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Cantata BWV 178
Wo Gott derr Herr nicht bei uns hält
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of August 5, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 8, 2001):
Background

This is the week of Cantata BWV 178 according to Peter Bloemendaal, the first one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. The two illustrative movements in this cantata are Mvt. 1, which illustrates a battle, and Mvt. 3, which illustrates a storm. We have met those situations in previous weekly discussions. The war, for example, is the subject of Cantata BWV 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit Other cantatas, and storm indifferent permutations is the subject of some movements in Cantata BWV 81 Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? I am tempted to do comparison between the various ways in which Bach chooses to treat similar subjects in different cantatas, but limitation of time prevents me of doing it. I shall be happy to see other members of the BCML jump in. As a background to the review of the recordings of these two movements I shall use the always illuminating books of Alec Robertson and Murray W. Young.

The Recordings

I am aware of 4 complete recordings of this cantata and last week I have been listening to them all. See: Cantata BWV 178 - Recordings.

[1] Helmuth Rilling (1978+1972)
(2) Karl Richter (1975-1977)
(3) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1988)
(4) Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)

Mvt. 1 - Chorus

Robertson wrote:
“The enemy the libretto attacks is Christians who have become false prophets against whom the faithful are exhorted to fought with sure hope that the foe will be defeated. Bach sounds the call to battle – without recourse to trumpets – in the tremendously vigorous orchestral introduction. It combines most effectively at various points, in all parts, a dotted quaver rhythm and rushing semiquavers and through the tumult their first line of the chorale rings out confidently, with a sustained chord at ‘holds’. The second line depicts the rage of the foe.”
Young wrote:
“Psalm 124 provides the text for this opening choral fantasia; all instruments play a spirited call to battle against the false prophets. Their orchestral introduction is a prelude to the entry of the choir, whose parts are sung in syncopated imitation.”

(1) You believe Rilling that he has prepared his army to the battle as best as he could. The soldiers are full of energy; their weapons are sharp and tuned. They will blow any enemy or false prophet to his bones.

(2) Even before hearing his rendition, I knew that Richter is going to excel in this movement, because this type of movement suits very well his general approach. Here he is even better than Rilling is, because he has Rilling’s good virtues. But to them he also adds a sweeping flow, which will throw out of the way any potential enemy.

(3) Harnoncourt’s rendition reminds me a picture of battle in an old English movie, in which the soldiers step ahead in one line. They put one leg forward simultaneously, then the second leg joins it and stops. Movement, stop, movement, stop, etc. No one can win a war with such ridiculous movements.

(4) Leusink sends to the battle vivid, alert and lightweight legion. They are not very organized, but they seem to have the energy, which will give them the power and the courage to fight vigorously.

Rating – Richter (2), Rilling (1), Leusink (4), Harnoncourt (3)

Mvt. 3 - Aria for Bass

Robertson wrote:
“Bach seizes the imagery to depict a spiritual fight at sea as vividly as the battle on land in Mvt.1. The foe plan to sink ‘Christ’s little ship’. Bach paints the surge and thunder of the waves, also giving long pictorial phrases to the soloist on ‘sea-waves’.”
Young wrote:
“Accompanied by unison violins, the bass depicts a storm at sea in which the enemy, metaphorically the waves, seeks to chatter Christ’s little ship. Bach’s ability to paint a realistic picture in sound is well demonstrated in this number.“

(1) Schöne sounds here as the right man for the job. He is courageous, he is strong and he knows what to do in order to overcome the threatening waves.

(2) DFD's voice (with Richter) has less volume than Schöne has. One might think that he is less suitable to this kind of role. But the clever DFD knows exactly how to overcome his own limitations and compensates by impressive expression. Like a soldier (or commander?) who seems apparently less powerful, but convince you with his charisma and native authority that he can win the battle.

(3) Robert Holl (with Harnoncourt) has an impressive and authoritative (and warm) voice. He can overcome any obstacle. No wave frightens him. Especially with the kind of light and half-broken waves as illustrated by Harnoncourt.

(4) Surprisingly, Leusink's rendition of this aria reminds me that of Harnoncourt. Ramselaar puts less volume and energy into his singing and consequently sounds less convincing than Holl is. On second thought and the last round of listening, the movements of the waves and the singing of Ramselaar in this rendition sound really tired.

Rating – Schöne/Rilling (1) = Richter/Fischer-Dieskau (2), Holl/Harnoncourt (3), Leusink/Ramselaar (4)

Conclusion

See above.

