Jesus stills the storm at sea, has no direct bearing on the libretto except in the tenor recitative (Mvt. 3) and in the bass aria (Mvt. 4), where the attacks of the enemy are likened to the fury of the tempest's waves (Matthew 8: 24).
The soli are STB, with four-part chorus. The orchestra has a corno da caccia (hunting horn), two oboes, two violins, a viola and continuo."

The Recordings

During last week I have been listening to 3 complete recordings of BWV 14. Initially I thought that I have four, but than I discovered that the recording included in the CD from Capriccio called 'Kantaten mit Corno da caccia' with Ludwig Güttler, and which I was led to believe was conducted by Max Pommer (according to the CD cover), is actually identical to the recording from Leipzig (or Berlin) Classics, conducted by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch. One can know it only after buying the CD, because it is written only in the inside booklet. It is also interesting to note that the linear notes for this CD were also written by Max Pommer. I am not aware of the existence of any other recording of this cantata in its entirety, nor of any individual movement from it.

[1] Gustav Leonhardt (1972)
[2] Helmuth Rilling (1984)
[3] Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (1984)

Review of the recordings

Mvt. 1 Chorus
"Wär' Gott nicht mit uns dieses Zeit, / So soll Israel sagen, / Were God not with us at this time, / Wir hätten müssen verzagen"
("Were God not with us at this time, / So Israel should say / Were God not with us at this time, / we should have to despair")
"This is a movement in the style of a Pachelbel motet, sung in canon to a fugal melody without ritornelli. It is a gloomy fantasia for all the instruments, while the chorus sings stanza one of Luther's Psalm 124. One would expect such a hymn of thanks for deliverance to be interpreted by a happy mood, but Bach paints a dark tone-picture for this and for the next two numbers. Despite this tone of sadness, it is a very moving number".

To this description I would like to add a quotation by Alfred Dürr, taken from the liner notes to the Teldec recording (Leonhardt):
"The usual formal design is here made up of two arias framing a recitative section follow by a simple four-part final chorus. However, the first movement has a very striking artistic form and this can perhaps only be fully appreciated after several hearings: the unornamented song melody is solemnly drawn out by the winds (horn and two oboes in unison) and, played line by line, is the crowning element of a movement in motet form in which the strings double the voice lines colla parte while they in turn sing every line as a counter-fugue. Every entry of the song melody is followed at the next entry by its inversion. It is certainly no coincidence that such a movement, which seems like a foretaste of Bach's late contrapuntal works, is to be found in one of his last church cantatas."

[1] The combined choir that opens Leonhardt's performance is fantastic. All the vocal voices are sharp and clear. It is so easy to follow the fugal lines. I was so impressed by this rendition that I had to hear it once again immediately, before the next movement begins, only to notice that the gloomy and depressing atmosphere of this chorus is also very well reflected.

[2] Rilling's choir is also very impressive and targeted at their goal. The separation between the voices and the overall balance is not as good as in Leonhardt's recording. I also miss the ancient atmosphere, which suits so well this chorus. This is one of the few cases where Rilling modern forces sound unfitting with thr situation. I found also that the 'dark tone-picture' is not revealed here. It seems that Rilling and his forces preferred to adopt 'happy mood', which is simply improper for this chorus, as the two experts quoted above have said so well.

[3] Rotzsch gives us a warm and poised performance of this chorus. It is not as sombre and melancholic as Leonhardt's recording is, but it is arresting in a special way. The separation between the various vocal and instrumental lines is also not as good as in the other two recordings.

Mvt. 2 Aria - Soprano
"Unsre Stärke heisst zu schwach, / Unserm Feind zu widerstehen. / Stünd' uns nicht der Höchste bei, / Würd' uns ihre Tyrannei / Bald bis an das Leben gehen."
("Our strength is too weak, / To withstand our enemy, / If the Highest had not stood by us, / Their tyranny would have gone / Soon as far as to threaten our lives")
"Accompanied by the horn and strings, she sings of the Lord's assistance, which has helped them in the conflict and without which they could not have survived. Her cheerful confidence in the Lord, expressed in a joy-motif, banishes the melancholy mood of the opening chorus."

[1] Virtuosic playing from Baumann opens this aria in Leonhardt's recording and our expectations are raising high. Then the boy soprano enters and proves once again that the task of a complicated and difficult aria as this one is too heavy for his shoulders, both technically and emotionally. H&L showed us in cantatas such as BWV 51 or BWV 199 that they knew when to give up and to give virtuosic soprano parts to experienced woman soprano singer. But those two cantatas were recorded later in their cycle. It might be that H&L were convinced to change their mind after the criticism they got following recordings of cantatas like this one.

[2] The strong and penetrating voice and the poised production of Krisztina Laki (with Rilling) matches beautifully the soft and assured playing of the horn by Marie-Louise Neunecker. She is also cheerful but in a restrained manner, never exaggerated. What an excellent roster of soprano singers Rilling had in his disposal while he was doing his cantata cycle - Arleen Augér, Helen D, Krisztina Laki and more.

[3] Güttler playing is somewhat vociferous and obtrusive to my taste. I recall that this qualities characterize also his conducting, which was mentioned in the review of the various recordings of Cantata BWV 208, not a long while ago. But Monica Frimmer celebrates with joy and pleasure. She is clearly technically well equipped to perform successfully this demanding aria and she surely knows well how to convey 'cheerful confidence'.

The remaining three movements of this unique cantata (are not all of them unique?) also call for referring. But due to limitations of time and space, I shall leave this challenge for the other members of the group.

