Cantata BWV 151Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of June 22, 2003 (1st round)
Aryeh Oron wrote (June 24, 2003):
BWV 151 - Introduction
The chosen work for this week’s discussion (June 22, 2003) is the Solo Cantata for the 3rd Day of Christmas [Christmas Tuesday, St John's Day ‘Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt’ (Sweet consolation, my Jesus comes). The unknown librettist derived the text for the cantata from the Epistle for this same Sunday - Hebrews 1: 1-14: Christ is higher than the angels. The libretto, however, stresses Jesus’ presence on earth, in order to comfort and redeem mankind, rather than His exalted position in Heaven.
The intimate, personal tone of this cantata reminds the listener of the Solo Soprano Cantata BWV 199, although its theme is one of joy rather than of repentance. Both cantatas have exceptionally solo soprano arias. Another pick of BWV 151 is the aria for alto, where oboe d’amore and strings play beautiful but sombre andante melody.
The details of the recordings of the cantata can be found at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website:
Cantata BWV 151 - Complete Recordings
Cantata BWV 151 - Recordings of Individual Movements
Cantata BWV 151 has at least eight complete recordings, three of which are from the three complete cantata cycles: Helmuth Rilling (1971, very early in his cycle) , Gustav Leonhardt (1985)  and Pieter Jan Leusink (1999) . Each of the three available others is unique and represent different school: Helmuth Winschermann (1968) , Benjamin Britten (1968, one of his rare cantata recordings) , and Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music (1999) . The two remaining recordings have never been issued in CD form: Wilfred Böttscher (1950’s)  and Kurt Redel (1960’s) .
Simon Crouch wrote about the opening aria for soprano, “This is one of those pieces that could quite happily be extracted from its context and presented as an independent concert aria. Perhaps that way it would get to be known as well as it deserves rather than lying in relative obscurity.” This is indeed one of the earliest Bach’s vocal works to be recorded. The Dutch soprano Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius was the pioneer, as early as 1929. I have found only one additional recording of this aria as an individual movement, by the American soprano Julianne Baird (early 1990’s). If any member is aware of other recordings of the complete cantata or of individual movement from it, please inform me.
Through the page of the Music Examples from this cantata: Cantata BWV 151 - Music Examples
you can listen to two complete recording: Leonhardt  (at David Zale Website) and Leusink  (at Leo Ditvoorst Website in its new location).
In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to the original German text and various translations, four of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), Hebrew (Aryeh Oron), and Spanish (Francisco López Hernández).
There are also links to the Score (Vocal & Piano version) and to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and Brian Robins (AMG), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).
I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.
Thomas Braatz wrote (June 25, 2003):
See: Cantata BWV 151 - Provenance
Commentary by Dürr:
See: Cantata BWV 151 - Commentary
Neil Halliday wrote (June 26, 2003):
[To Aryeh Oron] The soprano aria (Mvt. 1) of this cantata certainly needs a place in one's collection of "Bach's Greatest Hits".
Leusink and Ruth Holton  give an attractive account of it, with sufficient legato to allow the music to flow gracefully. Holton's sweet voice is very suitable for this aria, and is in perfect balance with the orchestral instruments.
Philippe Bareille wrote (June 30, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] I agree with your first statement. Sebastian Hennig with Leonhardt  is first rate again. He was at the end of a short but distinguished career. It is interesting to hear how his voice had developed since his first recording (BWV 113).
Thomas Braatz wrote (June 30, 2003):
BWV 151 – Commentaries
See: Cantata BWV 151 - Commentary
This week I listened only to the following recordings:
Rilling (1971) ; Leonhardt (1985) ; and Leusink (1999) 
Timings (from slowest to fastest):
Total timings: Rilling (18:09) ; Leonhardt (16:18) ; Leusink (16:10) 
Mvt. 1 soprano aria: Rilling (9:45) ; Leusink (8:22) ; Leonhardt (7:56) 
Most of the differences in time can be explained by the non-HIP vs. HIP dichotomy. It is obvious that the HIP practitioners interpret even Bach’s time indications very differently. When Bach puts ‘Molt’ adagio’ at the beginning of the 1st mvt., he means ‘very slow.’ He does not mean ‘make it sound like waltz’ the way Leonhardt  does. Little and Jenne in their book “Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach” do not see any dance-like qualities in this mvt.
