Cantata BWV 140Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Discussions - Part 3
Continue from Part 2
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 27, 2002):
BWV 140 - Commentaries: [Spitta, Schweitzer, Voigt, Contra Schweitzer, Smend]
See: Cantata BWV 140 - Commentary
Dick Wursten wrote (December 27, 2002):
This is how I see/experience the inherent dramatics in the scenario of BWV 140, with many thanks for the summary by Voigt.
Mvt. 1 Chorale – The music spreads an atmosphere of awakening. Awakening not so much as a 'réveil' (= surprise, because considering the context of the watchmen on the towers, the first three notes of the melody, the call in the text: Wachet auf ! you would expect this) but more as in the movie 'Awakenings'...
Everything is coming to life.... Both Spitta and Voigt (Thomas, thanks!) use the word 'blissfulness'. Spitta - who deserves a monument - wrote the words I couldn't find: "out of the initial, majestic (not so in Leusink ) rhythms in the orchestra arises a feeling of mysterious bliss which spills over again and again into a more overt expression of this bliss." Morgenstimmung at midnight. The occasional calls in the lower voices: 'Wachet Auf, macht bereit' don't sound threatening. Also unexpected, because this threat belongs to the homiletic tradition around the parable of the 10 virgins (because 5 were fools and damned forever, Matthew 25:12). No trace of this in the entire cantata. I agree with Voigt contra Schweitzer. IMO this is also a compliment for the basic soundness of the theology of Nicolai, Bach and his textwriters). And when the 'hallelujah' starts you know that everything is going to be well... There will be a heavenly wedding. The groom is unique. He is one, He is the One; his bride is of course both plural - Mvt. 1, Mvt. 2, Mvt. 4, Mvt. 7 - and singular - Mvt. 2, Mvt. 3, Mvt. 5, Mvt. 6, for the the church is one body, but it exists in its many members - body and soul).
Mvt. 2 Recitative – And indeed there he is already ! The best friend of the groom, or a watchman of Davids city depicts how he is coming nearer, leaping over the hills, young and vital like a gazelle, eager to meet his beloved bride... The notification of the imminence of his coming becomes the announcement of his arrival... and in the following.
Mvt. 3 Duet – the arrival takes place.... But being together is not yet the full communion; because that is what's it all about: communion: becoming one. When you look carefully to the text every image is explained: The 'brennender Öl' (burning oil) refers back to the well-prepared virgins from the Matthew 25 and Nicolai verse 1. The extra-oil which keeps the lamp burning was 9 out of 10 times explained as referring to 'faith'. The heavenly meal (the wedding meal), also very present in the hymn and in the gospelreading has a double reference: the banquet of love in the courts of heaven after the (individual and universal) end of time and the holy supper, celebrated every sunday in church, during which the holy communion of the Soul and Jesus was supposed to take place. The Last Supper being a fore-taste of the Final Supper.
Mvt. 4 Chorale – introduces an element of 'retardatio' in the scenario (appropriate I suppose considering the subject). Before the 'bond' of love shall be sealed (Mvt. 5) the friend of the groom is giving his comment... not in a recitativo (like Mvt. 2) but in a beautiful trio-choral. He describes the joy of the bride (Sion) when she arises and meets her friend. But in the middle of the choraltext he changes position and becomes one of those who is invited to attend the wedding banquet....
Endlessly one can discuss whether he is single or plural, whether he is the friend of the groom or still a watchman at the walls of the city... The people who discuss these issues into detail forget that we all have more than one soul in our breast and in the mystery of faith we both have a separate identity and a communal belonging. In the bible 'I' am someone, but sometimes the fact tha 'I' belong to a 'we' is more important than that. And both this 'I' and 'we' can become 'one' with Christ. The apostle Paul even can write: Not I am living any more, but Christ is living in me... [sorry for this theological excursion, couldnot resist]. In another mail I already gave some attention to the musical figure of the counter-melody. so I skip that part.
