Aryeh Oron wrote (August 29, 2001):
This is the week of Cantata BWV 179 according to Peter Bloemendaal, the fourth one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. Bach may have think highly about this cantata, because he re-used its chorus and arias in his short masses. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) found its way to the Kyrie of the Mass in G major BWV 236; the tenor aria (Mvt. 3) was also used in the same Mass as Quoniam to solus sanctus; the soprano aria (Mvt. 5) found a place as Qui tollis peccata mundi in the Mass in A major BWV 234. If Bach regarded this cantata so highly, who are we to argue with him? I shall not do hereinafter a comparison of the original movements of the cantata to their according adaptations in the masses, due to lack of time. Furthermore, we have to keep something for future discussions, after the first round of the weekly cantata discussions is over, about 27 months from now. Don’t we? The background preceding the review of the recordings is taken once again from Alec Robertson book ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972).
I am aware of 8 recordings of this cantata. The cantata is included, of course, in the 3 complete cantata cycles - H&L, Rilling and Leusink. It has already been recorded in the two cycles that are still on their way - Koopman and Suzuki. It is also included in two partial cycles - one from the past - Richter, and one from last year - Gardiner. For good measure we have also a recording from the first generation of recorded cantatas - Ramin. All these recordings are easily available, and I believe that most of the members in the BCML have at least one of them. See: Cantata BWV 179 - Recordings.
(1) Günther Ramin (1950)
(2) Helmuth Rilling (1974+1982)
(3) Karl Richter (1976-1977)
(4) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1988)
(5) Ton Koopman (1997)
(6) Masaaki Suzuki (1999)
(7) Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
(8) John Eliot Gardiner (2000)
Review of the recordings
Mvt. 1: Chorus
SATB. Violin 1 with Sopranos; Violin 2 with Altos; Viola with Tenors; continuo.
“The text is taken from Ecclesiasticus 1: 28-29, which includes the line ‘Be not hypocrite in men’s sight and keep a watch over your lips’.
The basses have rather lengthy subject of this fugal chorus and the tenors invert it, and the same pattern is followed by sopranos and altos. ‘False’ (heart) is given chromatically descending phrase in all parts, which tells powerfully in the final stretto. The effect of the movement is of a stern but controlled denunciation.”
(1) Ramin’s rendition of the opening is so slow, that under his baton this movement sounds as if it is coming from another world. Although the playing and the singing are far from being satisfactory, it still has a certain kind of dignity and power. When you listen to it you have to forget about the rest. Otherwise, it might be intolerable to some ears. We have also to remember that Ramin was the first to record this cantata, and no parameter for comparison was at his disposal when he made it.
(2) Rilling’s performance is uncompromised, serious and meticulous, as it should be regarding the intention of the movement. Yet the warmth and the richness, which usually characterise Rilling’s recordings, are evident also here, and it makes the message easier to digest. Furthermore, the entry of each voice is so accurate and so natural. It seems that when Rilling made this recording, he had similar image of this movement to that of Robertson.
(3) Richter has always seemed to me as a man who approached his work seriously, and seriousness is was the opening chorus is calling for. But not only the approach is right. All the vocal lines are splendidly clear, despite the size of the choir. I even feel a certain kind of enthusiasm in the singing, which keeps the movement from extra dryness.
(4) Harnoncourt’s choir singing is not coherent and the overall impression of this rendition is that it is not blanched and does not lead anywhere. I simply do not understand what did Harnoncourt want to achieve here.
(5) Although Koopman is almost as fast as Harnoncourt his rendition is a major improvement. The blending between the three vocal lines is perfect, and they are very easy to follow. Koopman is also using changes in the volume to achieve a greater effect.
(6) Suzuki’s rendition reminds me very mind that of Koopman, but there are distinct differences. It has more vigour and less charm, and I find it more suitable to the demands of this movement.
(7) Hearing Leusink immediately after Koopman and Suzuki and he sounds lightweight in the comparison – less polished, less prepared and less thoughtful. The sopranos are almost screaming, and the vocal lines are less clear. You can hear nothing of the ‘stern but controlled denunciation’ in this rendition.
(8) And here comes Gardiner with his usual trademarks – jumpy and dancing. But it works! The vocal lines are rarely heard with such clarity in other renditions, and I find his approach as legitimate to convey the message. At least it is interesting, because it is definitely different.
Level 1 – Rilling (2), Suzuki (6)
Level 2 – Richter (3), Koopman (5), Ramin (1), Gardiner (8)
Level 3 – Harnoncourt (4), Leusink (7)
Mvt. 3: Aria for Tenor
Tenor. 2 oboes with violin 1; violin 2, viola, continuo
“The ’apples’ may look attractive but are filled with filth. This aria puts into high relief the pitiable state of him who dares to stand up to God.”
(1) Hans-Joachim Rotzsch is familiar to us from his recordings as Thomaskantor done mostly during the 1970’s. His singing with Ramin is very tasteful, and the slow pace allows him to give the right treatment to every word. It is slow indeed but convincing. The accompaniment he is getting from Ramin is somewhat heavy.
(2) Equiluz is at his best with Rilling – expressive, thoughtful and concerned. In this rendition you can easily identify the accompaniment with the attractive apples, and the singer with the prophet who warns the believers.
(3) Schreier is on the same par with Equiluz. The accompaniment of Richter is rich and vivid, but it lacks the charm needed to make the apples more tempting.
(4) With Harnoncourt we are meeting Equiluz again. Although his voice has not changed much during the course of 14 years, he is forced here to sing relatively fast and not much room is left for him to reach the level of expression which he achieved with Rilling. The accompaniment he gets from Harnoncourt is also less sensitive than that of Rilling - more pushing than accompanying.
(5) Paul Agnew’s voice (with Koopman) is nice and one can hear that he is doing his best, but he does not achieve the level of expressiveness to which Equiluz (with Rilling) and Schreier are gettat. The apples are attractive indeed.
(6) Makoto Sakurada is marvellous, In terms of beauty of tone and level of expression he has nothing to be ashamed of, even when he is compared to Equiluz (Rilling) and Schreier. His accompaniment leaves also nothing to be desired. This is the kind of rendition to which you want to listen over and over again.
(7) Knut Schoch is tolerable but hearing him after most of the previous tenor singers, and it seems that he fails to convey the main message of this aria. You are not warned by him. You remain indifferent.
(8)Mark Padmore is not at his best with Gardiner. There is a kind of shiver in his singing which I find disturbing. The accompaniment is precise but lacks charm.
