Cantata BWV 171
Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein
Discussions - Part 1
BWV 171 (in advance): kisses of Zephyrus
Bradley Lehman wrote (June 4, 2003):
I see that BWV 171 is coming up for discussion in July. Nifty! Coincidentally I'm performing in the soprano aria from that in a couple of weeks, Monday the 16th. (It'll be soprano, violin, cello, and me on harpsichord...since it's in a theater where there is no organ. Same program where I'm playing BWV 894.)
Nice piece, this soprano aria. It's a secular-to-sacred crossover (another good reason to use harpsichord), a parody from the cantata BWV 205...scented kisses of Zephyrus are turned into Jesus on New Year's morning, and Jesus in one's dying breath. In the arrangement for BWV 171, in the first 2/3 of it Bach didn't do much beyond enlivening the bass line a slight bit, and of course changing the singer's words. That's bars 1-36. And, from bar 53 to the end, the closing ritornello, it's again pretty much the same as it was in BWV 205. Bars 37 to 52 are new, but they're mostly just shuffling around the ideas from the first section, instead of continuing the development as was done in BWV 205. Essentially Bach has taken a through-composed aria and converted it to ABA' form with some minor surgery.
Bach as editor/reviser of his own work changing the form of a piece with a "cut-'n'-paste" job...it's fun to see him thinking aloud like that.
The book just arrived from the violinist: she's chosen the Stuttgarter Bach-Ausgabe (Urtext), May 1998, copyright 2000. Looks like a good performing edition to me. The Neue Bach-Ausgabe is no longer "neu": 1965 for this cantata, before our soprano was born....
Discussion on the Week of July 6, 2003
Jay H. Beder wrote (July 7, 2003):
I've just subscribed to the BCML in order to ask the following about BWV 171, which i understand is up for discussion this week.
I'm wondering about the tempo of the opening movement. I got to know the cantata a long time ago, probably through the Richter recording on Archiv . The tempo is slow and stately, and goes well with the meaning of the quotation (and particularly "Gott"). I've now listened to Rilling's recording , which sounds rushed by comparison.
However, I do feel that the faster tempo is natural for the second movement of the Credo of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), which is Bach's own parody adaptation. Perhaps the faster tempo of Rilling's performance (and probably others) is guided by a sense of the Credo movement.
I'm not sure which tempo is the most natural, and I'd be interested in hearing opinions. Or is there a way to justify markedly different tempi for the two pieces?
Neil Halliday wrote (July 7, 2003):
Jay H. Beder wrote:
"I'm not sure which tempo is the most natural, and I'd be interested in hearing opinions. Or is there a way to justify markedly different tempi for the two pieces?"
The tempo is marked '2' on the score staves (BWV 171), meaning two minims to the bar (it's marked 'cut C' in the B minor mass (BWV 232) parody - same meaning, I suppose). The music sounds like a vigorous fugue, quite interesting and involving, at the faster tempo (eg, Leusink , probably similar to Rilling ); OTOH, I can imagine a more majestic sound to the music, as you remember from Richter . Perhaps it's a case of two different messages, equally valid, being transmitted to the listener; maybe this type of "square-block-fugal" writing (with lots of minims) lends itself to a wide tempo range.
Is one tempo more natural than the other? Certainly the conductors don't appear to think so, and only Bach could adjudicate for us (and he is not going to), between the tempo's of Scherchen and Malloch in the opening bars of the B minor Orchestral Suite (4/4 time), with Malloch 3 times (!) as fast as Scherchen - one of the intriguing, if exasperating, aspects of "classical" music. (Perhaps Bach would give his blessing to both!)
Marie Jensen wrote (July 8, 2003):
A New Year Cantata. But future always begins now, so the cantata is always relevant.
"Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm bis an der Welt Ende." ( Psalm 48:10) is the text of the opening chorus .
In Richter’s version  of the opening fills a whole world. It spreads out its themes in a clear structure, strong and self-confident and the trumpet shines above. Some people call Bach a sound architect. Here is certainly a good example.
The text for New Years Day is:
"And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. ( Luke 2:21)"
The violin ritornello in the soprano aria (4) builds calmly up tension and joy, so when the soprano begins to sing that Jesus is the first name she is going to say in the new year as well as the last word in her life, it seems like she is placed high above in a sphere of praise; the special JSB loop making , where the listener feels that he/she is going somewhere high up or down without the instrument ever reaches its limits.
After the praising of God and Jesus follows a long row of prayers for the new year - in fact the rest of the cantata .
The oboe in the middle section of recitativo makes the prayer very intense and the trumpet fanfares after each chorale line bring the words with praise up to God. Praying instrumentally as well as in words - is it not what a Bach cantata is about ?
A great cantata and a good version. I also have the Leusink version  but I prefer Richter’s .
Gib unverfälscht im Lande
Dein seligmachend Wort,
Die Teufel mach zuschanden
Hier und an allem Ort!
Aryeh Oron.wrote (July 9, 2003):
BWV 171 – Introduction
The chosen work for this week’s discussion (July 6, 2003) is the Cantata for New Year's Day [Circumcision of Christ] ‘Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm’ (God, as your name, so also is your fame).
The commentary below is quoted from the liner notes to the American edition on MHS (early 1970’s?) of the recording by Gönnenwein for the German label Cantate . It was written by Alfred Dürr and translated into English by Stanley Godman.
See: Cantata BWV 171 - Commentarty
The details of the recordings of the cantata can be found at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 171 - Recordings
This splendid cantata has only 5 recordings. Apart from the three usual participants - Helmuth Rilling (1983) , Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1987) , and Pieter Jan Leusink (1999) - we have recordings by two reliable veterans: Wolfgang Gönnenwein (mid 1960’s?)  and Karl Richter (1970-1971) . Richter recorded the two choral movements (Mvts. 1 & 6) once again in the early 1970’s with Ansbach Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra [M-1] and the attractive aria for soprano, adapted from the secular Cantata BWV 205, was recorded by Kathleen Battle with the violinist Itzhak Perlman (1989-1990) [M-2].