The OED quotes from an English magazine on January 31, 1867: “The adagio is hurried till it overtakes, and the allegro apes the manner of the presto.” A quotation such as this from a period when musical recordings did not yet exist makes you wonder whether this acceleration of tempi has been taking place for a much longer time (notwithstanding some of the ‘crazy’ metronome markings in Beethoven’s scores). In any case, what we are experiencing in the HIP movement is contrary to all expectations: the HIP conductors, instead, assuming that tempi in Bach’s time were faster than those generally heard in the non-HIP recordings, should actually be playing most of Bach’s compositions at a slower tempo than they currently are. It may be that the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt  experiment with period instruments which still had not yet been fully understood and mastered by instrumentalists and conductors alike led to these comparatively fast tempi. Once this precedent had been established, it became difficult for those following in the HIP tradition to ‘swim against the tide.’
Since I have very few recordings of this cantata for comparison, I have to rely indirectly upon what I have heard in other cantata recordings, where a greater gamut of variations can be heard.
The great Mvt. 1 soprano aria is represented in all three recordings at an above-average quality of performance with none of them truly achieving excellence. The reasons for this are numerous:
There are 3 types represented:
1) a somewhat tentative, very much ‘scared-out-of-wits’ full-voice soprano, Gamo-Yamamoto (Rilling) , who might have been able to ‘pull this aria off’ with true, moving excellence, if it were not for her insion singing sharp most of the time and having a trembling vibrato at times. (Actually, singing slightly sharp this way is better than singing flat. I, personally, can tolerate this, but when having to listening to the recording a number of times, it makes me want to cry out to Rilling “Why didn’t you signal to her that her intonation was off?”)
2) a boy soprano, Hennig (Leonhardt)  with similar intonation problems (singing sharp) and with a presentation less splendid compared to the best boy soprano soloists in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series, but certainly much better than some of the very substandard performances by other boy sopranos. This is an admirable effort, but Hennig is unable to sustain the expressive feelings (in the slow section there is sometimes a boring, dead-like quality that comes from not singing with the proper feeling in the heart) that should appear in both sections of this aria. There are times when he just barely manages the coloraturas in the middle section.
3) a demi voix, Holton (Leusink) , who demonstrates her mastery of an ‘instrument-like’ voice which has an almost uncanny sense of the right pitch of each note and which can execute flawlessly the trills and coloraturas as well as do some ‘passagi’ (variations on what is written in the score.) In the middle section, Holton is only able to accent the syllables “Herz, See(le), freu(et)’, but, if you listen very carefully, you will hear a ‘sotto-voce’ singing style for which demi voix are famous. There are notes and syllables that are barely audible. The listener is being cheated of the music that Bach put on the page. Adding variations to Bach’s intentions in no way makes up for this disregard of Bach’s notation, nor does it enhance the enlightenment and enjoyment of the listener if many notes are simply ‘tapped’ with almost no voice at all. Most frequently this occurs in the lower range of a limited-range voice such as the one that Holton possesses. Until a listener has heard a full-voice perform such arias, particularly with attention be paid to the fullness of the low range, it is difficult to ascertain how much of the music and musical expression is lost. Treating whole series of notes (the non-coloratura sections of the middle mvt.) as if they were all unaccented, hence unimportant notes and words is doing Bach’s cantata arias a disservice.
Mvt. 3 alto aria:
I would choose Laurich’s (Rilling) version  as being the most compelling, particularly since the counter-tenors Esswood (Leonhardt)  and Buwalda (Leusink)  lack the warmth and rich fullness that is necessary in an aria that has such a low tessitura.