Level 1 - Equiluz (Rilling) (2), Schreier (3), Sakurada (6)
Level 2 – Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (1), Agnew (5)
Level 3 – Equiluz (Harnoncourt) (4), Schoch (7), Padmore (8)
Mvt. 5: Aria for Soprano
Soprano. 2 oboes da caccia, continuo
“The warning at the end of the recitative is heeded in this beautiful aria by a penitent sinner whose abasement is touchingly conveyed by the continually down-curving phrases for the oboe. Later in the aria at ’help me, Jesus, Lamb of God, I sink in deep mire’, the soprano descends from A flat above the stave to B natural below it.”
(1) Elisabeth Meinel-Asbahr is definitely a soprano from the old school – heavy vibrato and operatic expression. But to my ears, these are not limitations. She is using her resources – full and rich voice and sensitive expression - to produce a thrilling rendition. But I have to admit that if you want to enjoy it, you better erase from your memory any reminiscences of the other recordings. She is getting a surprisingly sensitive support from Ramin.
(2) The bitter-sweet introduction of the oboes in Rilling’s rendition set the mood to the wonderful singing of Arleen Augér. She conveys the mixed feelings of the sinner so convincingly, and passes the technical challenges so effortlessly, that you are left speechless. When her voice is dropping from high to low, your heart is falling with her.
(3) I have never been one of Edith Mathis’ admirers, although from time to time she succeeds to surprise me. She is always singing the right notes, but she almost never put the right amount of expressiveness into her singing. This aria is such an example. Hearing her head to head with Augér and the differences are revealed immediately, even to inexperienced ear. She has also some technical difficulties here, because in the higher notes her voice becomes somewhat unpleasant.
(4) Harnoncourt’s boy soprano has a nice voice when he has to sing in his middle register, but when he is faced with technical obstacles, he is getting lost, and in the high notes he is simply helpless. In terms of expression he has nothing to offer.
(5) Ruth Ziesak (with Koopman) has a pleasant voice, but she is not using its fullness, and consequently her interpretation sounds too delicate, and somewhat superficial. Not all the feelings are exposed in this rendition. However, the accompaniment is charming.
(6) Miah Persson has a magical voice, a kind of voice that causes you to listen. Although I get the impression that it has potential for further development, she manages to put more expression into her singing than Ziesak does. The way Suzuki supports her should be learnt by other conductors.
(7) Ruth Holton is the best part of Leusink’s rendition. She is aware of what she is singing. You can hear her abasement and her crying for help. And technically she has no problems, as far as I can hear.
(8) Magdalena Kožená (with Gardiner) is developing into a fine soprano Bach singer. Regarding beauty of tone she is attractive; regarding technical control, she can do almost whatever she wants; and regarding expressiveness she does not shy way of showing her feelings. All these virtues are evident here. Gardiner proves himself to be a sensitive accompanist.
Level 1 – Augér (2), Persson (6), Kožená (8)
Level 2 – Ziesak (5), Elisabeth Meinel-Asbahr (1), Holton (7)
Level 3 – Mathis (3)
No level – Boy Soprano (4)
I find Rilling’s (2) and Suzuki’s (6) as the most satisfying renditions.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Rev. Robert A. Lawson wrote (August 30, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thank you so much for your summary. I agree with you about Arleen Augér (2). Her singing sends chills up one's spine. I was curious however, about your discussion of Koopman's soprano (5). The booklet included with my copy lists Caroline Stam as the soprano and not Ruth Ziesak.
Aryeh Oron wrote (August 30, 2001):
[To Rev. Robert A. Lawson] Thanks for your kind words.
(5) Following your remark, I have checked it again. Cantata BWV 179 is included in Volume 6 of the Complete Cantatas conducted by Ton Koopman. The booklet I have lists Ruth Ziesak as the only soprano singer in this 3-CD volume.
Rev. Robert A. Lawson wrote (August 31, 2001):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks for your reply. I see now where you found that information (p. 3), I was looking on page 12.
Marie Jensen wrote (August 30, 2001):
BWV 179 is a great cantata based on the well known story about the pharisee and the publican. I hear it as a kind of revivalist service: Serious warnings against hypocrisy (The first four movements) followed by a prayer for mercy (the fifth movement - the soprano aria).
(6) I prefer The Suzuki version. What a peptalk tenor Sakurada gives us! It is built up gradually in the recitativo, and in the following aria it is like a cleansing of a temple - a holy broom of wrath sweeping away all the hypocrits. The bass Kooij continues in the same style.
(7) In Leusink’s version Schoch sounds more sorrowful than angry, perhaps caused by a slower pace.
I like both sopranos Persson (Suzuki ) and Holton (Leusink). The aria (Liebster Gott Erbarme Dich) is a true Bach hit and reused in the A major Mass BWV 234. "Qui tollis peccata Mundi", a text not far from the aria here.
It is not surprising either that the opening chorus "Siehe zu dass deine Gottesfurcht nich Heuchelei sei" can become a "Kyrie Eleison" in BWV 236, the G Major Mass .
But what is really surprising is that the tenor aria "Falsche Heuchler" is used again in the same mass to the text "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" where Jesus is praised for for is divinity. We are certainly far from Sodoms Apfel. Slowing the aria down and substituting violin with oboe it changes completely character. Gone are the passionate semiquavers. Now they unfold with dignity and beauty.The Flämig/ Schreier version is the voices even walk along with educational clarity. One can enjoy every phrase and harmony.
Håkan Lindberg wrote (August 30, 2001):
[To Marie Jensen] I read about the cantata BWV 179, I wounder when it was written.
Marie Jensen wrote (August 31, 2001):
[To Håkan Lindberg] 1723
Thomas Braatz wrote (August 31, 2001):
This past week I have listened to Ramin (1950) (1), Rilling (1974 except 1982 for Augér's aria) (2), Richter (1976-77) (3), Harnoncourt (1988) (4), Koopman (1997) (5), Suzuki (1999) (6), and Leusink (1999) (7).
What to listen for:
See: Cantata BWV 179 - Commentary
This time I will not break out the individual mvts. but rather attempt to view each cantata recording as a whole and refer to specific soloists as they appear. (If I miss a soloist along the way, it simply means that the singer was average without unusually bad or good characteristics. 'Average' does not mean bad!)