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 9, 2001):
With the exception of an extensive quotation from Eric Chafe's book on "Tonal Allegory in J.S.Bach," I will dispense with the usual chronological approach citing numerous sources from the past and present, in order to try something different.

Background:

See: Cantata BWV 178 - Provenance

Commentary on each movement

See: Cantata BWV 178 - Commentary

Review of the Recordings

This week I have listened to the following recordings: Rilling (1972,1982), Richter (1975-77), Harnoncourt (1988), and Leusink (1999)

Mvt. 1 Choral (Chorus)

As a test of accuracy on the conductor's part in reading the score [not that accuaracy is the only thing that is important in a performance, but it is to me an indicator of a respectful attitude toward Bach's intentions that comes from examining the score carefully and making certain that his indications are observed carefully,] I have chosen measure 82 (for those of you without the score, you can spot this by listening carefully to the word, "ist," at the end of the phrase, "wo er Israel Schutz nicht ist." On this last word, which begins in measure 80, two measures earlier than the point in question, the cantus firmus (soprano and corno (horn)) has a whole note tied to another whole note (81), which in turn is tied to a final quarter note in measure 82 the first note in that measure (on the normally accented beat of that measure.) While the cantus firmus is holding this note, the other voices repeat "wo er Israel Schutz nicht ist" on eighth notes, and their final note at the beginning of 82 is an eighth note, not a quarter as in the cantus firmus. You should be able to hear the sopranos and horn continue singing their quarter note longer than the other voices which have only an eighth note.

Interpretations vary, as they should if we want to understand how Bach tried to make twords come to life musically. I perceive a range between one extreme that is almost legato despite the dotted rhythms and the other which exaggerates the rhythms and punctuates the musical line with heavy accents in order to realistically portray the 'raging of the enemy.' The former reminds me more of Dürer's "Ritter, Tod, und Teufel," emphasizing more the staunch resoluteness of a Christian in the face of these enemies, while the latter is more of a realistic opera production where the sound effects are created by the chorus and ensemble, and not back stage where you would normally expect them to be.

Another place to listen for is the remarkable unison (octaves) on the word, 'hält' ('hold'.) Is everyone singing in tune?

(1) Rilling: When the choir sings "wenn unsre Feinde toben," the soprano line becomes less clear than it should be because the vibrato here creates a 'gurgly' sound. Similar passages occur later on in this mvt. and detract from what should be a presentation of firm resolve and endurance that is expressed best of all in a firmly clear cantus firmus that does not waver. Rilling has the tenor stand out a bit more on the words, "Feinde toben" and "Feinde List," a nice touch to express the words properly, a factor that Bach accounted for by having the tenor voice suddenly reaching for the notes in the high part of its range. The tempo, perhaps somewhat slow when compared with the other recordings, moves inexorably toward the conclusion. The presentation is stately, and yet quite energetic, even at this slower tempo. The enemy may rage, but it does not get the upperhand at any time. Dürer's image comes to mind. The knight is not charging violently into battle; he recognizes the enemies as the horse moves firmly forward. Rilling passes the measure 82 and unison tests.

(2) Richter: On the positive side: the cantus firmus in the soprano is loud and clear thereby lending a note of affirmation that is needs when singing a chorale such as this. This version, a bit faster than Rilling's, is exciting in its own way despite the fact that orchestral sound is generally smoother, more legato, notwithstanding the dotted rhythms. Richter passes the measure 82 test. In a general sense, this version is successful in conveying the conviction that carries the believer through the difficult conditions created by the 'raging enemies,' but underneath the surface lurk not only the 'raging enemies,' but also some rather serious performance problems: Let's begin with the shrill organ sound, the only purpose of which is to try to help the choir members stay together and sing at the correct pitch. Whenever I hear the organ duplicating the vocal parts and using mixture stops, I have the feeling that the choir did not have sufficient rehearsal time. The final proof of an ill-prepared performance is in the instrumental ensemble which also has its share of difficulties. Richter begins 'rushing' (attempting to increase the tempo) at the end of the first choral phrase. This insecurity caused either by the instrumentalists and vocalists dragging the tempo or by the conductor not establishing a firm tempo that he can maintain without slowing down only to have to accelerate again to make up for the dragging tempo. The result of all of this is that there are sections where the choir or the orchestra are not singing and playing together. A general sloppiness in attacking the correct note at the correct time ensues. The conductor's task becomes more difficult as he attempts to 'reign them in.' The dotted rhythm which predominates in this mvt. is sloppily executed. Listen to the violins when they have the pattern of parallel thirds moving downward. It is noticeable that they are not playing together. The same occurs with the voices when they have running 16th notes. The intonation between the organ and the choir is off, that is, the organ will sound flat compared to the voices. This means the unison on ''hält'' will also not be in tune. Balance: there are times when the orchestral parts (not the bc) can not be heard behind the voices, and this is by no means a 'skeleton' orchestra with only one instrument to a part. This gives you an idea of how large the choir must be. Add to this a church (or is it a theater) organ duplicating the vocal parts, then it is no small wonder that this will happen. Ah, for the transparency of a HIP recording, where all parts can be more easily heard!