Through the page of the Music Examples from this cantata: Cantata BWV 171 - Music Examples
you can listen to two complete recording: Harnoncourt  (at David Zale Website) and Leusink  (at Leo Ditvoorst Website).
In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
The original German text and various translations, three of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), and Hebrew (Aryeh Oron). Francis Browne translated also Herman’s chorale ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’.
Links to the Score in Vocal & Piano version and BGA Edition (newly added).
Links to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).
The discussion of this cantata already started couple of days ago by the newly joined member, Jay H. Beder. I hope that many members, old and new alike, will join the discussion. You have all you need at your disposal: two complete recordings, text and translation, score, commentary; the music is fine and deserve many listenings. In short, you have no excuse to evade.
Neil Halliday wrote (July 10, 2003):
Timings of BWV 171
The Bach-Cantatas web-site gives the timings of BWV 171 as follows:
 Richter: 18 min. 53 sec.
 Rilling: 15 min 30 sec
 Harnoncourt: 16 min 01 sec
 Leusink: 18 min 14 sec.
I found it difficult to believe the Leusink was about the same as the Richter (18mins+), so I did a time check - in fact, the Leusink is closer to 16 min 14 sec, making this recording similar to Rilling and Harnoncourt. Richter is the odd man out, but it's interesting that Marie Jensen and Jay Bader have spoken highly of Richter's recording; I have no doubt that I would like Richter's performance of the opening chorus and the finale chorale, which is probably where most of the extra time is taken up.
OTOH, the tempi of the very tuneful and pleasant tenor and soprano arias, as performed by Harnoncourt  and Leusink , seem about right, although the tenor aria (about 3:55 in both recordings) might 'sound better' if it were a little slower.
Aryeh Oron wrote (July 10, 2001):
[To Neil Halliday] You are ablotutely right. My fault! Closing a gap of two minutes in the Tour de France is a big challenge! Anyhow, I fixed the TT of Leusink  and also added the TT of Gönnenwein: 19:07 . Richter  is not the oddest in the group after all. I have just listened to Gonnenwein's recording once again and to me it seems that he makes the case for the slow tempo as convicingly as Richter does. What a beautiful rendition it is!
Thomas Braatz wrote (July 11, 2003):
BWV 171 - Provenance
See: Cantata BWV 171 - Provenance
Philippe Bareille wrote (July 13, 2003):
This glorious and uplifting cantata scored for 3 trumpets, drums, strings, oboes and continuo is a joy to listen to from beginning to end. The soprano aria is another example of the huge demands Bach imposes on his singers. I've listened to Harnoncourt  and Richter .
 The former as expected excels in this kind of rather extrovert work. He brings joy and clarity to the introductory chorus (special praise to the excellent trumpeter Friedemann Immer). The shine of Equiluz beautiful voice had started to wear off but his intelligence, his commitment to the text and innate sense of this music are a lesson to most of his rivals. Panito Iconomou is entrancing in the short recitative. Harnoncourt had in Helmut Wittek a very talented boy soprano. He gives a good account of the radiant and virtuosic aria although not without a few "glitches" . He was endowed with an attractive voice but the timbre of his voice was quite pungent masking his remarkable musicianship at times.
 Richter also captures very well the sense of occasion but I personally find this kind of approach with modern instruments outdated and tiresome. Unlike Equiluz, Peter Schreier does not have an appealing voice but like a Max Van Egmond for example, his supreme intelligence overcame this relative drawback to become one of the greatest Bach singers of the past century. In this recording he was at the peak of his vocal abilities turning in an outstanding performance. Hertha Töpper is very moving in the sublime recitative but once again I find E Mathis at odds with this music.
To sum up: I personally recommend Harnoncourt .
Jane Newble wrote (July 14, 2003):
On one of the hottest days of the year so far, listening to this cantata is like a refreshing breeze. As far as I am concerned, every day is the beginning of a 'new' year, and it is good to celebrate it.
The cantata starts with confidence and joy. With a mighty God like this, there is nothing to fear! God's name is symbolic of his power, and the trumpets emphasise this.
The tenor aria tells of the whole creation singing God's praise. The violins and voice complement each other beautifully and represent everything, like the birds singing in spring, a continuous flow of praise.
The alto recitative is restful and contrasting. Instead of the jubilant praise of the previous movement, here is quiet fearless confidence. The name of Jesus is solid ground, a place to hide when things get tough - everything one needs.
The soprano aria is lovely. The violin, seemingly effortless, and the voice combine in tender affection for the person who is the first and will be the last of the coming year. The word 'lacht' really sounds like happy carefree laughter.
Next is the bass - prayerful, one of Bach's wonderfully fascinating recitatives, full of variety and interest.
The closing chorale is like a summary of all that has gone before - praise, prayer, and confidence in the coming new year, reiterated by trumpets and timpani.
Thomas Braatz wrote (July 14, 2003):
BWV 171 - The Recordings:
This week I listened to the following recordings:
Richter (1970-1) ; Rilling (1983) ; Harnoncourt (1987) ; Leusink (1999) 
The Total Timings are as follows (from slowest to fastest – I did not listen to Gönnenwein , but included Aryeh’s listing of the TT):
Gönnenwein (19:07) ; Richter (18:53) ; Leusink (16:14) ; Harnoncourt (16:01) ; Rilling (15:30) 
Comments: The reason for Rilling’s fast timings is primarily due to the fast tempi that he takes with both the tenor aria (Mvt. 2) and the soprano aria (Mvt. 4); otherwise we have the usual discrepancy between non-HIP (slower) and HIP (faster) which is apparent in many, if not most cantata recordings.