It is important to consider the conditions under which Ramin recorded these cantatas. These are radio broadcasts (I assume they were transmitted directly from the church where they were recorded - the only recording taking place at the other end (wire or possibly tape recording using a rather primitive microphone in front of the radio at someone's home). The first major hurdle to overcome here is the limited frequency range with a possible intrusion of another radio station - once I thought I heard an extraneous German word that did not belong there, but who knows, perhaps it was Ramin himself! According to the accompanying booklet, the orchestra parts were seldom rehearsed beforehand. The performance was in reality the initial dress rehearsal that had to serve as its broadcast performance as well. There are many rough edges, particularly in the strings (precision in playing together, intonation, etc.) Choir: It is truly amazing, despite all the difficulties just cited, that the voices can be clearly heard. I could hear the clear delineation of all the fugal entries. I was also surprised by one boy soprano who had an evident vibrato (the last time "Gott" is sung) since I thought that good boys' choirs strove for a clear, unified sound that would be destroyed by wobbly sopranos. The tempo of the 1st mvt. is the extreme on the slow side of all the recordings, but it does have a character all of its own. Listening with an open ear will allow you to hear a note of seriousness lacking in all the other performances. It is interesting to hear Rotzsch, who gives the recitative and aria an acceptable presentation. Meinel-Asbahr, using a full voice unlike many of the other so-called Bach soprano voices currently in vogue today, has good intonation, but uses too much vibrato in the high range where she begins to sound like a 'worn-out' operetta singer. In the high range she forces the voice too much and it becomes unpleasantly strident, but in the middle range she is very good. The final chorale (Mvt. 6) has its rough edges: the attacks are sloppy, and the pronunciation of consonants is not always together.
Mvt. 1 and Chorale (Mvt. 6) are both very good. My continuing complaints with the choir have to do with the sopranos who have one or two individuals with vibratos that disturb the clear top line of music that I expect to hear. In this recording the bass voice is occasionally weak, even with the support of the bc! There is no doubt that Equiluz is better here than 14 years later with Harnoncourt. This particular type of aria is not one that demonstrates Equiluz' best qualities, that are more apparent in the less agitated, lyrical arias. Here he has to force his voice too much of the time in order to deliver an emphatic message. Augér is for me without a doubt the best soprano soloist in the Rilling series and with her full voice treatment of an aria, definitely 'outshines' many of the new, half-voiced 'wanabes' (translate: 'want-to-be' but are still vocally undeveloped with insufficient experience in singing with a full voice.) Augér stands firmly behind the words that she projects. There is none of the this child-like timidity in just cautiously tapping the notes as if afraid to sing out, lest an ugly sound should be produced. Rilling takes this soprano aria at a reasonably slow pace, but fails to reduce the oboi da caccia to a 'piano' when the voice enters. Bach wanted this, but perhaps someone out there can tell me why almost all the recorded versions have trouble with this. Is it an inherent failing of modern oboists that they are able to reduce their volume from 'forte' to 'piano' even though Bach, obviously thought this was 'doable' (Jane Newble's Bach quote comes to mind: "es muß alles möglich zu machen seyn?") Augér's Achilles' heel is in a very small range of notes around the 'G' (the note sitting on the top line of the treble clef.) A good voice can easily have some 'weak' spots. This is a very individual type of thing and usually requires the artist to attempt to 'work around' the deficiency as much as possible by 'evening out' the irregularities that exist. Augér has trouble controlling the harsh, strained quality of these few notes. Either she sings them very softly (a very beautiful sound that is) or she goes immediately into the loud, strident quality revealing the extra effort she expends in trying to 'create' the note. There is almost nothing in between these two extremes. In this aria she is faced with singing about the 'rottenness and decay in 'her' bones' on these high notes, and it sounds extremely realistic and convincing as she reveals her own pain. It is entirely believable. But only a few measures later a similar phrase reaching for this 'G' occurs on the words which express her sincere and heartfelt request to Jesus to help her. Now reality breaks in upon the beautiful mystery of her voice. The spell that she had been casting is broken. There is a disparity between the words and the manner in which she sings these notes.
Richter takes Mvt. 1 very fast, almost too fast for my taste (but 'you ain't heard nothin yet' until you hear the later recordings!) Richter's infernal organ registration! Is this necessary when Bach has all the instruments (except for a few instances in the bc) playing colla parte. It does not make sense to me. In any case, Mattheson ridiculed this practice: When playing colla parte neither the instruments nor the organ should be heard over the voices of the choir. Schreier's versions of the recitative and aria are of the highest caliber. Richter treats all the quarter notes in the bass a la Harnoncourt, reducing their length slightly by detaching each note from the one before and after. Who knows? Perhaps this is where Harnoncourt with all his other 'Romantic' penchants that I have pointed out in the past first observed what would become one of the major linchpins of the Harnoncourt Doctrine. Mathis has too much vibrato that often has a distracting wobble, but notice how (seemingly) effortlessly she sings the same notes that Augér had some difficulty with.
Well, what is it that Harnoncourt can come up with in a cantata recorded almost at the end of the long 20 year cycle? One would expect that these last recordings would demonstrate an improvement over the initial performances almost 20 years earlier. At this point I am reminded of a recent comment by Charles: "In this regard, I am reminded of Johnny Rotten's explanation for the unique sound of his infamous Punk Rock band, namely that none of them could play their instruments properly." It really appears to me that Harnoncourt may have recognized the 'unique primitive sound' of his first cantatas, and as a good businessman decided to capitalize on what the listener's were expecting the cantatas to sound like. The opening mvt. has all the earmarks of what the listener was expe: The tempo is fast, there is a 'chop, chop' effect with pauses in the middle!! of words (imagine singing a two-syllable word, but the conductor instructs you let the tone/sound of your die out before singing an '-en' suffix!) Attempts at expression fail to move the listener because they are artificially contrived and forced. The expression does not come from the heart of the singers. All the quarter notes are detached in the bass, not to mention all the other note values foreshortened throughout. Intonation is poor. In the tenor aria (even the great Equiluz with all his abilities and experience is unable to 'save' this aria) you can hear the brutalization of Bach's magnificent music. Not only is the aria played too fast with a 'bumpy' bass that adds little or nothing to the music, you can also hear Alice Harnoncourt 'scratching away' on her violin creating what can only be described as a 'pipsqueak' sound that listeners will turn to when they want to remember what a 'true' baroque violin should sound like. If this were a 1971-2 recording, we might be astounded at this pioneering effort because there was little to compare this with, but in the meantime, correct me if I am wrong about this, the recorded sound of these violins has improved. This is due not only to our more modern recording techniques, but also to the effort of many artists to produce more beautiful, musical sounds from these instruments. Holl sometimes reminds me of Huttenlocher in that Holl's voice takes on an attitude of impiety. He even attempts to speak and not sing certain words. Note the castration of the bc by severely reducing the note values, a 'new' discovery by Harnoncourt, one of his hallmarks, by which you can recognize all the other weak-willed conductors that picked up this technique unquestioningly from Harnoncourt, the 'expert.' Wittek's soprano aria puts me on pins and needles all the way through. His voice, with too much vibrato particularly when forcing in order to reach higher notes, is unpleasant, at times awful to listen to. Does Harnoncourt manage to make the oboi da caccia play 'piano' as they are supposed to according to the score? No. The intonation between all the performers wobbles and becomes insecure. So what has Harnoncourt learned at the end of his career as cantata conductor and performer? Has he learned what a 'simple' chorale should sound like musically? No! Listen to this chorale (Mvt. 6) and you will hear as a voice moves from one note to the next an "Abheben" (a lifting up/a loss of touch with the musical line/a temporary cessation of sound) that is perceived as an accent by the listener because less or no sound follows it. There are also the thrusting sounds that represent accents that also serve to break up the musical line. I can not help but think of Harnoncourt as a reincarnation of Krause, a First Prefect, who was assigned by Rector Ernesti to stand in for Bach. Bach had described Krause with the following choice words, "untüchtig, nicht geschickt, Ungeschicklichkeit, incapacitè" (summarize: "musically unproficient"). Unfortunately, Krause appeared twice in the choir loft, and each time Bach had to chase him away "with a lot of screaming and hollering." I can just imagine Bach using a few, well-chosen expletives, if he heard a Harnoncourt performance of a chorale such as this one.