(3) Harnoncourt: This version and Leusink's are a semitone lower. Harnoncourt's idea seems to be to create a Baroque sounding operatic performance which has as its main purpose to effectively illustrate musically the 'raging enemies' and not to consider the importance of the undaunted, but yet somewhat concerned, believer who stands firmly amidst all the raging turmoil. What one hears here is the onslaught of the menacing enemy being met by God's forces and the ensuing battle with the 'chop chop' of flying swords and the heads rolling on the ground. Having a purpose and trying to execute this prevailing idea successfully are two distinct tasks, in the latter of which Harnoncourt fails mainly because in pursuing his goal he asks too much of the musicians who are 'unable to deliver the goods.' This begins in the instrumental introduction where the players are having serious problems with the dotted rhythms. The bc is very thumpy as a result of strong accentuation and staccato delivery. The oboes (here we are close to end of the almost two decade period that it took to record the complete set of cantatas) still have not learned how to play their instruments properly. I do not think that Bach would have allowed the oboes to play with such wailing tones that are obviously out of tune at times. The choir here is being taxed beyond its limits, and pushed beyond its capacity to deliver this great music in a musically listenable form. On the word "Feinde" they are literally shouting, not singing the words. On the dotted rhythms, ("wenn unsre" and "im Himmel hoch,") the lower three voices do not create a musically definable pitch. Overall the sound of the orchestra and choir is rather crude and cheap. If there is one thing that I hear being expressed, it is anger. Perhaps this should be the anger of the raging enemy, but I also think that there is the anger of some frustrated musicians who feel that they are being used [pun intended] to create sounds that are anything but truly musical. On the unison test Harnoncourt did well. It helps to have the strong soprano and alto boy's voices who are trained to sing without vibrato, for the most part. The other test at measure 82 was failed, or perhaps very muddy and unclear, since one never knows with Harnoncourt what his note values are in performance and what is happening at the end of a phrase in the unaccented position.

(4) Leusink: This is more of a lightweight performance with the instrumental ensemble (the exception of the usual bumpy bass that is too loud must be considered) performing quite well musically. Strange that the cantus firmus of a boy's choir should be so weak even when fortified with the horn, in particular this happens when the others are 'raging' (singing the word, "toben.") The unison on "hält" is cleaner than in the other versions, but the test in measure 82 was missed entirely. What can one expect when the cantatas are recorded in such a short time?

Mvt. 2 Recitative + Chorale (alto)

(4) Leusink: Buwalda has a thin reedy voice which is well suited for singing the simple lines of the choral, but he is unable to get through the recitative without yodeling. There is not much in the way of expression to be heard.

(3) Harnoncourt: Iconomou has had some excellent performances in this series, but here the voice has become insecure as he has considerable trouble trying to control his vibrato. This happens particularly in the higher range of his voice.

(2) Richter: Hamari - excellent.

(1) Rilling: Here the chorale is sung by the alto section and Schreckenbach only gets to sing the recitative sections, which she succeeds in performing extremely well.

Mvt. 3 Aria (bass)

(1) Rilling: Schöne has a full voice that definitely commands respect. Rilling takes this mvt. at a very comfortable tempo (not too fast.)

(2) Richter: Fischer-Dieskau has to keep up with this faster tempo that Richter has established. At times there is the feeling of being rushed, a feeling that becomes stronger when the melismas are forced to be sung so quickly. Fischer-Dieskau starts the aria with his usual excellence (singing technique, sound projection, expression of the words,) but when he gets to the words, "raset" and "zerscheitern" he goes overboard (pun intended) with his dramatics. This is one of the few aspects of Fischer-Dieskau's singing style that I do not like. He sounds as if he is shouting and his voice 'barks.' In his defense, I do think that Richter's faster tempo and a very heavy, loud basso continuo helped to create a difficult singing situation for Fischer-Dieskau. There are limits to every human voice, and when this voice is pushed too hard or too far, the results are ugly, musically speaking.