Mvt. 1: Richter (2:06); Rilling (2:01); Leusink (2:01); Harnoncourt (1:58)
Mvt. 2: Richter (4:30); Harnoncourt (3:58); Leusink (3:50); Rilling (3:38)
Mvt. 3: Rilling (1:24); Richter (1:17); Leusink (1:07); Harnoncourt (1:05)
Mvt. 4: Richter (6:16); Leusink (5:24); Harnoncourt (5:18); Rilling (4:00)
Mvt. 5: Richter (2:22); Rilling (2:07); Leusink (1:53); Harnoncourt (1:40)
Mvt. 6: Richter (2:22); Rilling (2:10); Harnoncourt (2:02); Leusink (1:59)
Many elements are completely out of balance with each other. Such feeble tromba sounds in contrast with the twhich are much too loud and overpowering! The choir does some ‘poking’ at the notes, a technique which deprives the fugal subject of the power and dignity that it should have. There are times when the altos disappear entirely when singing in the low range and the sopranos, as usual, create some insecure, warbly sounds that are probably due to the ‘sopranisti’ who are unable to obtain clean attacks of the notes without a certain amount of ‘yodeling,’ (vacillation between the registers of the voice.) Such vacillation equals uncertainty and a lack of vocal control on the part of the singer. This is unfortunate and certainly would not have been tolerated by Bach in his own performances. There is also no reason why individual voices with their unusual timbres and characteristics should stand out from among the other singers who sing the same part.
This performance has some similarities with Leusink’s performance in which he emulated some of Harnoncourt’s performance techniques); for instance, the same imbalance exists between the trombas, timpani, and remaining instrumental and choral forces – the trombas seem to be completely offstage in a Fidelio-like setting. What the reason for this is can not easily be ascertained, but certainly the placement of these instruments as well as the recording techniques employed play an important role here. Since the Tromba I part has its own entry of the fugal subject not duplicated by any other vocal or instrumental part, it would certainly be important not to allow it to play a secondary or tertiary role here. This is basic Bach which both Leusink and Harnoncourt appear to have overlooked. Instead both conductors insist at ‘poking’ at the fugal subject, fragmenting it into tiny pieces, and in the case of Harnoncourt in particular, rewriting Bach’s intentions by changing half-notes into quarter notes. The general effect upon the listener is one of a bumpy ride with strong accents that begin to sound like shouting in the choir. Bach did not have to resort to such extreme devices in order to get the attention of his audience. In general, however, Harnoncourt’s Tölz Boys’ Choir has a more coherent sound, one that the Leusink’s choir rarely, if ever, is capable of achieving, because Leusink has allowed too many voices with vocal flaws to participate in the singing.
For all their efforts in attempting to bring out the details, both Leusink and Harnoncourt have failed to allow the basic structure of this fugal mvt. to be perceived adequately by the listener. Without a score, a listener would be hard pressed to gain a clear concept of the musical structure that Bach had in mind. Rilling, by paying close attention to the proper balance between all the elements, successfully achieves the necessary structural integration which evaded the HIP conductors because they were lost in micro-managing all the details. If Rilling presents a clear black & white delineation of the structure (a crucial, 1st step toward coming to terms with this composition, then both HIP conductors, in attempting to present a color image of this music, have smeared and distorted grotesquely the colors that were intended to enhance the black & white image. With this completely unbalanced psychedelic image, the key structure of the mvt. has become blurred and rather incomprehensible because too much emphasis is placed on secondary, ‘rhetorical’ features that have been distorted and achieve too much prominence in the scheme of this composition. Despite the use of a mixed choir with modern instruments, there is a much better sense of the structural unity of this mvt. This, in itself, is quite uplifting and much more deeply moving than the attempt on the part of the HIP conductors to elevate less important details to the detriment of those which are certainly more important for the listener and which evoke a feeling of true power and glory.
Here the instrumental and vocal forces are even greater than in Rilling’s recording. Richter has a larger choir and an orchestra with modern instruments playing with more than just one instrument per part. The effect is overwhelming in a good sense. The choir sings with utter conviction, the trumpets soar over the choir with their wonderful entries, and all the elements seem to be in balance with each other. Here it becomes clear that the HIP versions simply can not live up to powerful musical expression that Bach must have heard in his mind as he composed this music. The HIP versions lack the breadth and intensity needed to truly move the listener who needs to feel the strength inherent in the text and the music.
Mvt. 6 (Final Chorale):
The usual clipping of the final syllable of the notes under the fermati is apparent here in this very ‘light-weight’ version of this chorale. The choir sounds strained and insecure at times (there is a definite lack of confidence in the singing of such forceful text.) The trumpets are unable to play their notes with equal intensity and volume (a sign of a lack of mastery of their instruments.) The fanfares lack sparkle and project a feeling of insecurity, which can not be overcome by the loud playing of the timpani.
Harnoncourt has a better tromba ensemble than Leusink. But Harnoncourt is forever on the lookout for different ways of performing a Bach chorale (sometimes I think that he deliberately searches for new ways to distort the singing of a simple 4-pt. chorale because he is unable to understand the tradition and function of this type of chorale in a typical Bach cantata.) In pursuing this goal of discovering new ways of performing these chorales, ways based more upon eliciting extreme affects and rhetorical, gestural exaggerations, Harnoncourt completely loses sight of the purpose and sacred aspects of such chorale within the setting of the church service for which the cantata was intended. The chorale setting has now become a ‘plaything’ for experimentation where ‘just about anything goes’ as long as it attracts a modern-day listener’s attention as being different. Has anyone every performed this chorale in this way before? No! Is this a possible perversion of Bach’s intentions for this chorale? Yes! Listen to the way Harnoncourt allows the note under the fermata to die out (a definite diminuendo with a deliberate pause following it.) Hearing a chorale performed in this manner will give the listener the impression of a lack of conviction as more emphasis is placed upon theoretical musical techniques that smack of artificiality rather than upon the intensity of feeling that the singing of such a text should generate. These chorale-line endings give the definite impression of being listless. A careful reading of the text of this chorale should make it quite apparent that there is a great disparity between Harnoncourt’s interpretation and Bach’s own intentions regarding the performance of this chorale.