Mvt. 5 Recitative – the bridegroom invites the bride to enter... The communion is sealed and all miseries of life are taken off the bride, when she becomes 'one' with her groom. The communion is celebrated in an 'unio mystica', the blissfulness of which you can sense when you listen to
Mvt. 6 Duet – between the soul and Christ... The flowers of love bloom around them... Lilies in some translations... probably the right translation of the hebrew word used in the Song of songs... but roses being also correct, since in our western culture these flowers are the right symbolic flowers at the right place at the right moment... 'Blissfulness' being synonym to 'Wonne' in the last line of this mvt.
Mvt. 7 Chorale – can do nothing better than conclude, i.e. close the door of the weddinghall by zooming out on the surroundings, which is not earthly Sion, of course not, it is the new Jerusalem, depicted in the 21st chapter of the Apocalyps... Over-statement (hyperbole) is the only way to express how things look there. And under-statement too: We continue our earthly liturgy. No 'kyrie eleison' anymore but 'Gloria' sei dir gesungen (I interprete this not as a word to be translated, but as a the liturgical term). Yes we can simply shout out our joy: Io, Io (hurray!), while the 'consortium musicum' (BTW 'Konsorten' has disappeared in the modern German version of this hymn) plays one of the most popular christmassongs ever: 'in dulci jubilo'. Of course the meaning of these words is also intended, but I prefer the first line of this song, because it also is one of my favourites.
With the overstatement corresponds the richness of the choral-setting of Bach (the melody already high, still doubled by the 'Terzgeige' (Dürr) one octave higher). No 'schlichter Choralsatz' here. The understatement is not present in Bach's writing. But let me quote one verse of a Dutch poem by Willem Barnard, freely based on 'Hierusalem my happy home'... where Bach is depicted as the 'director musikès' of the 'consortium musicum Jerusalmi':
En Luther zingt er als een zwaan
en Bach, de grote Bach,
die mag de maat der engelen slaan
de lieve lange dag.
And Luther is singing there like a swann
And Bach, the great Bach,
he is allowed to beat the time for the angels
all the sweet day long
P.S. [What the music concerns I only have the Leusink , which quite satisfies me in this cantata, realizing though its shortcomings... The music is so good..]
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 28, 2002):
From the book, "Tausend Jahre Deutscher Dichtung" Curt von Faber du Four and Kurt Wolff (Pantheon, 1949), the following very short comments on Philipp Nicolai state the following:
"His fame derives from only two songs, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" and "Wie schön leucht' uns der Morgenstern." How unusual that both of these songs are acrostics based upon the name, "Graf zu Waldeck!"
Can someone solve these word puzzles for me? I simply do not get it!
Rodrigo Maffei Libonati (December 28, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Hi, I made a search on Google and found this:
In the original the hymn is a reversed acrostic, the first letters in the stanzes W. Z. G., referring to Count Wilhelm Ernst, "Graf zu Waldeck," who was Nicolai's pupil and who died at Tübingen Sept. 16, 1598. The hymn is patterned after the Wächterlieder (watchmen's songs) of the Middle Ages. In these songs "the voice of the watchman from his turret summons the workers of darkness to flee from discovery; with Nicolai it is a summons to the children of light to awaken to their promised reward and full felicity." (James Mearns, in Julian.) [Handbook to The Lutheran Hymnal]
The structure of the German text is a reversed acrostic, with the opening letter of each verse, Wachet, Zion and Gloria standing for Graf zu Waldeck, a former pupil of Nicolai (the English translation retains two of these letters). The melody affectionately known as "Wachet Auf" claims the title as the king of chorales, and Nicolai's other well known hymn "Lord Jesus, our bright Morning Star" (LH #147, TIS #199) sung to "Wie schön leuchtet" is known as the queen of chorales. Both these hymns have numerous lines to each verse, and when sung in a spirited and rhythmic manner as originally intended, the 12 line verses pass very quickly!
( Hymns and Carols of Christmas: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme )
Hope this helps,
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 28, 2002):
[To Rodrigo Maffei Libonati] Thanks, Rodrigo, this has been a great help!
Dick Wursten wrote (December 28, 2002):
[Toi Thomas Braatz] 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' has 7 verses, which give the following acrostichon: Wilhelm Ernst Graf Und Herr Zu Waldeck ..