Mvt. 1 is much too fast. Giving this mvt. a very light touch that may be considered entertaining, but devoid of any seriousness that might be attributed to the text, Koopman rushes through the mvt. not even allowing the choir to sing out when there is a long note. Those who have not heard another good version of this mvt. should realize that they are missing out on the significance of what otherwise, with this type of performance, would only remain one of a myriad Baroque cantatas. I have a serious problem with Agnew's voice. It all seems to be part of an act with nothing of a genuine nature speaking directly to me. Sometimes he 'howls' a bit on long notes. In the aria which is much too fast for this voice, he creates an odd effect when he 'comes off' certain notes, but even at a slower tempo, I do not think I would enjoy listening to this voice. In one place his voice almost disappears in a passage that begins in the low range and gradually moves up to the high range. What was he doing here? Trying to build a crescendo, little realizing that Bach had already built this into the notes by choosing them deliberately for a naturally-created crescendo. By beginning even softer on the low notes, the voice volume (and the text) almost disappear completely. Mertens is wonderful in his recitative, but notice what Koopman, the copy cat, does with the bc - he reduces the length of the notes substantially (Harnoncourt Doctrine). Ziesak is just another one of the half-voices currently flourishing in the Bach Cantata recording scene. She is in the same category with Ruth Holton and Miah Persson. These are voices that are easily overwhelmed by the orchestral forces such as the two oboi da caccia that are unable to play 'piano' or the conductor does not insist on cutting back the volume for these small-volume voices. A serious problem that Ziesak, and others of her type, have to contend with is that it is difficult to put expression into the voice, if the voice is incapable of producing more than one or two levels of volume: the soft is almost inaudible, the middle/normal volume level is already the top level at which these voices can sing. Their main effort is to emulate a boy soprano and to create beautiful sounds as they sing the right notes, but, for the most part, any expression beyond that which Bach already built into the aria is lacking. The final chorale (Mvt. 6) is excellent throughout. What a relief after Harnoncourt's version! Here Koopman's sensitive approach reminds me considerably of Herreweghe's style of performance.
Using a fast tempo for Mvt. 1. Suzuki still manages to delineate the fugal entries clearly, but before the entry has finished its statement (by standing out just a bit more than the other parts) it prematurely recedes. The altos are definitely weak in certain spots. What bothers me most about this mvt. is that it lacks a forceful statement at the conclusion. This fast treatment ends with a 'whimper' on a statement that has an exclamation point at the end of it. Sakurada has a clean delivery, but it pales in comparison with Schreier's version. Again, the oboes have difficulty cutting back for this voice that definitely needs some help. The bass, Kooy, is very expressive. The tempo for the soprano aria is very slow (but appropriate for the text) and Persson has a wonderful voice, but she sings primarily sotto voce (at least it sounds to me like a full voice singing sotto voce.) For this the instruments are too loud, particularly when she is in the low part of her range. Of course, she can not help doing 'a disappearing act' with the words "in tiefen Schlamm," since this is what Bach intended, but her "Liebster Gott" and "Hilf mir, Jesu" are not as convincing since she has trouble creating forceful consonants which the German language demands. The chorale (Mvt. 6) is excellent with every indicated breath mark (caused by commas) observed. All of this occurs without destroying the musical line.
Mvt. 1 exhibits many of the typical rough edges that plague this cantata series. The pronunciation of the German is sloppy and lacks tenseness, the falsettists, when they enter and reach for high notes 'steal the show' and distract from what is really important here. The tempo again is fast, tending to undermine the seriousness of the text. Upon hearing this, the impression that I get is that they gave it a reading without really coming to terms with the text. Some individuals sing with 'deadpan' voices, asif to say, "I'm singing the notes, isn't that enough?" Except for the last few measures when they sing forcefully, everything sounds the same. Schoch has some good expression in the recitative, but the instrumental ensemble in the aria, which is taken at a slower tempo here, hardly gives Schoch a chance. The bass is too heavy and the dynamic markings that Bach put into the score are not observed. Ramselaar does not have a commanding voice and his projection of the words is not convincing. He begins to sound disinguenous when he begins to 'ham up' certain words in the text. Perhaps Holton simply has a very small voice, which when she uses it to imitate the disarming simplicity of a boy soprano, can serve to provide a unique effect for the listener. But it could also be that she controls very carefully the limits of her voice to make it sound more like an instrument, with the added advantage that she can simply tap or touch the notes that she sings. What is lacking, however, is the true heart and soul of the singer being expressed, because the (voice)instrument has its definite limitations. This is what I mean with 'half-voice.' In many instances, unless Bach is very dramatic in the composition of the text, the voice part begins to sound more like a beautiful soprano saxophone and the words become irrelevant. Unless you know what a real singer is capable of producing, you might settle for this rather pleasant substitute. The emotional connection between singer and audience is much greater when the voice has been properly developed and trained, because the vocalist can draw more fully upon the ineffable quality that will arise in such a performance. Mattheson stated: "It arises from an unnoticeable driving power from within. You can notice this effect, and yet not know how it comes about."
Douglas Neslund wrote (September 1, 2001):
[To Thomas Braatz] As a new member of this forum, perhaps I do not have a very good handle on the opinions of the 199 other members, and I must take account of that fact before concluding that everyone here hates Nikolaus Harnoncourt, his Concentus Musicus, and the various soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchor, as well as the choir itself. It seems (again, at brief exposure) that only Kurt Equiluz is spared the disdain heaped upon this musical aggregation.
Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I am reacting to Thomas Braatz's reviews of the various BVW 179 recordings. My own personal tastes are such that I will not spend (or waste) hard-earned money on the likes of Richter and Rilling, since I am at home and satisfied in the company of Herr Harnoncourt et al. Therefore, may I dare to write on behalf of these beleaguered musicians?