Final Chorale (Mvt. 5):
Only Rilling’s version  is inspiring and worth coming back to again and again. Leonhardt’s interpretation  is a caricature of Bach chorale and Leusink’s  is simply very blandly boring (just reading and singing the notes without being able to express true conviction and understanding of the text fail to do justice to this marvelous hymn.
Arjen van Gijssel wrote (July 1, 2003):
BWV 151. I listened to Leusink , Rilling  and Leonhardt 
First movement (Mvt. 1)
As far as the first movement, indeed it is one of Bach greatest aria's for soprano. I believe that all conductors pay tribute to the tempo which Bach wrote down (molt'adagio). But Leusink  and Leonhardt  simply are quicker than Rilling . When hearing the flute in Rilling's recording, I missed direction. For me such a tempo is too "lazy". It is taking soooo long, and I did not have a sense of direction in the music. However, I liked the beautiful voice of Gamo-Yamamoto (Rilling). Holton (Leusink) is more light in her approach, but very nice as well. I believe her stressing of some notes and syllables is just a result of interpretation, not so much a result of a flawed voice. Leonhardt is falling behind in my preference order, but that has simply to do with the fact that I do not like boy soprano's that much (my fault).
Tenor recitative (Mvt. 4)
I liked the tenor recitative of Rilling : powerful and clear voice. Van de Meel (Leusink)  does this recitative with less power. I found his word pronunciation a little bit too exagerated ("gggganz", "zuwwwwege bracht").
Choral (Mvt. 5)
The final choral is a difficult one, because it is over as soon as you have started. I have to admit that when we have such small parts in cantatas for solo voices, it is difficult to concentrate and give an excellent performance for 40 seconds. Rilling  IMHO has a too big choir, which seems to think that you can convince an audience by shouting. Leusink  is unbalanced; seems like a first take recording. The conductor (after 40 seconds): ok, thanks, you're off for today. Alto section: but mr. conductor, we made a mistake in the first sentence on "wieder". Conductor: "don't bother, we continue tomorrow".
Aryeh Oron wrote (June 2, 2003):
BWV 151 - The Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 1) - Background
I believe that even the occasional listener to the opening aria for soprano (Mvt. 1) will be deeply moved. Due to pressure of time and another major addition to the Bach Cantatas Website (a separate message will be sent to the BCML after I finish this review), I had to limit myself to a short review of this aria. Although the whole cantata should be considered as a small masterpiece, this is one of those cases where an aria extracted from a complete cantata can give the outmost satisfaction. Here are what commentaries wrote about this aria in the liner notes to some of the recordings:
Gerhard Schumacher (1985, Leonhardt) 
The opening aria, which has been held in particularly high regard ever since it became known in the 19th century, dominates and casts a glow over the whole work. The tension between inner joy and consolation, the molto adagio and sempre piano of the first part and the vivace of the central section create an espressivo, the polarities of which Bach usually allotted to two separate arias (e.g. in BWV 147-149). Here spacious melodic phrases and tone colours evocative of chamber music (woodwinds and strings) determine its intimate character, which carries over into the alto aria (Mvt. 3).
Marc Schachman (1993, Baird)
"Süsser Trost, mein Jesus Kommt," also in G Major, from Cantata 151 (written for Christmas), is organized around an instrumental background of oboe d'amore and violin, above which the flute performs cascades of 32nd notes (perhaps meant to symbolize the spirit of Christ), all of which is set in a "lullaby-like" song of rare beauty. It is written in an ABA form, with an allegro section in the relative minor contrasting with the opening and closing lullaby.
Martin Geck (1996, Winschermann) 
A flute solo accompanies the soprano in the first of the two arias, which has long been considered the work’s principal jewel.