The noble art of the medieval 'rhetoriqueurs' (rederijkers, don't know the english equivalent) with all their hidden tips and tricks has not stopped at 1500. The use of lines in latin also shows that Nicolai had a week spot for his medieval predecessors. Some people even consider both the king and the queen of lutheran hymns as examples of typographical art: When you Align the text of the poem centered then the cup of the last supper appears... Don't know whether this was done on purpose by Nicolai, just liked the thought.
BTW: The title and subtitle of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is: Ein geistlich Brautlied der gläubigen Seelen von Jesu Christo ihrem himmlischen Bräutigam, gestellet über den 45. Psalm des Propheten Davids. [A spiritual bride-song of the faithful souls about Jesus Christ their heavenly bridegroom, created after the 45. psalm of the prophet David]
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 29, 2002):
BWV 140 - The Recordings:
This week I listened to the following recordings:
Prohaska I (1951) ; Couraud (mid 50’s) ; Thomas (1960) ; Mauersberger (1966) ; Werner II (1970) ; Richter II (1977-8) ; Rotzsch (1981-3) ; Rilling (1983-4) ; Harnoncourt (1984) ; Rifkin (1986) ; and Leusink (2000)  - of which only the final 3 are HIP.
Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 7 (Chorale)
Prohaska I 8:04 2:18 
Couraud 7:53 2:11 
Thomas 8:02 2:26 
Mauersberger 7:30 1:51 
Werner 8:07 2:06 
Richter II 9:38 1:49 
Rotzsch 7:27 1:38 
Rilling 6:07 1:35 
Harnoncourt 7:10 1:49 
Rifkin 6:14 1:52 
Leusink 7:15 1:39 
Mvt. 1. Fastest : Rilling , Rifkin 
Slowest : Richter II
Mvt. 7.: Fastest: Rilling , Rotzsch , Leusink 
Slowest: Thomas , Prohaska I , Couraud 
Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 5 Recitatives
Prohaska I 1:03 1:36 
Couraud 0:59 1:12 
Thomas 1:04 1:35 
Mauersberger 1;01 1:39 
Werner 1:18 1:37 
Richter II 1:20 2:00 
Rotzsch 0:53 1:33 
Rilling 1:10 1:30 
Harnoncourt 0:58 1:37 
Rifkin 0:53 1:19 
Leusink 1:03 1:24 
Mvt. 2: Fastest: Rifkin , Rotzsch , Harnoncourt , Couraud 
Slowest : Richter II , Werner , Rilling 
Mvt. 5: Fastest : Couraud, Rifkin 
Slowest : Richter II 
Mvt. 3 Duet
Prohaska I 5:50 
Couraud 6:29 
Thomas 6:56 
Mauersberger 6:16 
Werner 5:31 
Richter II 6:54 
Rotzsch 6:08 
Rilling 5:07 
Harnoncourt 6:33 
Rifkin 5:20 
Leusink 6:04 
Mvt. 3: Fastest: Rilling , Rifkin , Werner 
Slowest: Thomas , Harnoncourt 
Mvt. 4 Tenor Chorale
Prohaska I 4:29 
Couraud 4:19 
Thomas 5:00 
Mauersberger 4:05 
Werner 5:05 
Richter II 5:58 
Rotzsch 4:03 
Rilling 3:52 
Harnoncourt 3:59 
Rifkin 3:47 
Leusink 4:18 
Mvt. 4: Fastest: Rifkin , Rilling , Harnoncourt 
Slowest: Richter I
Mvt. 6 Duet
Prohaska I 6:35 
Couraud 5:53 
Thomas 7:10 
Mauersberger 6:16 
Werner 6:33 
Richter II 6:21 
Rotzsch 6:28 
Rilling 4:53 
Harnoncourt 6:23 
Rifkin 5:29 
Leusink 5:55 
Mvt. 6: Fastest: Rilling , Rifkin 
Slowest : Thomas 
 Prohaska I :
Here you have a true ‘bunch of’ opera singers attempting to sing Bach. It simply does not work to have all these vocalists and choir members, all of which are beyond their prime and have normally been relegated to sing in opera choruses because that is the only place where such voices are unfortunately tolerated, assembled to form a Bach choir. This is a ghastly choir sound which begins to make Leusink’s choral sound, as bad as it is in comparison with many other choirs, seem like a much better choice. There is also quite a bit of audio distortion to contend with. The deadly slow tempo of the 1st mvt. does nothing to help matters along. The soloists fare only slightly better than the choir. The tenor, with a reasonably good voice has some intonation problems and insecurities in the high range. Braun, the bass, has a pleasant, round sound and provides a welcome contrast to the somewhat thin, penetrating voice of the soprano, Felbermayer. Subtract the imperfections of the recording techniques employed in the early 50s, these duets are, nevertheless, of a fairly high quality, compared to much of the half-voice singing prevalent today. For Mvt. 4, Prohaska uses the entire tenor section. Braun sings slightly flat as he begins his recitative, but then recovers and gives a meaningful, full-voice rendition of text. A final chorale sung at an extremely slow tempo simply exacerbates all the bad qualities of this opera chorus. These are not the angelic voices that I would want to hear in heaven!