(3) Harnoncourt: Holl may also be overproducing here with the organ being much to loud. His voice sounds raspy at times, and when he sings the melismas some of the sounds emanating from his throat are undefinable from the standpoint of notes/pitch.

(4) Leusink: This version is slower, but a very thick, heavy bass remains. No dynamic changes are observed which makes it even more difficult for Ramselaar, whose voice is probably the weakest in this group, having less volume than the others, particularly in the lower range. He makes a few attempts to get some expression in his voice.

Mvt. 4 Choral & 6 Aria (Tenor)

(4) Leusink: (4) The oboi d'amore are played very well here and there is a good balance. Leusink even manages to keep the basso continuo light so that it does not obscure the voice. Schoch sings the chorale with a clear voice that penetrates sufficiently to be heard in a church setting. He is well-suited for singing chorales of this type. (6) Now the bc is too heavy and thick. Also the tempo is much too fast. Poor Schoch has to hurry through all the words, as they become secondary to keeping up with Leusink's tempo. The melismas are too fast, and should have been an indication to Leusink to restrain the tempo.

(3) Harnoncourt: (4) The bc never plays piano as indicated. This does not leave Equiluz any choice but to overexert his voice and produce a fast vibrato. Despite his efforts, the bc still manages to cover his voice at times. (6) Harnoncourt's slightly slower tempo is a relief and his efforts to express angularity with emphasis on the accents and syncopation are entirely appropriate here, but why does he have to have such thick and heavy bass instruments? This is already a difficult aria for Equiluz to sing, the type of aria that requires a number of sudden thrusts at the top of his voice ("Schweig'"), but Harnoncourt makes it even more difficult for Equiluz. Poor Equiluz is forced to bark out the commands ("Schweig'") which do not sound musical enough here (too much expression at the expense of the music.) He uses too much vibrato and in the low range he has hardly any volume left. The only part that is reasonably good (better than Schoch's) is the middle section where Bach reduces the instrumental ensemble termporarily.

(2) Richter: (4) The tempo is fast, but Schreier does very well here nevertheless. (6) This tempo is slower yet than the others, but it is a good tempo in that it allows Schreier more opportunity for expressing the words. All the words are given meaning as Schreier has a chance to form the words and the present them to the listener. This performance is not as angular as the others.

(1) Rilling: (4) Here is Equiluz singing the same mvts. 16 years earlier. The tempo is slow. Here Equiluz has a stronger voice, but it is not being used to its best advantage in singing the straight, long notes of a chorale, Since the instruments do not cut back in volume as they should, he needs to overproduce somewhat to the detriment of his voice. Equiluz does better when he has words that allow him to express himself more vocally. (6) This is better than the earlier Harnoncourt version, but Equiluz is still pushing his voice too much at times. His expression is better here than in the earlier version. Equiluz is not as well suited for performing this type of aria (with the exception of the middle section) containing short, strongly accented notes and sudden large interval leaps produced at full volume.

Mvt. 5 Choral et Recitativo

(1) Rilling: The bc is overdone, Rilling has taken this a bit too far and the attempt at expression in the voices of the choir also fails because the sopranos' vibratos become even more noticeable and the tenors are straining to reach the notes. The soloists in the recitative: alto (Schreckenbach) passable; tenor (Baldin) impossible; bass (Schöne) good.

(2) Richter: This version is lighter and faster. The organ is 'out-of-tune' or I suppose you could say the the choir is going 'sharp.' This interpretation seems to work, however the recitative passages with choir seem questionable.

(3) Harnoncourt: If you want to hear what Mattheson is talking about when he refers to the "Schreihälse" ("those who scream instead of really trying to sing,") you have an example of this here. Here the dramatics are overdone to such a degree that it is no longer convincing, it is, on the contrary, rather disgusting. The basso continuo is, however, exciting because it is well done. This is one area that Harnoncourt usually understands because he has had the necessary experience, which is not the case with choral singing, however.

(4) Leusink: This version is not as exciting as Harnoncourt's, but it is musically clearer. Unfortunately Leusink has problems with intonation and balance: the sopranos are 'sharp,' the yodelers appear at times, and suddenly certain notes are louder than others because the voices are not under control.