Rilling  & Richter :
Both Rilling and Richter give us a more fitting conclusion to this cantata. The feeling in both renditions is one of firm affirmation with a fervent prayer that comes fully from the heart (not half-heartedly as in the HIP versions.) There is no doubt left in our minds as the intense, sustained singing (no dropping off of volume or clipping the value of final notes) engenders a similar feeling among the listeners. Because of the larger forces involved in the Richter recording, its effect is even more powerful than Rilling’s.
Mvt. 2 (Tenor Aria):
 Leusink (Beekman):
This is a pleasant reading of this mvt. more suitable for a chamber-music setting with Beekman giving a somewhat flat, instrument-like vocal performance – everything is quite clear so that it would take little imagination to think of Beekman’s voice as reed instrumewith the words really not being very important to this mvt.
 Harnoncourt (Equiluz):
Equiluz gives a rather uneven performance here. At times his vibrato indicates insecurity and the tones he produces are not necessarily easy to listen to since he seems to be forcing his voice in order to add expression to the text. This is quite evident when he attempts to place special emphasis on certain notes like those on “Herr,” but when he sings the melismata on ‘gehen’ we can once again hear the old, glorious aspects of this very expressive voice. All in all, there are many more interesting aspects in the playing and singing of this rendition compared to the relatively flat performance given by the Leusink group.
 Rilling (Baldin):
Baldin has problems controlling his wide vibrato and there is a somewhat nasal quality in his singing. This performance, at a very fast tempo, generates a great deal of excitement, but there is much less in the way of expression compared to the version sung by Equiluz.
 Richter (Schreier):
In contrast to the above versions, Richter uses at least 2 or 3 violins per part (the previous versions use only a single violin per part) which, together with a very deliberate tempo (slower than any of the others, but nevertheless moving along at a good pace) gives a very different feeling to this aria. Now it is really possible to perceive the expansiveness of this aria not captured by any of the other versions: “so weit die Wolken gehen” and “wird dich in der Macht erhöhen.” Schreier, in top form here, gives an unforgettable performance that outshines all the others.
Mvt. 4 (Soprano Aria):
 Richter (Mathis):
This version is quite interesting because of the slow (slowest of all) tempo that Richter has chosen. Certain elements of this aria become clearer and a comforting feeling exudes from this interpretation, a feeling that tends to be missing at the faster tempi. Mathis has a few better-than-usual moments where, in certain phrases, she almost seems to connect with the music entirely, only to lose this connection a few bars later when she adopts one of her many operatic poses that are entirely inappropriate for such an aria as this. She tends then to overdo what really could be accomplished with greater simplicity and sincerity.
 Rilling (Augér):
Rilling literally races through this aria at a tempo which is a minute faster than Richter’s. It does feel rather rushed at times, as if Rilling is forcing himself to push the ensemble relentlessly and almost breathlessly toward the inevitable conclusion. Augér’s singing is excellent, but the performance does suffer somewhat from this extremely fast tempo. This is particularly true when the words “und in meiner letzten Stunde ist Jesus mein letztes Wort” are sung. Here a contrast in expression between the happiness (lachen=laughing) brought by speaking Jesus’ name during life and calling upon Jesus’ name as the final word that is spoken at the moment of death could be delineated to greater advantage if the tempo were not so fast.
 Harnoncourt (Wittek):
Wittek struggles valiantly through this aria. He has obvious difficulties controlling his vibrato. As a result, there can be on his part little effort in even attempting to produce appropriate expression. We need to be thankful that he is able to make it through the aria without a major catastrophe. All of this puts the listener on pins and needles and does little to enhance the listening pleasure and understanding of what Bach was trying to accomplish here.
 Leusink (Holton):
Holton’s demi voix is unable to do justice to this beautiful aria. Her trembling vibrato indicates her vocal insecurities regarding this aria. In the low range there is almost no voice at all. Her expression is flat throughout. We might as well be listening to an instrument performing the vocal part or listening to Holton sing an unrelated text in a foreign language which no one can understand. Holton is only one of a number of similar voices that are the result of the ‘in-breeding’ within the HIP community of performers where a limited volume of sound has become an ideal and has been declared a virtue in attaining ‘a true Baroque’ performance.
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 15, 2003):
BWV 171 - Wittek 
Philippe Brareille wrote:
< Harnoncourt had in Helmut Wittek a very talented boy soprano. He gives a good account of the radiant and virtuosic aria although not without a few "glitches" . He was endowed with an attractive voice but the timbre of his voice was quite pungent masking his remarkable musicianship at times. >
What do you think of Wittek in Bernstein's DG recording of Mahler's 4th symphony, singing the part about the angelic life?
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I see you've joined another of the most prominent members of this discussion group in the society of The Knights Who Say 'Ni!'. You and that other member just plant yourselves at self-appointed places, saying disapproving things about everybody and everything, belittling professional work. It's the usual series of exclamations "Ni!" "Ni!" "Ni!" "Ni!" to all passersby. None shall pass, alive. It's beyond pessimism, and it doesn't resemble a useful critical review of the music; it's just plain cruel. Never is heard an encouraging word, and the skies are so cloudy all day.
Will you ever be satisfied with ANY shrubbery that is brought to you?
The production of recordings, printed editions, live performances, and seriously researched books takes plenty of dedication, time, funding, and personal sacrifice. More than you know. Yet, all this work is regularly greeted with "Ni!" potshots. None shall pass. Why? What further sacrifice would you demand of any performing musician (or any real scholar) who would be worthy enough of your blessing? And, meanwhile, what is to be gained by anyone from all your "Ni!" dismissals?