This appears to be a bad transfer to CD with noticeable wow (the pitch wavers slowly up and down and will make some listeners seasick.) The sound of the choir is quite muddy and populated with operatic singers, some of them with truly terrible voices. The c.f. in the soprano is very weak despite the fact that a horn should be accompanying them. There is noticeable distortion when the choir sings forte. After a while it seems like this performance dies under its own weight. Except for a few desperate calls of “Wach auf” in the men’s voices, there are still very many sleeping virgins present here. This must be one of the worst renditions in the group of recordings that I listened to. The two solo men’s voices Paid and Titze both have extremely fast vibratos which, at times, become difficult to listen to. The soprano, Seiler, has a clear, full voice which tends to go sharp (intonation problems when she is not in tune with the violin.) In the slow duet (mvt. 3), the voices are fairly well matched, but Titze, the bass, becomes unbearable to listen to (swooping to notes with some notes not really clear) in his recitative (Mvt. 5.) Couraud uses the tenor section for Mvt. 4.
 Kurt Thomas:
The audio transfer is remarkably good here, particularly compared with many of the cantatas in this set that were recorded from a radio at home (in this comparison I was really thinking of the set of Ramin recordings that were recorded directly from the broadcasts over radio). What a relief to hear the all-male Thomanerchor! There is a clarity of sound in the recording that makes it possible to hear almost everything very clearly, even that the lower male voices are slightly weak at times. The young Rotzsch gives a good display of his vocal talent, but he is certainly not in the same class as Schreier. Both duets with Grümmer and Adam are excellent. The 1st duet is the slowest of all the recordings, but it really works with two very good voices and intelligent directing. In many of the faster versions, I can hardly wait for this mvt. to be over, but not here. Thomas uses the entire tenor section in Mvt. 4 and it sounds just right this way as it is sung with conviction without indulging in too much fancy interpretation of the text. In the sections where they have to sing in the low range (“Nun komm, du werte Kron, Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn”) everything is clearly heard. Listen to the solo versions of this to see how much really gets lost otherwise. Adam, in his recitative, now begins to sound more like the ‘old’ (not so good) Adam in his later recordings. He is not quite as successful here as in the duets (perhaps he feels he has to produce too much in the way of interpretation – he may think that this is the equivalent to an operatic role – this causes his voice to be forced to the point of becoming unpleasant.) The final chorale is the slowest-ever version out of my group of recordings. The horn playing an octave higher is an unusual sound here. This tempo is tolerable because of the clarity of the boy’s voices; but, personally, I would like to hear this chorale just a bit faster than this.
Here we can hear the sleepy heads trying to sing this marvelous music with a sense of tentativeness (as if not yet awake.) In reality, with the exception of the wonderfully clear line of the sopranos, the remainder of the choir is suffering from a complete lack of confidence. They all never really wake up. There is simply no comparison with Thomas’ recording. A fairly young Schreier is already in top form in his recitative. Giebel has a wide vibrato at times and Adam seems less sensitive in finding an appropriate balance with the soprano (he seems louder than the soprano most of the time.) In Mvt. 4 Mauersberger has Schreier singing the part alone. This is a dangerous undertaking, but if anyone could successfully sing this part alone it would have to be Schreier since he has a strong enough voice to make this chorale heard (they may also have placed the microphone close to his voice in order to make this possible.) Adam’s recitative presentation of the text is simply too heavy-handed. It becomes almost too dignified and lacks subtlety. In the final duet his voice becomes raspy and does not provide a good balance or blend with Giebel’s voice which is very well-suited to singing the soprano part in both duets. In the final chorale the text was changed. There is no ‘io, io’ here. Too bad! Perhaps this is indicative of the entire recording: no ‘io, io.’