Craig Smith (1999, Emmanuel Music) 
The rocking lullaby for soprano with flute and strings that opens the cantata is one of Bach's most gorgeous works. The gently swaying strings and the elaborate glittery flute part is the closest Bach gets to South German rococo architecture. One can almost see the putti and gold sunbursts of tmany churches from this era in Bavaria and Austria. The voice part lies right in the range of both the first violins and solo flute. Together the three create an angelic floating texture of childlike beauty. After the stopped-time quality of the first section, the dazzling quickness of the B section is even more striking. The gavotte character is spiced with dazzling triplet roulades from both the flute and soprano.
Clemens Romijn (1999, Leusink) 
Bach wrote splendid solos for the chosen instruments, including the reassuring opening soprano aria ‘Süsser trost’, with wonderful garlands interwoven by the traverso…
Philip Reed (2000, Britten) 
In the opening 12/8 lullaby, Harper's beauty of tone and breath control is matched by Richard Adeney's exceptionally liquid flute-playing. There is a Romantic, almost other-worldly, quality to Britten's approach to this movement, not only through his generously paced tempo but also by his subtle use of rubato and dynamic control. The clarity of articulation of the aria's middle section makes for the strongest possible contrast.
Last week I have been listening to 6 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 151 and two recordings of the aria for soprano only. Here they are:
[M-1] Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius [Soprano] w/ Miek Noordewier [Flute] & Anthon van der Horst [organ] (1929)
 Agnes Giebel [Soprano] w/ Helmut Winschermann (1968)
 Heather Harper [Soprano] w/ Benjamin Britten (1968)
 Nobuko Gamo-Yamamoto [Soprano] w/ Helmuth Rilling (1971)
 Sebastian Hennig [Boy Soprano] w/ Gustav Leonhardt (1985)
[M-2] Julianne Baird [Soprano] w/ Aulos Ensemble (1993?)
 Jayne West [Soprano] w/ Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music (1999)
 Ruth Holton [Soprano] w/ Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
The sopranos who sing this aria can be easily divided into three groups: traditional female singers (full voice), modern female sopranos (light voice) and a boy soprano.
Here are my personal preferences:
Traditional: Harper, Gamo-Yamamoto, Giebel, Noordewier-Reddingius
Modern: Baird, Holton, West
None of the traditional renditions satisfies from every aspects, but Heather Harper’s gorgeous voice and tasteful singing radiates through the over-romantic non-Bachian accompaniment and penetrates the heart of the listener. Aaltje Noordewier-Reddingius [M-1] is hard to listen to, not due to obscure intonation of the singer, the problematic accompaniment (organ rather than string & oboe d’amore), or the poor recording, but because the singer fails to convey any feeling or sensitivity to the words. Agnes Giebel was past behind her prime when she recorded this cantata and the quality of the voice prevents any enjoyment from the interpretation. Nobuko Gamo-Yamamoto’s voice is in much better shape, but her expressive abilities are somewhat limited. She sounds almost indifferent to the textual and emotional message she has to convey.
This is not the first time I experience the strange feeling that modern female sopranos sound too similar to each other. All three capable singers here has Kirkby’s type of voice and the emphasis in their singing is on a clean line delivery rather than emotional content and sensitivity to the words. Apparently, such approach goes well with the pastoral atmosphere and the child-like innocence embedded in this aria, but Harper has proved that the aria has more depth and possibilities for expression than the modern singers reveal. Among them I prefer Julianne Baird due to a more tasteful singing and to the most satisfying accompaniment (by Aulos Ensemble), where her voice interweaves into the instrumental texture in a chamber-music-like making.
Sebastian Hennig’s voice is as beautiful as ever, but the emotional intensity of this aria is above his head, and his breath is too short to hold the long vocal line uninterrupted.
A movements to take away: None of the 8 renditions is completely satisfactory, but Harper  shines above them all.
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 9, 2003):
Though I only have the recording conducted by Pieter Jan Leusink , I have listened to it at least twice a day during the past seven days. Still, I would very much like to hear Heather Harper, so strongly recommended by Aryeh, so I just ordered the Britten recording  and look forward to listening to it. Which is already a pleasure in itself.