I call them musicians, although the implication in this forum may be otherwise, based upon my reading of a few comparison-based reviews over the past week or more. Perhaps my words will fall on blind eyes because of my library's lack of equivalent performances by Rilling and Richter, etc., but here they are, for what it is worth.
Thomas wrote, regarding the Ramin example, "I could hear the clear delineation of all the fugal entries. I was also surprised by one boy soprano who had an evident vibrato (the last time "Gott" is sung) since I thought that good boys' choirs strove for a clear, unified sound that would be destroyed by wobbly sopranos." (emphasis added)
May I, as 16-year veteran boychoir director, clinician and student to this day, dare to answer this one? Is Thomas's definition of "good boys' choirs" those who strive for a clear, unified sound that would be destroyed by wobbly sopranos? If that is so, then we have a context into which to place his later comments regarding Master Wittek's solo aria! The answer is that some choirmasters prefer a completely "wobble-free" (I would say "vibrato-less") and therefore "clean" soprano line (and presumably such an alto line as well, although most who prefer this style would more likely than not use countertenors instead of unchanged boys on the alto line). There is a price to be paid for soprano boys who are forced, as they encounter adolescence, to sing a "straight" tone and to suppress their natural voice's increasing involvement in emotional content via the typically small vibrato (hardly a wobble!) of the 12-14 year old soprano boy singer. If such a singer were properly trained in breath support, a wobble would not appear, and I have never heard a wobble in aboy singer in my life that was not artificially induced (as demanded by their choirmaster or teacher), but that is not the issue here.
An aside on the following (writing of Arlene Augér): "But only a few measures later a similar phrase reaching for this 'G' occurs on the words which express her sincere and heartfelt request to Jesus to help her."
This is just one example of many throughout the cantata series where a woman's singing a text takes on an entirely different context and therefore possible meaning in the ears of the congregation, where if a boy soprano were to have sung the same text, as Bach wrote the aria, such emotionally-charged associations would not occur. Some of us are bothered by this added context. In writing this, I infer or imply nothing at all toward Ms. Augér, whose voice I happen to hold in high esteem.
"Richter treats all the quarter notes in the bass a la Harnoncourt, reducing their length slightly by detaching each note from the one before and after. Who knows? Perhaps this is where Harnoncourt with all his other 'Romantic' penchants that I have pointed out in the past first observed what would become one of the major linchpins of the Harnoncourt Doctrine."
Who knows indeed? But I have heard Richter recordings in which his very adult choir "he-he-he's" the text to death, and Harnoncourt does not do that, ever! Speaking from a vocal-choral point of view, there is a world of difference between the two approaches. To imply that Harnoncourt borrowed or learned such a discredited vocal-choral technique from Richter could not be more wrong.
It is important to keep in mind that Harnoncourt's priorites start with the text. German texts present a continuing set of challenges for any singer to surmount, in order to meet the requirement that the congregation should understand very well the text being sung, although in the context of a service, the text will thereafter be amplified by the preacher. In the actual Harnoncourt recording in question, I note that the mixdown (or possibly microphone placement) is occasionally faulty, with the orchestra being too loud, thus obscuring the best efforts of the choral forces, but the tenors are too loud throughout. The uncredited chorus trainer, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, would never have settled for allowing this imbalance to have been recorded, thus my conclusion as to why the imbalances.
"Well, what is it that Harnoncourt can come up with in a cantata recorded almost at the end of the long 20 year cycle? One would expect that these last recordings would demonstrate an improvement over the initial performances almost 20 years earlier."
This is Insult No. 1, to assume that at the outset of the project, Herr Harnoncourt didn't have a clue, and by the end of the 20 years, still didn't.
At this point I am reminded of a recent comment by Charles: "In this regard, I am reminded of Johnny Rotten's explanation for the unique sound of his infamous Punk Rock band, namely that none of them could play their instruments properly."
Insult No. 2. Thomas is defaming by inference some very impressive and highly credentialed musicians in so saying.
"It really appears to me that Harnoncourt may have recognized the 'unique primitive sound' of his first cantatas, and as a good businessman decided to capitalize on what the listener's were expecting the cantatas to sound like."
Insult No. 3. No comment necessary.
"The opening mvt. has all the earmarks of what the listener was expecting: The tempo is fast, there is a 'chop, chop' effect with pauses in the middle!! of words (imagine singing a two-syllable word, but the conductor instructyou let the tone/sound of your die out before singing an '-en' suffix!) Attempts at expression fail to move the listener because they are artificially contrived and forced. The expression does not come from the heart of the singers. All the quarter notes are detached in the bass, not to mention all the other note values foreshortened throughout. Intonation is poor."
Re: fast tempo: wrong. It is appropriately paced. Re: "chop, chop," - wrong. Textual considerations and bringing inner lines to the fore are at work here. Re: "attempts at expression" - wrong again. This is the height of expressionism. Re: "expression not coming from the heart of the singers" - how does Thomas know? Wrong - very, very wrong! Re: detached quarter notes, why is that a problem, when the tempo and contextual considerations imply same? Foreshortening note values? If one, contrary of contemporaneous description doesn't wish for Bach's music to dance, then carry on with legatissississimo (and hence, unintelligible) performance practice. Re: intonation being poor? Absolutely not! Thomas, please tell us exactly which note in which bar is out of tune!! You cannot!
"In the tenor aria (even the great Equiluz with all his abilities and experience is unable to 'save' this aria) you can hear the brutalization of Bach's magnificent music."
Insults again! Maybe Thomas's ear is too long in the sweet syrup of Rilling and his predecessors. The text, again, indicates another approach is necessary for textual clarity and understanding. Keep in mind, if you will, the audience for this cantata is the congregation, not syncophants listening over sound systems. In that regard, the magnificent Equiluz is up to the challenge.
"Not only is the aria played too fast with a 'bumpy' bass that adds little or nothing to the music, you can also hear Alice Harnoncourt 'scratching away' on her violin creating what can only be described as a 'pipsqueak' sound that listeners will turn to when they want to remember what a 'true' baroque violin should sound like. If this were a 1971-2 recording, we might be astounded at this pioneering effort because there was little to compare this with, but in the meantime, correct me if I am wrong about this, the recorded sound of these violins has improved. This is due not only to our more modern recording techniques, but also to the effort of many artists to produce more beautiful, musical sounds from these instruments."
Perhaps Thomas has the treble turned up too high. I hear the characteristic and desireable sound of Baroque bow being drawn over Baroque strings. And to insult Alice because one appears to yearn for Romantically played bowing and steel-wrapped strings, is way over the line. "Beautiful, musical sounds from these instruments" is exactly what I hear.
Oh yes, the "bumpy bass." The bass line in Bach, whenever it appears in other than recitatives, always propels the music forward, providing continuity of tempo that binds together the other orchestral and choral forces. The propulsion of the bass line is in the articulation, and in arias such as the one in question wherein forward momentum is established and maintained, the bass line must be articulated. Bumpy! Hmmm.