And I shudder to think what you would have said had you attended the concert where I performed this aria a few weeks ago (directing it from the harpsichord). There would be just no way to please you, even though we used modern instruments and had a clear and strong-voiced soprano, and an edition that is more up to date in scholarship than the NBA, and chose a moderate tempo. Why should we musicians bother to do our jobs, if it's only going to be greeted with "Ni!" no matter how it actually sounded? (A quieter member of this discussion list DID drive in to hear the concert, and we went out for a meal afterward. And other audience members sitting nearby in the restaurant offered to hold our baby for a while, so my wife and I could eat our food with our guest. That's the kind of appreciative support that helps to compensate for the ni-saying individuals such as yourself.)
Aryeh Oron wrote (July 15, 2003):
BWV 171 - The Opening Chorus (Mvt. 1) & Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 4) - Background
Both these movements have become famous through other Bach’s works. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is a fugal movement, which Bach adapted with the same orchestration but elaborated vocal parts for ‘Patrem omnipotentem’ of the Mass in B minor BWV 232. On the other hand, the aria for soprano (Mvt. 4) is an adaptation of the aria for soprano (Mvt. 9) from the Secular Cantata BWV 205. The enchanting rising and falling phrases of the solo violin obbligato suggests the same gentle breeze wafting over the soul as it was requested by Pallas in the Secular Cantata.
Last week I have been listening to 5 complete recordiof Cantata BWV 171:
 Wolfgang Gönnenwein (mid 1960’s)
 Karl Richter (1970-1971)
 Helmuth Rilling (1983)
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1987)
 Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
I also listened to two recordings of individual movements from the cantata:
[M-1] Karl Richter w/ The Ansbach Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra (Early 1970s) - Choral Movements (Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 6)
[M-2] John Nelson w/ Kathleen Battle (Soprano) & Itzhak Perlman (Violin) (1989-1990) - Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 4)
Here are my personal preferences and some comments.
Opening Chorus (Mvt. 1): Richter 2 [M-1], Gönnenwein , Richter 1 , Rilling , Leusink , Harnoncourt 
This is not the first time that I find Richter’s recording with the pick-up Ansbach Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra [M-1] preferable to the official recording with his regular Münchner forces . Both the choir and the orchestra sound smaller and more flexible. They have enthusiasm and drive, which I find very captivating. Gönnenwein  uses bigger forces, but his rendition is spirited as well, and holds together very well despite the slow pace. Apparently Rilling  has everything right, especially clear separation of the various components and good balance, which allow the listener following the developing of the fugue. But I find his approach too jolly and jumpy and lacking in glory and dignity. These features characterise the other three non-HIP recordings mentioned above. Leusink  follows Harnoncourt’s  steps in the overall approach, but he manages to keep continuity and momentum where his former cuts the magnificent chorus into pieces. The vocal and instrumental lines of both are not enough clear.
Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 4):
Women: Augér/Rilling , Wehrung/Gönnenwein , Holton/Leusink , Battle/Nelson [M-2], Mathis/Richter 
Boy Soprano: Wittek/Harnoncourt 
Augér (with Rilling)  covers every corner of this aria. She manages to convey innocence at the beginning and confidence at the end. Her hinted laughter at the word ‘Lacht’ is an example of good taste. If Rilling gave her slower tempo, this rendition would have been hard to surpass. Wehrung (with Gönnenwein)  is not far behind, and both she and the violinist manage to hold the attention of the listener despite the slow tempo (5:36) and the wide vibrato of the singer. Holton’s voice (with Leusink)  suits this aria very well and her expressive abilities enable her to convey the message of the aria quite convincingly, despite the relatively slow tempo. Unlike Augér/Rilling, this rendition would have improved with faster tempo. Battle [M-2] sings with full and rich voice, and some listeners might find her approach not so compatible with the Bach’s idiom. I find that listening to this rendition on its own terms, without direct comparison to natural Bach soprano singers as Augér and Holton are, can please. Perlman’s playing cannot be considered as authentic, but why should we refrain ourselves from hearing him performing a Bach’s violin part as impeccably, as warmly and as sensitively as only few can. Mathis (with Richter)  is a major disappointment, with uninteresting expression and non-attractive voice. The slow pace set by Richter for this aria exposes her limitations to the bone. The boy soprano Wittek, who sings the aria with Harnoncourt , has promising start and good and solid voice, but as the movement progresses, I get the impression that his expressive capabilities are somewhat limited.
Footnote: There are not small roles, only small players. Hamari’s rendition (with Rilling)  of the short recitative for alto (Mvt. 3) is a fine example of how much can be done of so little.
Movements to take away: The opening chorus with Richter/Ansbach [M-1] and the aria for soprano with Augér/Rilling .
Charles Francis wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Now be fair Brad, Rilling  does get a rather good review:
"Rilling, by paying close attention to the proper balance between all the elements, successfully achieves the necessary structural integration which evaded the HIP conductors because they were lost in micro-managing all the details. If Rilling presents a clear black & white delineation of the structure (a crucial, 1st step toward coming to terms with this composition, then both HIP conductors, in attempting to present a color image of this music, have smeared and distorted grotesquely the colors that were intended to enhance the black & white image. With this completely unbalanced psychedelic image, the key structure of the mvt. has become blurred and rather incomprehensible because too much emphasis is placed on secondary, 'rhetorical' features that have been distorted and achieve too much prominence in the scheme of this composition. Despite the use of a mixed choir with modern instruments, there is a much better sense of the structural unity of this mvt. This, in itself, is quite uplifting and much more deeply moving than the attempt on the part of the HIP conductors to elevate less important details to the detriment of those which are certainly more important for the listener and which evoke a feeling of true power and glory."