The cantata consists of two arias, two short recitatives and a very short, plain chorale.
The opening aria for soprano (Mvt. 1) is superb. Both in duration and sheer beauty it exceeds the remaining movements. One could almost say that this aria, which gave the cantata its name, is the cantata. The more remarkable then, that relatively so few renowned sopranos have ventured to put it on their solo repertoire. Apparently, they rather go for the “show pieces”, where they can display the extent and the quality of their voices more abundantly and voluminously. For this aria does not require an operatic voice. It calls for intimacy, warmth, inner joy and an angelic voice. I agree with all the experts that it is one of the finest arias Bach ever wrote. So beautiful the melody, so elegant the traverso, so charming the arrangement! The lively flute dancing, weaving garlands to emphasize the festivity around the newborn child. The oboes d’ amore and the basso continuo, creating an atmosphere of love, affection and security. Listen to the soprano. First she sounds just like a mother, singing a lullaby to soothe the child she is about to give birth to. The next moment you feel like hearing an angel coming from the fields of Ephrata to announce the birth of the divine child, singing out the joy of heart and soul. Last but not least the singer represents everyone who believes that the birth of this child is a comfort to all of us. By coming down to earth Jesus unlocked the gates of Heaven for us. The words “sweet” and “consolation” or “comfort”, so well chosen, bear in them various associations: the softness and protection inside the mother’s womb as opposed to the hardships that will dominate the end of Jesus’ earthly life; the comfort we need when having a guilty conscience and the joy of relief we feel when our trespasses are being forgiven; the uncomfortable thought that the death of Jesus was necessary to give us a “sweet” future. The comfort we feel, knowing that Jesus eventually returned to his home in Heaven, where the music is sweet and where He is preparing a place for all who believe on his name.
The bass recitative (Mvt. 2) elaborates on the thought that God sent his beloved son to this world to liberate us from evil.
The alto aria (Mvt. 3) confronts us with at first sight seemingly opposing ideas, which on second thought are not that contradictory at all. The contradiction lies in the consequences of Jesus’ incarnation: his abasement enhances our position towards God. Jesus’ humility warrants my comfort. His poverty ensures my richness. The humble position of Jesus in this world makes me acquainted with God’s salvation and goodness. It is a pity that the oboe d’ amore plays the obbligato part unisono with the strings. I wonder why Bach did not give the oboe a freer role.
A tenor recitative (Mvt. 4), pledging to close Jesus into our hearts, leads up to the final chorale (Mvt. 5), which only takes 30 seconds. It refers to our new position the removal of the archangel Michael (see BWV 149) from before the gates of the heavenly Paradise. Therefore we must give God the glory and praise his name.
Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 9, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaa] Thank you for sharing a most inspiring and warm review. Atheist that I am, you've gotten me hook, line and sinker, and I am more spiritual as ever. Bach does this to me all the time. His music is glorious and I see a glimpse of heaven.
Joan M. Thomas wrote (July 14, 2003):
From several comments which have appeared via this mailing list, I infer that the Benjamin Britten recording of Cantata BWV 151, with Heather Harper as soprano soloist, is available on CD . Can anyone on the list furnish me with a label and catalogue number so that I can order this recording? Since I am something of a Heather Harper fan, and since all my recordings of her work are on vinyl, I should be especially glad to obtain this CD if possible.
Aryeh Oron wrote (July 14, 2003):
[To Joan M. Thomas]
 Title: Britten at Aldeburgh Vol. 2 - Bach: Cantatas BWV 102 & 151
Label: Decca (released by arrangement with BBC Music).
Catalogue No.: 466 819 2
I bought my copy from a local store in Israel about 2 years ago.
The album is available from amazon.de for 9.99 Euro: Amazon.de
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 14, 2003):
[To Joan M. Thomas] Look at Berkshire: Berkshire Record Outlet
for 3 Heather Harper CD's at bargain prices.
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 151: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4