 Werner II:
After hearing the trumpet-like soprano voices of the Thomanerchor, the female sopranos here sound ‘breathy.’ However the tentativeness and insecurity of the Mauersberger is now replaced with a full-voiced, confident singing by this mixed choir of trained vocal soloists. The weakest voice in this choir is the alto section. Their entrance on the “Alleluja” does nothing to inspire confidence in what they are singing; even the tenors sound tentative with their fugal entrance. (Is this a failed attempt at an extremely long cresecendo? - See Richter II below?) Huber, the tenor, has a very assertive delivery of the text in his recitative. This was very good. In the duets Graf and Stämpfli blend well together. Graf has a very slow and wide vibrato on her long, held notes which I do not necessarily like. She is better in the 2nd duet where the notes move faster. Werner has the tenor sectising Mvt. 4, but as these tenors sing this with a casual attitude, there is little joy in their “Hosianna.” Stämpfli’s recitative is slightly better than Adam’s version with Mauersberger. The final chorale has a few individual voices poking through the choir sound which is generally enthusiastic.
 Richter II:
Can Richter pull it off with the slowest-ever tempo recorded for the 1st mvt.? Although the sopranos, with the c. f., sing a very clear and clean melodic chorale line, Richter has pulled out all the high stops of the organ as a crutch in directing a huge chorus and preserving the correct intonation. How much better it would be without the disturbing, ‘tinny’ sound of a non-descript organ! To be sure, with this extremely slow tempo, you will hear things in the accompanying parts that are not available anywhere else. Also, the choir definitely sings with enthusiasm and conviction which not even the Thomanerchor could match. This is a thoroughly romantic interpretation of the old school. Beginning the ‘alleluja’ pianissmo with an extended crescendo that reaches its climax 19 or 20 (very slow measures) later is an interpretative device that can be placed at one end of the spectrum which is in opposition to the worst of Harnoncourt’s HIP renditions. Both exemplify extremes in musical interpretation that are best avoided because of the excesses involved. Schreier is excellent in his recitative, but the choice to give him the solo in Mvt. 4 was not a very good one; however, if anyone might possibly succeed partially, it would have to be Schreier because of his voice quality. The dirge-like tempo for the 4th mvt. chorale must be heard in order to be believed! It seems that any last remnant of the bourée has been completely removed and supplanted with a totally legato singing line (replete with echo-effects) in the unison violins. The true bane for this entire cantata presentation is Mathis, whose operatic soprano voice is destined to destroy whatever beauty these duets might ever have had in Bach's musical imagination. Fischer-Dieskau does his best to salvage these duets. It is best to try to imagine another very good soprano singing in place of Mathis, if this is even possible. There are two major types of voices that never should be singing Bach: those voices that are past their prime and do not realize it. These same voices are inflexible enough not to be able to recognize the stylistic difference in singing a Bach cantata aria vs. an opera/operetta part. The second type of voice that should not be singing Bach arias belongs to the numerous half-voices, presently ubiquitous among HIP artists. These voices suffer from weaknesses in vocal power, with the inherent inability to interpret with genuine feeling the texts that they are singing. Their renditions are generally very narrowly conceived and are delivered with a half-effort better known as ‘sotto voce’ singing. The listeners are being cheated by hearing only lightly-tapped notes. These performances are then generally boring and uninteresting. If there is one gem remaining in this wayward interpretation of a Bach cantata by Richter, it is Fischer-Dieskau’s recitative (Mvt. 5) – no other bass comes even remotely close to this interpretation. It stands out above all the other recordings because of its intelligent, yet beautiful portrayal of the words. In the final chorale, listen for the single tenor who literally ‘sings his heart’ on the final ‘d’ on the ‘-gen’ of ‘gesungen’ and ‘Zungen.’ This is slightly reminiscent of Leusink’s uneven choral blend.