Charles Francis wrote (July 16, 2003):
BWV 171 – ‘Trumpet’ Motif
Does anyone have any background on the 'trumpet' motif in the closing chorale? The same motif is found in the opening movement of BWV 41 and, of course, in its closing chorale. As both BWV 41 and BWV 171 are for the New Year, one presumes this motif had some special association for the people of Leipzig.
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Really? These words of Tom Braatz look more like mockery of my own writing (my recent comments to Neil where I made an analogy with color/B&W imaging in music) than like a favorable review of Rilling's work . Plus, "HIP conductors" is not even an entity that makes sense, except perhaps in the mind of the writer.
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 16, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< The production of recordings, printed editions, live performances, and seriously researched books takes plenty of dedication, time, funding, and personal sacrifice. More than you know. Yet, all this work is regularly greeted with "Ni!" potshots. None shall pass. Why? What further sacrifice would you demand of any performing musician (or any real scholar) who would be worthy enough of your blessing? And, meanwhile, what is to be gained by anyone from all your "Ni!" dismissals? >
Thomas Braatz wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] Judging from the patchwork manner in which Bach assembled BWV 171 from other sources and being of the fact that Bach was probably pressed for time in the midst of a very busy holiday season, I would not necessarily presume a special association of this ‘trumpet’ - motif with anything else currently in the minds of the people of Leipzig. Most likely it served only as a major motif that dominated the 1st mvt. of BWV 41 and also provided a unifying element that connected the 1st and last mvts. of the same cantata. However, in BWV 171, the final chorale, copied almost verbatim from BWV 41, is just a fragment of this originally broad and rather unique application, as the profound effect that it had previously achieved as the crowning glory (with the snake biting its own tail) of an integral whole is now lost in BWV 171 which is a patchwork quilt which Bach assembled from his other works. The special association of this ‘trumpet’- motif is the wonderful manner in which it frames BWV 41. I do not believe it had any other associations beyond this.
Philippe Bareille wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I think that the recording of the Malher symphony was made at least a year after the BWV171 and Wittek's voice had grown in volume, expressiveness, range and confidence. Wittek is remarkable in this recording all the more so because it is a live recording (even with [perhaps] the help of sound engineers). Do you agree? I mentioned this recording in previous postings.
Bradley Lehman wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Philippe Bareille] It's been at least 10 years since I heard it in a library copy, but I remember enjoying it. There are so many others I like (Vincent/Mengelberg, Schwarzkopf/Klemperer, Grist/Bernstein, McNair/Haitink, Tilling/Zander, Kenny/Mahler [on piano roll], ...), I never got back around to the Wittek/Bernstein.
I'm a little surprised that no marketing guru has dubbed Charlotte Church into this role yet. That's not the same as saying I'd buy it; just surprised.
What a wonderful piece of music.
Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 17, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] ... and what about Haitink's earlier recording with the heavenly Elly Ameling? I find Mahler's 4th to be the most accessible and rewarding without the enormous pain and despair of let's say his 6th...
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 21, 2003):
BWV 171 - Jesus, Joshua, God saves
This cantata for New Year's Day 1729, “For the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision”, does not deal with the circumcision of Jesus at all. Neither do all the other cantatas for this day and the Sunday to follow. Apparently, the first part of St. Luke 2 vs. 21 was hastily read over. Ministers and librettists were not interested in this Jewish feast, which made Jesus a bearer of he token of JHWH’s covenant with Abraham, his promised son Isaac and their offspring. (I Moses 17: 10-27) The first two men to be circumcised were not Abraham and Isaac, but Abraham (at the age of 99) and his son Ishmael ( only 13 years young). Isaac was not even born yet. Remarkable is that the Israelites have been equally wishfully selective as the Christians by denying Ishmael’s position in the covenant, whereas his descendants claim that by Ishmael’s circumcision the covenant referred to Ishmael and his seed. Isn’t it ironical that both genealogical lines claim that their half of the covenant is the real one, whereas the original covenant comprises them both. Anyhow, this is why circumcision has been an important symbol for both Jews and Moslems until this day.
The Bible says that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, as JHWH had told Abraham when He established the covenant. What can we tell from this information? First that Mirjam, Mary’s Hebrew name, was a true Jewess. Although Joseph may have been thought the father at the time, it is the mother’s ethnical identity that decides over a child’s being Jewish. Secondly, that Mary (let us return to her more familiar Greek-Roman name) chose for her first-born son to be circumcised. Again the choice was hers. We also know that mother and child were in good health. All these were preconditions for the “mielàh” to be carried out. The family were certainly not on their way to Egypt, yet. For during long travels, circumcision was out of the question. Think of Joshua 5:2-8, when JHWH ordered Joshua to circumcise all the Israelites that were born in the wilderness. In the forty years of wandering through the desert all the males that had been liberated from slavery in Egypt has died. All these years there had been no rest and quiet for the solemnity and for its physical consequences. Only when JHWH had granted them a miraculous crossing over the river Jordan into the promised land, they were given the occasion to do what had been impossible for forty years. They pitched their tents at Gilgal for a longer period, made a memorial with the twelve big stones from the bottom of the river, one for each tribe, and reinstated their statutes from of old.
Mary and Joseph must have remembered that major event from God’s history with his people Israel. We know there were a lot of other “Ben Davids” in Bethlehem at the time, possibly Zacharias and Elisabeth as well. Joseph and Mary had no doubt made contact with the Jewish congregation in Bethlehem. After all, circumcision was both a very personal and a community ceremony, in which the synagogue as a meeting place and place of worship played an important part. Not for nothing is it called “jitsen” in Yiddish, making the boy a Jew of the covenant.