Mvt. 7 Choral

(4) Leusink: Aside from the usual problem of foreshortening the values of certain fermatas, and besides the unusual special accent on "Feinde" which seems out of place here, the main problem is with German diction. The choir should not be dropping the second syllable of a word such as "Erden" and transforming it into a schwa.

(3) Harnoncourt: Because of his heavy accent on the words, "Gedanken" and "wanken," there is an extreme reduction of volume at the end of a phrase. While Harnoncourt may think he is adding strength to the musical line, it has just the opposite effect: it indicates a lack of commitment or strength to be able to hold on (remember "hält" in Mvt. 1?) By singing "Die Welt laß immer murren" at a louder volume level than the final line "da du wirst selber trösten," Harnoncourt is giving the victory to the enemy, instead of emphasizing the strength that we now receive from God. This performance is somewhat better than Leusink's because the voices are clear and in balance.

(2) Richter: Disregarding the shrill organ that Richter uses to duplicate the choral lines, and disregarding the typical Richter fermatas which are too long, we have here a version sung with conviction and a solid belief in the words (no feeble attempts at dramatic effects here.) This feeling is conveyed to the listener, who then is moved to want to join in with this 'congregation.'

(1) Rilling: This version is slower with shorter fermatas, but it is also a very solid performance.

Summary

Pick and choose from a variety of performances.

Marie Jensen wrote (August 11, 2001):
Cantata BWV 178 "Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält" and BWV 114 "Ach lieben Christen seid getrost" ar based on the same both strong and melancholic tune . I like BWV 114 better. It has been one of my favourites for many years, and seems more a whole, but when Richters Bach-choir breaks through the fences in enthusiastic Lutheran* power, I cannot resist , but walk behind them in my imagination through the streets demonstrating against the false prophets and the devil. They do more times here.

Mvt. 3 the bass aria "Gleichwie die wilden Meereswellen" of course is inspired by the sea. I cannot help comparing with a Flute Concerto by Vivaldi "La Tempesta di Mare" RV 433. Not that I want to find a winner, but did Bach ever see the sea? Bach was in Lübeck when he visited Buxtehude. It is a small cosy harbour at the river Trave some kilometers from its mouth in The Baltic Sea, and he had more times been to Hamburg situated at the Elb, a much broader river, but the sea.. not really. Vivaldi’s Venezia is situated in a big and sometimes windy lagoon not far away from the Adriatic. Perhaps Bach went the last kilometers to see the sea, but I believe he was more interested in organs .

Aryeh would like list members to compare how Bach treats similar objects in different cantatas. I am not competent, but I am just wondering how Bach musically describes things he never had seen. fex: camels, perhaps oceans, the river Jordan, and a lamb in tiger claws... what an imagination!

Richter’s version (2) is best. The waves are wild. Leusink’s (4) orchestra and Ramselaar are swaying from side to side on more gentle waters.

* I just wonder. Richter’s choir (2) is from München in the catholic part of Germany. To me nothing sounds more confirmed Lutheran . Even "The Choir of The Red Army" cannot beat it in enthusiasm. Are Richter’s and BTW Rilling’s choirs (1) from Southern Germany (Stuttgart) catholic or protestant institutions?

Eitan Loew wrote (August 18, 2001):
Sorry for reacting a little late, but I received the Cantata BWV 178 that I had ordered on-line only this week. I have read the mails in reference only after listening to it.

< Marie Jensen wrote: I am not competent , but I am just wondering how Bach musically describes things he never had seen. fex: camels, perhaps oceans, the river Jordan, and a lamb in tiger claws... what an imagination! >
A great artist does not have necessarily to describe scenes that he had visualized personally, thus not resemble reality, yet it may be of great value. Living where most of the scenes of the bible happened, I can assure you that the landscapes depicted in the great paintings created over the centuries have nothing to do, whatsoever, with the landscapes of this country. However, it does not undermine these works a bit! I guess that the same goes for music.

< * I just wonder. Richter’s choir is from München in the catholic part of Germany. To me nothing sounds more confirmed Lutheran . Even "The Choir of The Red Army" cannot beat it in enthusiasm. Are Richter’s and BTW Rilling’s choirs from Southern Germany ( Stuttgart) catholic or protestant institutions? >
Does it matter? Does one have to be of the same faith in order to perform a piece in the best way?

For continuation of this discussion, which exceeds the scope of Cantata BWV 178, see: Bach and Religion - Part 2 [General Topics].

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 178: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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