With the trumpet playing along with the boy sopranos, the c. f. receives a very proper treatment. But what happens in the other voices is surprising because they are unable to match the commitment evident in the sopranos. There are very obvious weaknesses in the altos and basses. Nowhere does this become as obvious as it does toward the end of the ‘alleluja’ section. The Thomanerchor is still suffering from the malaise that set in with Mauersberger’s recording, although there is some slight improvement here. The 2 duets with Augér and Lorenz are not very successful despite Augér’s best efforts. The fault lies mainly with Lorenz as the two singers struggle against each other. Lorenz is much too operatic at times. There are times that Augér even begins to sound angry, whether this is because of her partner or because she forced to expend more effort in singing the high notes becomes irrelevant here since these vocalists are unable convey what the text is trying to say. Rotzsch has already been influenced by the heavy accents of the HIP school. This is most apparent in the 1st and 4th mvts. The combined tenors in the 4th mvt. sing the chorale excellently despite Rotzsch’s overemphasis upon the accents in the accompaniment. Here the notion of dance has gone awry when the heavy accent on the main note prevents the secondary (off-beat) note from being heard at all. In the final chorale, the organ with all the high stops blaring, detracts from what otherwise could have been an excellent rendition of the chorale. (Did Rotzsch learn this from Richter? In any case, this is a bad performance trait that should not have been emulated.)
In comparison to Richter’s choir, this group sounds much thinner indeed. What is truly lacking is the strong, steady c. f. sung by the sopranos, who, as usual destroy the steadfastness of the chorale melody with their conflicting vibratos. The vibratos in the other voices also do no serve to enhance the steadiness of the other musical lines, although these voices do sing their parts very clearly and in balance with each other. Here the precision of the singing supplies the necessary counterbalance for that which is missing. The choir makes it through the ‘alleluja’ section generally with flying colors. This is often not the case with the other recordings. Baldin overdoes his short recitative with perhaps too much vibrato. Augér has a second chance to redeem herself, this time with Huttenlocher who is the essence of disingenuousness. This is a pedestrian performance with two renowned artists, but somehow, I perceive that something is missing. I may not have had this opinion if it were not for some of the earlier recordings that I had listened to. Rilling tries to get the dance-like elements into the violin part, much the same way that Rotzsch did, with perhaps just a little less in the way of overly strong accents. The tenor sections lacks the verve of Rotzsch’s tenors. Perhaps this is because Rilling has the tenors detach the repeated notes of the chorale. This destroys the legato contrast of the voices vis-à-vis the dance-like character inherent in the instrumental parts. Huttenlocher’s recitative presentation gives evidence of his ‘overdoing’ the interpretation of his part. The final duet is much too fast. Only Rifkin and Leusink take the tempo even faster. Why? To get this beautiful duet over with more quickly? Is joy perceived only with very fast tempi? The final chorale sounds thin and much less powerful than most of the previous versions. This is not a version that will ‘lift you out of your seat.’