"Holl sometimes reminds me of Huttenlocher in that Holl's voice takes on an attitude of impiety. He even attempts to speak and not sing certain words."
Insulting comment, that! I hear a beautiful bass voice singing his lines with clarity, expression, clean German and fine phrasing. Impiety? Where? How does Thomas deduce such an attribute unless he were present at the recording and knew something about Herr Holl that we mere mortals do not.
"Note the castration of the bc by severely reducing the note values, a 'new' discovery by Harnoncourt, one of his hallmarks, by which you can recognize all the other weak-willed conductors that picked up this technique unquestioningly from Harnoncourt, the 'expert.' "
Well, by now, we know that Thomas despises Herr Harnoncourt, don't we? So the insults continue ...
"Wittek's soprano aria puts me on pins and needles all the way through. His voice, with too much vibrato particularly when forcing in order to reach higher notes, is unpleasant, at times awful to listen to."
Now Thomas steps into a realm in which I have actual, real-life experience, so one might theoretically turn the "authoritative" knob all the way up to "high." Helmut Wittek was a lucky little fellow, in that he happened to come along when several plums of arias in this series were available for recording. He happened to be the one whose time had come. Have the Tölzers produced better soprano soloists across time? Yes, certainly. But Wittek was "the man" when the time was rife. I have heard him in an early videotaping, never released, of the Johannespassion, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting, in which his singing was truly off the mark, but then he appeared to be all of about 10 years of age at the time, and as he matured into that "golden age" of boy sopranos everywhere, in which his voice, his training, and incipient emotional self emerged concurrently, the precision of his singing improved remarkably. His voice did have more vibrato than some, but it is appropriate, despite Thomas's objections (based perhaps on the previously-mentioned supposition that all boy sopranos should sing a "straight tone"). Wittek does attack the high-note "Gott" a bit too strongly, perhaps due to any number of reasons, including the glottal hard-G initial "Klinger" (consonants having tone) with which plenty of adult singers would have trouble. To say that his singing is "at times awful to listen to" is so off the mark, nothing further need be said, other than it must be a matter of taste, because nothing else can be said of this boy's singing of this aria on this recording that could deserve such an insulting comment.
"Does Harnoncourt manage to make the oboi da caccia play 'piano' as they are supposed to according to the score? No. The intonation between all the performers wobbles and becomes insecure."
In the context of a soprano aria, it is typical of Bach to pair a boy soprano with oboi da caccia (or just one such oboe on occasion). Why? This specific instrument pairs beautifully with a boy's voice, much better in my opinion, than with a woman's voice, which is paired by a modern oboe to best advantage. The pairing of voice and instrument is a duet, and is not intended to be voice dominating solo instrument. How would Thomas know "piano" was not in fact played in this instance, when those twisting knobs and pushing sliders in the soundroom were the ones controlling balance, etc.? Again, there is no intonation wobbles or insecurity there. Perhaps Thomas is confusing Kammerton with lack of intonation, or simply cannot detect intonation at all.
"So what has Harnoncourt learned at the end of his career as cantata conductor and performer?"
Insulting even to ask! Why is it necessary for Herr Harnoncourt to learn anything at all? To ask the question is to infer that at the beginning of the cantata project, he knew less than he did at the end. To ask the maestro this question face to face would be an act of unbelievable ignorance, not unlike asking Artur Rubenstein to describe his journey through Chopin's etudes at two points twenty years apart and the lessons he learned in so doing.
"Has he learned what a 'simple' chorale should sound like musically? No! Listen to this chorale and you will hear as a voice moves from one note to the next an "Abheben" (a lifting up/a loss of touch with the musical line/a temporary cessation of sound) that is perceived as an accent by the listener because less or no sound follows it. There are also the thrusting sounds that represent accents that also serve to break up the musical line."
The chorale (Mvt. 6), as sung here, is articulate (keeping the text primary, as always!!) and eschewing a legato line when singing such would obscure the text. The "thrusting sounds" Thomas highlights are simply the arses of a phrase (no rude jokes, please). Breaking up the musical line assumes a legato performance approach that seeks to overrtextual considerations and the Germanic articulation necessary to make the text understood in a church like Thomanerkirche, which can contain a congregation of around 2,000.
"I can not help but think of Harnoncourt as a reincarnation of Krause, a First Prefect, who was assigned by Rector Ernesti to stand in for Bach. Bach had described Krause with the following choice words, "untüchtig, nicht geschickt, Ungeschicklichkeit, incapacitè" (summarize: "musically unproficient"). Unfortunately, Krause appeared twice in the choir loft, and each time Bach had to chase him away "with a lot of screaming and hollering." I can just imagine Bach using a few, well-chosen expletives, if he heard a Harnoncourt performance of a chorale such as this one."
OK, one final insult from Thomas, then. Just last May, I was present for a Saturday afternoon (cantata service) and Sunday morning service at Thomaskirche, held as a part of Bachfest 2001. This occasion marked the first time that Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden had conducted his own choir, the Tölzer Knabenchor, in Thomaskirche since he studied for several years under Kurt Thomas there in the 1950s. I was also privileged to observe (and videotape) rehearsals in München leading up to the performances (services). The very attributes in the Harnoncourt series that have gotten our Thomas into such a foul state of mind were apparent in glorious abundance in Leipzig! GSG employed exactly the same number of boys and men per part as JSB himself used when the cantatas and other works were sung in their original performances. So were the instruments and players, which were drawn from the Baroque band of the Gewandhaus Orchester. You cannot imagine how beautiful the Actus Tragicus can be, and how affecting, until you have heard this choir, these instrumentalists, and soloists in the lineage of Helmut Wittek combine their talents and training in a performance in Bach's own space! Following the Sunday service, the current Kapellmeister of the Thomanerchor, Herr Christoph Biller, approached GSG and said, "Congratulations, Maestro! After today, we (the Thomaner) will have to rethink how we present the music of Bach!" By the way, retired Kapellmeister Rotzsch was also in attendance at the Sunday service. His comments, if any, were not overheard.
For continuation of this discussion, which exceeds the scope of Cantata BWV 179, see: Harnoncourt & Leonhardt – General Discussions – Part 2 [Performers]
Roy Reed wrote (September 7, 2001):
Sorry to be behind the times. I have 4 readings of BWV 179. Leusink (7), Rilling (2), Koopman (5), & Suzuki (6). I like them all actually, but the best all-around performance, I think, is pulled off by Suzuki. I was especially impressed by soprano Persson in the beautifully prayer aria. Holman and Ziesak are excellent too, but I was for once disappointed with one of my heroines, Auger. Suzuki....best opening movement. Great 2/2 tempo for one of Bach's wonderful steps back to an earlier art. Koopman disappoints with speed. I do think that Koopman gets the best "sense" of the tenor aria, with Agnew. Bach and whoever get high marks from me for one of the better scriptural exegeses. As usual with these particular Christians, the pessimism is deep...."most Xns of the world are hypocrites." But in too large a measure probably true of all humanity.