Conclusion

My order of preferences:
Opening chorus (Mvt. 1) - Leonhardt [1], Rotzsch [3], Rilling [2].
Aria for soprano (Mvt. 2) - Rilling [2], Rotzsch [3], Leonhardt [1].

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

Leo Ditvoorst wrote (January 29, 2001):
[5] Soloists in the Leusink recording of BWV 14: Ruth Holton, soprano, Knut Schoch, tenor, Bas Ramselaar, bass and as always Sytse Buwalda, altus.

BTW it was interesting to read the Leusink section on the performers page of the archive pages. Many harsh words were said. Now the cantata are discussed individually, and people have to listen before they write, it seems that the Leusink set has the same quality as the others, some cantata are great and others are less. There is no ultimate cantata performer and it is clear to me that Leusink got his place in the choir of excellence.

Dyfan Lewis wrote (January 30, 2001):
(To Leo Ditvoorst) I'll put my 2 cents in there definitely.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (January 30, 2001):
I didn't have this cantata in my collection but happily, passed a Tower today and purchased the Rilling recording [2] and I'm very glad I did. First of all, I really haven't listened much to Rilling, and I found his work to be bright, crisp, up-tempo (maybe that's just this cantata...)

Anyway, couple of impressions: First, I was a bit startled when I started listening to the opening chorus (Mvt. 1). There's one brief note and then, Pow! The singing starts. No introduction, no ritornello, just instant voice. It grabbed my attention....loved the polyphony of that chorus...I was unfamiliar with the soprano, Krisztina Laki, and found her to be Powerful-with-a-capital-"P". I wondered, when I read the libretto for this aria, Was a soprano voice chosen to represent weakness? Yet Laki sings powerfully, which, for me, highlights the phrase, "we bid defiance"

Aryeh finds the Rilling version [2] too 'happy' for the 'dark-toned' libretto. Yet when I read Malcolm Boyd's commentary ("Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), I'm presented with a differing view of the cantata, one in which Rilling's brightness doesn't seem out of place. Boyd writes, "The Gospel reading for the day...relates Christ's calming of the storm at sea, and the unidentified librettist has effectively blended its central theme-God's protection-with that of the hymn which provides the framework of the text." I don't claim to really understand Christian theology and writings, but to me, the theme of protection doesn't seem dark. But elsewhere, Boyd acknowledges the text's "severity"... I guess if one focuses on the wrath of the 'foe' then dark works. If one focuses on the protection of the diety, then bright isn't so bad...

I was also taken by the instrumental accompaniment to the arias in this cantata. The technical bravura of the horn matches that of the soprano. Although I'm not a big fan of recitatives in general, I enjoyed the continuo accompaniment. And I found the obbligato oboes in the bass aria (Mvt. 4) to be musically delightful.

Well, that's it from Boston for now!

Roy Reed wrote (January 30, 2001):
I have the score of BWV 14, but no recorded performance on which to report. It is an unusual piece, not the least because it is unrelentingly in 2 flats....sometimes minor, sometimes major. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is a challenge. Really comes at you, kind of a driving piece.

I do have several lacunae in my recorded collection. This is but one. I get the Koopman and Suzuki offerings as they come out. The most economical way to fill in the numbers is with the Leusink performances [5]. Of the cantatas, I have volumes 4,5,8,9, and 11, with vols. 12 and 14 on the way. I would like to find Vols. 15,18,19,20 and 21. Anyone know where I might find them?

Riccardo Nughes wrote (January 30, 2001):
[To Roy Reed] [5] Well, try on www.iperdue.com, this is an Italian classical CD shop featuring in his catalogue the Bach Edition on Brilliant Classics at a very cheap price. Please note that there is the English version of the site!

Andrew Oliver wrote (February 2, 2001):
This late cantata reminds me in various places of some of Bach's late orchestral works, such as the Art of Fugue (Kunst der Fuge), and I think that is because the contrapuntal nature of the work seems to imply that Bach viewed it partly as an intellectual exercise in polyphonic theory. The complexity of its construction is certainly impressive, especially in the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), where the different voices enter in pairs, the first setting out a theme and the second answering with the theme inverted. This is music which requires concentration in order to begin to understand a little of what Bach is trying to do. Nevertheless, if we are not able to mentally unravel all its strands, it is still pleasing to the ear.

[1] I have only the Leonhardt recording, and while I was impressed by the horn playing in the first aria (Mvt. 2), I was a little disappointed by the boy soprano, not because of his voice or his declamation or his accuracy, but because he does not manage to keep up the tempo, so it sounds sometimes as if a clockwork mechanism is running down and needs to be wound up.

I think Bach enjoyed setting the words of the tenor recitative (Mvt. 3):
... Es hätt uns ihre Wut wie eine wilde Flut
Und als beschäumte Wasser überschwemmet
und niemand hätte die Gewalt gehemmet.
The raging, foaming floods and torrents are almost visible, or at least we can hear them just around the corner.

Much the same applies in the bass aria (Mvt. 4) which follows, though there is more contrast here. The running scale passages and the syncopated sections of the solo voice hint at the fury of the 'wild waves', but it seems to me that God's 'strong protection' is represented by a pair of guardian angels, in the guise of the two oboes hovering above the turbulence.

The sober solidity of the closing chorale (Mvt. 5) epitomises the safety to be found after the storm has been calmed, the sea has been tamed, and all is under God's control. The words do not mention this, but that is the effect of the music.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 14: 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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