The very 1st sloppily played notes of the oboes (the usual intonation and slow vibrato problems that are never entirely overcome over 20 years of recording the Bach cantatas) are the first ‘tip-off’ that this is a Harnoncourt recording with the Concentus musicus Wien ensemble. All the other HIP characteristics soon make their appearance: listen to the cadence in ms. 16 just before the voices enter for the 1st time - elsewhere Bach has marked these final two quarter notes with ‘dots’ = somewhat staccato, but what does Harnoncourt do? He slurs them! This sets him apart from all the other recordings! Isn’t this the main thing he is after? Make certain at all costs, whatever you do, that it does not sound like anyone else? The one aspect of this recording is that the horn and the sopranos provide a very clear c. f. with boy sopranos. But Harnoncourt is not satisfied with a clear, steady chorale melody floating above everything else in this mvt. No, he has found a way of disassembling the chorale melody almost note by note as well. How does he do this? Concentrate on the soprano part (+horn) to the exclusion of everything else. What you will hear are micro pauses between almost every note even when the sopranos (+horn) are singing and playing words consisting of more than one syllable (in other words, he breaks off in mid-syllable.) In essence, each note of the chorale dies a separate mini-death before another can begin. Just how intentional this is becomes apparent when the horn player does likewise as if he had never learned to hold some breath in reserve and needed to inhale after each single note. Very unmusical and certainly contrary to the notion of chorale singing is the manner in which this performance method becomes evident on the final, long note of a chorale line: the voices sing a very slow diminuendo on the last note which sounds a bit like someone had pulled the plug on the motor governing the bellows of an organ while you are holding the key(s) down. Suddenly the wind power is no longer there, the force of volume subsides in the cascading throes of death, but instead of the pitch sinking down in the case of the organ, the voices which are dying are still trying to maintain the pitch softly and ‘to hold on for dear life.’ Such a sound does not inspire the necessary courage and enthusiasm to wake up, as the cantata text demands. On the contrary, it supports the feeling of hopelessness felt by the unwise/foolish virgins who do not wish to remain steadily vigilant. In contrast, the declamation degenerates into shouting at times. The basses (voices) are quite weak in this choir combination. The singing and shaping of the ‘alleluja’ is simply silly and does nothing whatsoever to inspire confidence that these singers feel the ‘alleluja’ as they sing it. This is completely manneristic. Equiluz’ recitative is definitely worth listening to, but to use him in Mvt. 4 as a solo singer is a case of bad judgment. Equiluz has to force his voice beyond its limits, particularly in the low range, of which there are many instances here. Equiluz’ shaky voice (tremolo and vibrato) which is supposed to aid the interpretation of the text actually detracts from it because Equiluz has to expend too much energy in trying to make this mvt. ‘come off.’ Singing “Hosianna!” in the low range expects a miracle from Equiluz that even this great artist can not deliver. Hampson’s artistic and vocal abilities are the weakest of all the soloists in this group. The combination with the boy soprano, Bergius, is not a happy one, particularly in the 1st duet where Bergius has difficulty maintaining intonation on the long held note (there are some painful moments here, ms. 45, for example, where it felt like someone was extracting a tooth!) The 2nd duet, with its livelier momentum is definitely an improvement over the performance of the 1st. It is, nevertheless interesting to hear Bergius to get an idea of what a boy soprano might sound like singing an aria. The final chorale (surprise!) is a fairly good rendition of the chorale with an all-male sound comparable to the best versions by the Thomanerchor.
The instrumental precision and playing generally is far superior to anything that Harnoncourt and Leonhardt were able to deliver. Everything is directly in front of you (in your face.) The staccato and detached effects are crisp and give the impression of dryness. A sense of the ‘roundness’ of sound is lacking. The OVPP problems are quite apparent here. As much as one would like to hear all the parts equally balanced and clear, the much vaunted transparency of the musical lines is lost when the voices are not well matched. The soprano, Baird, seems to give just the right treatment to the c. f. with a clear, bell-like tone devoid of vibrato. The notes are sustained for their full value and no attempt is made at any fancy interpretation. The male alto, Minter, is another matter, or better yet, a serious problem in that this voice does not blend well with any of the rest. Of all the voices, this one is the most disturbing to the overall unity of sound. This voice belongs among the Buwalda-type voices that are currently trying to sing Bach cantatas. The duets demand more of the singers than these half-voices are able to provide [all of the 4 voices featured in this recording are half-voices with all the concomitant weaknesses.] ‘Tooting out’ the high notes, then singing with a very fast trembling vibrato that betrays fear rather than vocal security, and finally lacking any sort of low range where tones are produced at very low volume put Baird into the same category as Holton. Perhaps Baird is slightly better than Holton, but certainly not by much. Of course, only one tenor can sing Mvt. 4 in an OVPP recording so the same problem exists as with Equiluz – how do you sing “Hosianna!” convincingly in the low range? It does not work for Equiluz and Thomas can not improve on this either. Opalach’s recitative shows similarities with other half-voices such as Ramselaar: the need to ‘overdo’ certain aspects of interpretation because the voice is limited in its capabilities. The duets might be interchangeable with the Holton/Ramselaar pairing in being able to convey what is inherent in these two very beautiful duets: they come off as a light/lite treatment which lacks the full-blooded ability to move the listener the same way that some of the older recordings might be able to. The final chorale is a fine rendition. I love to hear the 4-pt. chorales performed this way. The singers have ‘toned down’ their vibratos and are actually listening to each other. I still perceive the alto, Minter, as the weakest link here. This may be due to the fact that his voice has to break in quality and volume as it moves from one range to another. As far as introductory choral mvts. are concerned, I still prefer a good choir with at least 3 to 4 voices (and sometimes even more) to provide the intensity, dignity, and breadth that is missing in a chamber group such as this. OVPP remains just an interesting experiment with a chamber-music sound that hearkens back to the days when Mendelssohn assembled such groups in his home just to be able to read through this glorious cantata music in order to hear it. This is very similar to the many 4-hand piano arrangements printed in the 19th century. Using these, many people were able to experience Beethoven and Brahms symphonies in their drawing rooms. Of course, they realized that, if they were able to hear these same compositions performed properly by an orchestra in a public concert, the effect would be ever so more overwhelming and rewarding than the chamber music experience. The same is true for the opening mvt. of this cantata when performed with more than 3 or 4 voices to a part as opposed to OVPP.