Let's do better!! "Erbarme dich, Herr!"
Douglas Neslund wrote (September 9, 2001):
(4) To initiate a discussion amongst ourselves in this new endeavor, I have chosen to review the cantata which brought so much agony to me personally when my views were expressed in support of the original performance practices as recorded in the Teldec series by Messrs. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt.
Specifically, I refer to the Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata entitled "Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei" - Teldec 242 428-2 (formerly Das Alte Werk, Vol. 41 including Bach Werke Verzeichnis ("BWV") Nos. 175 through 179). More recent releases of this may bear different catalog numbers.)
Universally-beloved tenor Kurt Equiluz sings the recitative "Das heut'ge Christentum" (The Christian world today) and aria "Falscher Heuchler" (Hypocrites). The much-criticized Tölzer soloist Helmut Wittek is the solo soprano in the aria "Liebster Gott, erbarme dich" (Dear God, have mercy!). Bass Robert Holl sings the recitative "Wer so von innen wie von außen ist" (To be in truth as one appears to be).
The chorus is comprised of the Tölzer Knabenchor, prepared by Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, conducted by Nikolaus (curiously misspelled on the outside label as "Nicolaus") Harnoncourt and accompanied by his original instrument band, Concentus musicus Wien. Participation by the excellent Herbert Tachezi at the organ is especially to be noted. Bach composed this work in 1723, in his first year in residence as Cantor of Thomaskirche. This recording took place approximately 1988, the date of copyright noted on the album label.
The opening chorus, "Siehe zu, etc." presents two facets: one fugal theme to represent hypocrisy and the second to represent service to God. Chromatic, descending lines depict the sinful nature of hypocrisy, while the second exhorts the faithful to serve God without hypocrisy. The performance in this recording is energetic, well balanced, articulate and reflects the meaning of the text. One of the hallmarks of the Tölzer Knabenchor is an almost fanatical obeysance to delivering the text clearly, so that the audience or congregation would be able to understand (at least in German) the lesson for the day, which of course at St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig would be amplified immediately after the singing by the sermon itself (although The New Grove Dictionary has the Creed between the sung and spoken sermon). In many respects, the Tölzer style of presenting text is so energetic and clear, that some listeners will be repulsed by it, having become accustomed to hearing choirs that specialize in tone production and blend at the expense of the text. In my opinion, no other choir anywhere, of any manner of composition (adult or otherwise) brings the combination of textual clarity and musical expression to this level of achievement. But it takes countless hours of work with the boys to arrive at this level.
The singing is perfectly suited to the text. Exhortations to "serve God without hypocrisy" cut through the underlying condemnation of those who speak with lying lips about service to God. The men, incidentally, are comprised of a combination of teaching staff of the Tölzers and former choirboys who return to serve once again.
Herr Equiluz is the equal to the Tölzers in his articulation and care to deliver the text clearly to the listeners. His voice, to be sure, is here somewhat more mature than it was in earlier recordings of the same cantata, but contains much more of life's experiences and thus delivers a more mature reading in this recording. I personally hear no "pushed" singing (as alleged elsewhere), but a very expressive delivery of the text. This is the perfect Bach tenor, in my opinion.
Herr Holl has limited duty here, but the charge of "false piety" imposed elsewhere must fail by close inspection of text while listening to his fine bass voice. While not quite delivering the expressiveness of Kurt Equiluz, Robert Holl does what he can with the brief opportunity presented.
Master Wittek is given a major aria in which to demonstrate his remarkable voice. The ABA form gives him the additional opportunity to interject appropriate ornamentation in the da capo portion, which he does with aplomb. His voice, criticized elsewhere in the most distasteful manner, is the typical Tölzer soloist: well trained, well prepared, well delivered. As I have previously commented, a female soprano, singing this aria, brings an unwanted association of gender identthat is inappropriate, but unavoidable. Although not as obvious as in the famous duet in which the bass representing Jesus sings, "Ah, I love thee" to the soul, represented by the soprano, who responds, "Oh no, you hate me" - back and forth in this pietistic manner, this aria can contain an overlay of such sentimental attachment that only a boy soprano can overcome, one never intended by Bach himself.
The final chorale (Mvt. 6) is sung with appropriate vigor to drive home the lesson of the day. Some have noted the lack of legato quality in the chorus in this recording, although cruder terms were employed to note dissatisfaction. This chorale, if sung legato, would lose all textual meaning and thus defeat the purpose for which it was composed. I cannot imagine that Cantor Bach would have imposed a legato line over these words, which are an exhortation to the faithful not to be the hypocrites whose outward appearance of serene piety but inward rottenness the lesson, and therefore the cantata, condemns.
The mixing or microphone placement might have been improved by increasing the soprano and alto lines and lowering the tenors a bit. On a few phrases, the orchestra is allowed to be too prominent (especially in the chorale (Mvt. 6), where they are but reinforcing the choral lines), but overall, these are very minor and transient imbalances.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 15, 2001):
(4) [To Douglas Neslund] I am finally posting a belated reply to Douglas' Sept. 9th review of BWV 179 as represented by Director Harnoncourt and his instrumentalists, Kurt Equiluz, Robert Holl, the Tölzer Knabenchor and boy soprano Helmut Wittek. Douglas' message is found at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Bach_Cantatas/message/3
I don't think I could add to Douglas' superb comments on the above recording. Certainly the boy soprano Helmut Wittek rates higher than the "no level" with "nothing to offer" in expression awarded him by Aryeh Oron. I tend to believe many, many people are not listening with German ears to these texts as sung by boy sopranos. The well trained boy tends not to "embellish" the note, thus performing most articulately. Listen to the German text with that german accent, following the
approach and execution of the vowels by Master Wittek. The nuances are rich, but the untrained ear dismisses them as soon as they are heard. As soon as a boy deviates from the listener's expectation, he is labelled as 'struggling.' It would be an improvement if the listener would open their self up to listen with constantly fresh ears in the manner a child perceives his world. This for me is constant supply of newness and unexpected interest in the Cantatas.