It was a very important feast. Preparations already began in the night of the wa’ad, the eve of the coming together for the actual ceremony. A congregation would gather in the house of birth. Probably by that time the family had managed to find a proper room at the inn. Relevant passages from the Thora and the Talmud were read and prayers were said for the well-being of the baby-boy, the recovery of the mother and a happy family life. We do not know who were present, but with so many relatives together in Bethlehem, I would be surprised if it there was not a considerable company. The next day there was a celebration in the synagogue first. The entire community wished to be part of it. Among those present were the father, the mohél, the man performing the removal of the foreskin, and the sandék, the man in whose lap the baby was going to lie when he was undergoing the harmless, yet painful, surgical operation. The latter two recited in antiphonal singing Moses’ Song at the Red Sea (II Moses 15:1-19) , a song of triumph and exaltation, after JHWH had given Moses the power to lead his people safely through the divided waters. According to a Midràsh poet, JHWH only gave Moses his tremendous powers because of Moses’ recent circumcision. As a prince of Egypt, Moses had not been circumcised. On his way back to Egypt to persuade the pharaoh to let the children of Israel go, JHWH sought to kill him and Moses was only saved through an emergency circumcision by his wife Zipporah. It was by remembering this act of faith and the power of the circumcision that Moses could split the waves asunder by stretching his hand.
After the worship in the synagogue, they went back to the house, where the mother and her baby were waiting. Then the actual circumcision took place. The house had been prepared. There were two chairs near the window, one for the sandék, who needed good light for his precision task. The one on the right was for the prophet Elijah, who had warned the Israelites time and again to persevere and stick to the holy covenant. The sandék was usually also the “Gevatter”, the child’s godfather. He was often the boy’s grandfather, but who Jesus’ godfather was, we will never know. The mohél would wear his tallith, the striped festive garment with the tsitsith, the fringes remembering the people of Adonai, JHWH, their God and his commandments. The mohél says a short prayer. Then the sandéketh, the godmother, carries in the boy, welcomed with a universal “baroegh habbah” from Psalm 118:26, “Blessed be he that cometh in the of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD.” The boy, dressed in fine clothes is laid on the cushions on Elijah’s chair. The sandék takes up the cushions with the child and places them on his lap. Then the rituals are being performed . The father speaks the consecrated words: “Praise to Him, who has sanctified us and ordered us to receive him in the covenant with Abraham”, to which those present add in agreement: “Like he has now been received in the covenant, may he grow up into a son of the Thora, to the maturity of matrimony, to a man of righteous deeds.” After the actual circumcision has taken place, the sandék gets up, taking the boy in his arms. The mohél speaks out a final prayer of praise. Holding a goblet of wine, he blesses the child and solemnly gives him his Hebrew name. Here it is Jehoshua, Joshua, meaning “JHWH saves”. Refreshing the child with a drop of wine, the mohél recites the words from Ezekiel 16:6, “When you were in your blood, I said to you :”Live.” Then he repeats once more the wish, shared by all present: “May he grow, mature, and be righteous.” The sandék drinks from the goblet. The child is taken back to his mother by the Gevatterin. Thus ends the ceremony.
Then follows the “Se’oudath Mitswàh”, a banquet or a small festive meal, depending on the circumstances. The mohél presides the table. There are speeches, there are prayers, there is toasting with wine. Sometimes there is music. There maybe a singer who sings a poem about the special meaning of the event that has just taken place. At the end of the feast the parents and the the mohél receive congratulations. A goblet is filled with wine, the mohél blesses the wine and every one present takes a sip or a draught. Even the mother, if she is not fully recovered, is brought some wine. Thus ends the ceremony.*
*Information from “Jewish Rites and Symbols” by Rabbi S. Ph de Vries Msn
The name-giving of Joshua (Jesus) was the conclusion of the entire ceremony and although you can not separate the two, Christians have always done so. One can think of different reasons. First, already in the early Christian churches there were disputes over the question, if circumcision under the old covenant should still be necessary for the followers of Christ. Thousands of converted Jews insisted on keeping the ancient law of Moses, but Peter, Paul, Barnabas and Mark, who had gone abroad to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ among the gentiles, thought it a burden to keep to this initiation rite. Eventually it was decided upon, that baptism in the name of Jesus was the initiation into the new covenant, so it was no longer necessary for converted gentiles to be circumcised. This was a clear break-away from Judaism. Both pragmatic (for much more practical) and ideological (Christ not exclusively for the Jews but for all people).
Here we come upon another reason. The Christian churches took over the Jewish covenant with Abraham and declared it to be solely applicable to those believing in Jesus as the Son of God and as the Redeemer, the promised Messiah. Ignoring the fact that Jesus was a circumcised Jew under the old covenant, recalling the fact that there had been a multitude crying “Let him be crucified” (Matthew 27:20-23), again ignoring the fact that there were thousands of Jews who believed in Jesus (Acts 21:20), the Christian church estranged and even dissociated itself from its Judaist origin. It opened the way to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. This hostility against Jews was even justified on Biblical grounds, and in Bach’s time there were numerous people who sympathized with these ideas. I would not say Picander was an anti-Semite because he did not include Christ’s circumcision into his cantata text. Everyone preferred to ignore it, which was telling of the general thought at the time. For a discussion, see: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/Anti-semitism.htm
Throughout the ages, the Jews and today the Israeli people have been controversial in the eyes of many people and nations. Apparently, you have to be either on their side completely or against them. Is there no in-between? I think there is as long as you cut out politics.
Anyway, back to the cantata, which does not deal with this issue at all. There are three main themes: 1. What does Jesus mean to me , what does his name mean to me personally? 2. Prayers for protection and blessing in the year to come, and 3. The gratitude we owe God for his goodness and mercy.