The feeble entrance of the cantus firmus in the sopranos (without the horn part called for in the score) sets the stage for various irregularities which abound throughout this 1st mvt. of the cantata. The sopranos remain generally weak throughout and almost disappear in the low range. The over-blowing of the 1st oboe on the descending notes (ms. 9 & 61) is reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Harnoncourt recordings. The suddenly loud entrances (perhaps an attempt at interpretation – wake-up calls) become less interesting when one considers how these same individuals have a penchant for ‘sticking out’ unexpectedly in many other similar cantata mvts. for no good reason at all. At a certain point all the warbling sopranos and Buwalda-type voices take their toll: this becomes a caricature of one of Bach’s greatest cantata mvts. After Schreier’s renditions of the tenor recitative, van der Meel’s version is lackluster. singing of Mvt. 4 brings with it all the failings of similar attempts to sing this famous mvt. as a solo. With his half-voice, he is able to do even less justice to this mvt. than Schreier did; this simply does not work well. The duets with Holton and Ramselaar already alluded to above are clear and simple readings of the music, with the 2nd duet being slightly more tolerable than the 1st. Pretend that you are listening to instruments instead of voices and the effect upon the listener will be similar. Ramselaar, in his recitative, is just another Huttenlocher with less vibrato and voice. The interpretation sounds very contrived; it does not ring true. In the final chorale the organ and instruments are too much in the foreground. They should be in a supporting role. I do not like to hear the ‘peeping’ sounds of an organ in such a grand chorale; it only serves to cheapen the effect that this marvelous chorale should have.
If other listeners have the timings for the other recordings which I do not have, it might be helpful, particularly because there are so many recordings available, to include these in my list so that we can gain a better perspective regarding tempi used by various conductors over the past half-century. For instance, did Gardiner  break the speed barrier in Mvt. 1 or anywhere else in the cantata?
Neil Halliday wrote (December 29, 2002):
BWV 140 (Opening chorus)
I have listened to Harnoncourt  and Ormandy (conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! on this LP of "Great Bach Choruses'), and discovered they sound remarkably similar, apart from the vast size of Ansermet's choir.
The tempo is identical in both cases, and Ormandy, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, has the same staccato treatment in the opening ritornello (a semitone(?) higher pitch) as Harnoncourt.
They both fall down, Harnoncourt more surprisingly, considering the more manageable size of his choir, in the introduction of the lower voices after the initiation of the cantus firmus (chorale) by the sopranos; I certainly would need a score in order to determine what is going on at this point.
Nonetheless, both are very 'listenable' versions of this great music.
Manuel Camilo Cuesta wrote (December 29, 2002):
I think one of the best versions of BWV 140 is the one by Richter . The way it is played reminds me the description of this cantata in the Anna Magdalena´s Chronicle (yes, I know she didn't actually wrote that book, but the book is still amazing). I like very much Richter's Cantatas, with a big orchester and big chorus, not like most of the other recordings. I think Bach would perform his works with a big orchester if he could, as he suggested in a letter that he didn't have enough musicians for the church service.
Continue on Part 4
Cantata BWV 140: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7