Funny that for the opening chorus Picander resorted to Psalm 48:10, where the God of the old covenant is being praised. He is the great “I Am Who I Am”, whose name must not be spoken, not only because God is holy, but also because his name can not describe the essence and magnitude of his being. Strange, isn’t it, that the Christians at the time were no longer aware of that. They had adopted the God of the Jews, then monopolized Him and his covenant for themselves and included Jesus into the deity by creating the Trinity God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Picander left out the reason why God must be praised, which is also mentioned in the tenth verse: “According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness.” Following the Christian doctrine that the Jewish Bible (later called the Old Testament) is nothing but a foreshadowing of God’s merciful redemption for mankind - Paradise lost, Paradise regained - , Picander could easily borrow this Psalm verse to glorify the name of God, the Father. True, Jesus coming on earth had nothing to do with righteousness, but only with love and mercy. That’s why Picander cut short verse 10. However, God, who came on earth in the reflection of his image that we call Jesus the Son, was not the God intended by the Psalmist. In fact, Psalm 48 is an utterly Jewish Psalm, praising God in his city, Jerusalem, in the mountain of his holiness, mount Zion.
The second theme is the prayer for protection against war and other disasters, for blessing the authorities and for personal welfare and private happiness. Of course, these prayers also occur in the other New Year’s cantatas, but in BWV 171 they are addressed to Jesus directly, instead of to God. Jesus said in John 14:13, “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And in John 16: 23, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” This would be blasphemy unless you believe in the concept of the Holy Trinity. When you are praying to one of the trinity, in him you address all. The difference is a matter of aspect. From which side are you approaching God? This God is for Christians the same as the God of Deuteronomy 6:4, but for the children of Israel this verse from Moses V is their creed in life and death: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord…” There is only one Lord and He is our God.
Last but not least, the third subject of the cantata is the human answer to God’s grace and protection, beautifully expressed in the soprano aria and the concluding chorale.
The opening chorus is a magnificent fugue, setting the tone for an extremely uplifting piece of music at the start of the new year. First the tenors with the BC and the viola colla parte, then the altos with the second violins, also colla parte, the sopranos with the first violins and the oboes, again colla parte and finally the basses. Then the tromba joins in with a melody of its own, and later the other trompets and timpani, repeating and underlining the theme once more, while the choir can not stop praising the name of the Lord. Listen, how Bach stretches the coloraturas and long-held notes on “Ende”. There really seems no end to it. And we don’t want it to end, but then, it has to end – alas! - but what a triumphant ending it is.
The tenor aria with the lively BC and the charminglconcertante first and second violins refers to Psalms 36, 57 and 108 where the Lord’s truth and faithfulness are said to reach unto the clouds and accordingly the psalmist in Psalms 63 and 71 says “because they loving kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee” and in Psalm 150 “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord”. Whereas the opening chorus is strict and solemn, this aria is playful and joyful, yet serious. I think that already when setting the words of this aria to music, Bach’s associative thinking of clouds, winds and voices, breathing God’s omnipotence, must have led him to Zephyrus for the second aria, another stroke of genius.
The recitative for alto tells us what Jesus’ name means for a Christian. He is my peace, my comfort, my protector, my life, my light, my honour, my refuge, my helper, my new year’s gift.
I don’t think that Picander remembered the aria “Angenehmer Zephyrus” from the cantata “Zerreißet, zersprenget” in honour of the beloved Prof. Dr. Müller from Leipzig university, which he had written three years earlier, but Bach did. He must have been delighted about his happy thought to turn this ode to the wind god Zephyrus into an ode to Jesus. This may seem strange, but in Bach’s time myths of the ancient Greeks were no longer thought of as rival tales, contradictory to the stories of the Bible. Renaissance had brought a renewed interest in antiquity and Greek mythology had become highly popular as a source for the arts. The stories about the ancient gods had lost their godly nature and become allegories with a high entertainment and instruction level. The Church of Rome even incorporated them in their spiritual arts and even the much stricter churches of the Reformation condoned them as long as they stayed away from the masses that attended the churches. Lots of mythological paintings were to be admired in royal courts all over Europe. They were often the subject matter of musical drama to be performed at secular festivities around high-placed persons. Thus, once he got the idea, Bach could easily change the fleeting clouds and winds of Zephyrus into the vehicles to praise the name of Jesus all over the earth. I can see Bach smiling behind his desk jotting the notes on the paper, his pen hardly capable to keep up with the winds of inspiration blowing through his mind. Not the pleasant kiss of a cooling breeze, but the refreshing and comforting name of Jesus must be my beginning of the new year. Wonderful winds, a higher dimension to the original aria, nature and humanity , strings and voice united in praise of the Lord.
The following bass recitative, introduced by the BC, is strikingly accompanied by two oboes. They are fortifying the prayers, built upon Jesus’ promise from St. John 14: 13 and 14, and give the movement finally an arioso character. The concluding appeal to Jesus to say “Amen!” to our prayers thus gets an intimate beseeching character.
In the finishing chorale, Bach uses all the instruments available. There are two alternative texts, both from the new year’s hymn “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” by Johannes Herman (see BWV 41). The chorale “Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen” is the second stanza of the original hymn. It is a continuation of the bass recitative to praise the name of Jesus throughout the year and ends in a prayer for blessing and peace at home and abroad. That Satan may be put to shame and God’s Word of Salvation may be preached without adulterations all over the world. The alternative chorale “Dein ist allein die Ehre” is the final stanza of the hymn. It is a song of praise, a prayer for patience and obedience, looking forward to our heavenly future, ending in a new year’s wish. If you don’t heed the message, there is hardly any difference. If you care for the words, keep both messages in mind.
I only have the Leusink recording  and I like it a lot. Enthusiastically sung by the choir, very competent playing by the orchestra, virtuoso performances of the solo-violinists in the tenor and soprano aria, fine oboe playing in the bass recitative. I must not forget to mention the excellent singing of Ruth Holton, Marcel Beekman and Bas Ramselaar.
All in all, quite an impressive performance of an even more impressive cantata.
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 171: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3