I was fortunate enough to grow up with Teldec's Complete Cantatas recordings coming off hot the presses. The baroque music I heard as a child up into my early twenties was usually Harnoncourt's re-creations of Bach's compositions. Thus, I naturally associate "Bach Cantatas" with the clear-textured and warm soundscape recreated in Harnoncourt and Leonhardt's recordings. The baroque soundscape on "old" instruments (as Harnoncourt would call them) and with unchanged male voice in the high notes, is a landscape of rolling hills, lush and green, where one always encounters a refreshing stream. The architecture is as well lushly ornamented, with a solid foundation, gothic arches and rose windows- the gothic ideal of pattern within pattern. Harnoncourt observes announces and highlights the points of interest, sometimes backlighting them. Harnoncourt has truly unearthed many treasures, previously hidden in Bach's Cantatas, by peeling back unnecessary and obtrusive instrumental and vocal layers supplied through romantic performance practices like so much Victorian boudoir mélange. Harnoncourt's 'clearing of the house,' so to speak, allows the true architectural genius of Bach's Cantatas to be revealed. Harnoncourt displays individual curves and intersections of Bach's sacred compositions. Linear counterpoint is highlighted, and the listener is thus provided a guided tour of the Bach Cantata landscape.
The degree that this excitement of the 'newly' revealed Bach Cantatas will last is anyone's guess. My guess is it will not last but settle down into a more 'mundane' mode, with compromises in the Herreweghe style. One bright spot is the 1996 recording of Bach's B-Minor Mass (BWV 232) under the direction of Robert King, featuring an all male vocal force from King's College and the Tölzer Knabenchor providing superb soprano and alto boys. The recording was hailed by critics, some of them hailed it begrudgingly due to a boy soprano hate habit. No "gaggle of struggling boys" there, (nor in the Teldec series). Perhaps Robert King's performance of the B-Minor is a glimpse of what could be produced on a regular basis. One would hope. The re-release of Harnoncourt/Leonhardt on 'Bach 2000' is another bright spot.
I have decided to review a non historically informed performance, one as well that avoids the use of unchanged male voice, replacing it with adult female voice. I think this way I may highlight the difference between this type of recording and the Harnoncourt recording.
(2) Here I have selected Helmuth Rilling's 1983 version of BWV 179 featuring his Bach Ensemble, Gächinger Kantorei, Arleen Augér soprano, Kurt Equiluz tenor, and Wolfgang Schöne bass. The recording appears on a 1991 Hänssler CD, reconstituted from previous analogue recordings. Hänssler is the record label devised for Rilling by his publisher friend Friedrich Hänssler in order to complete a full recorded edition of Bach's Cantatas. Rilling is to be commended for his efforts of researching Bach's sacred music in its theological context, and presenting it with an emphasis upon clarity of text. His idea of music is that it should be performed as a living art form, and that should be presented contemporarily to the listener's ear, in other words... performance tastes evolve. He conducts an ensemble that mixes modern instruments with a 'baroque' playing style. I think this type of approach tends to compound its own problems, but I am ever confident that "Bach will come through it" though reduced in spirit. (Think of the Glenn Gould transcriptions of Beethoven's 5th, and you'll understand what I mean... hmmm...)
First, I must say it is eminently naive of anyone to compare the two types of recordings directly. The two recordings are of different philosophical and instrumentum approaches. Indeed, among other things, the substitution from a boy to a woman is quite a big change in instrument type. Such a change in instruments necessitates adjustments all around, adjustments that are better left described elsewhere by more technically competent persons than myself. Those items that are self evident, I will venture to discuss.
I do say that one must judge each recording effort by internal and external merits consistent with its own type and style of performance practice. Whether one prefers "modern" performance practice over "authentic" is irrelevant in a direct comparison of the two types of recordings, for one is historically informed and one isn't. Therefore the discussion of which is "better" would have to take place outside the context of individual recordings, and in the context of performance practice. And, guess what? the "historically informed" presentation will naturally try to recreate the composer's original situation and ideals, thus be closer to the composer's communication of the work. Thus, criticism of re-creative attempts of Bach's Cantatas are necessarily confined within the language of historically informed presentations. But, and here is the big difference, modern performances are subject to both criticism within the modern performance community and from the "historically informed" performance community. This is due to the fact that 'historically informed' implies a of modern practices by definition. Am I saying that historically informed performances are the only way to go? No. But, what I am getting at here is that attempts at vilifying one over the other- no matter which performance standard one prefers, are not reasonable regarding simply comparing individual recordings. The matter of romantic or modern or "authentic" has to be viewed, I think, in the context of what I think of as a performance transcription. I must stress however, that even the recreations of Bach's Cantatas under "historically informed" conditions are not the last word, and they merely amount to what Herr Harnoncourt called their own "modern performance practice." I might say, it is a practice in my opinion that brings us closer than any to the true spirit of the music.
With that caveat out of the way, may I proceed to support what I think is best about Douglas' preferred BWV 179 recording in light of what one is missing by substituting it with a "modern" performance? In Rilling's recording the opening chorus is nicely sung and rather baroque in clarity. The text is crisp and bright. But immediately I am searching for Bach's architectural foundation of bass. It seems to be virtually underwater. The straight tones from the choir a good, but the instrumental accompaniment shows signs of disconnection, with itself and especially the choir. Gone now is the warm soundscape I am accustomed to in the HIP performances.
Equiluz' performance of the recitativo is well sung with good emotional connection, he avoids any shrill or unnatural sounds. I perceive he is on very familiar territory, and left to explore it as he wishes. Equiluz is one of the finest tenors Rilling could employ.
The tenor aria by Equiluz is a different story. He goes overboard emotionally, and this is not the Equiluz I know under Harnoncourt. Here Equiluz is dabbling in opera, prodded by Rilling's direction. Rilling is now introducing us to what he perceives are the latent operatic aspects of Bach's Cantatas. The disconnection between accompaniment and vocal is widening. Desperation sets in to the tenor's voice, a bit wrong for the accusation provided in the text: "who filled with rot though they be, are glistening on the outside." More opera creeping in here.
Wolfgang Schöne's bass recitativo is well sung but too ominous in tone, it should be brighter, Rilling is pushing more unnatural drama. There is little in personality to connect the tenor and bass parts, and a competition emerges among the players. The landscape is changing. The text "O man, a laudable example for thine own penitence" brings Schöne 'round to a more comforting tone in the last bars.
Arleen Augér is among the finest coloratura sopranos ever. I can see why Rilling would want her to sing a soprano part, but I think a Bach Cantata is wrong for her. Her bright and operatic vocals are a problem here. Rilling eases the listener into another round of operatic expression and then lets Auger fly. She is Queen of the Night, or shall we say of the Cantata? Her high opera approach causes an attempt to counter with competitive accompaniment, creating more disconnection. The landscape has become a walk among sharp peaks and valleys, instead of rolling hills. Vocals and instruments are vying for the listener's attention. Bach's inner voice expressed in the outer text has been obscured in the strain of the high notes, indeed Augér cuts a shrill path at times. Auger achieves an alarming quality, too much drama for the naiveté implicit in the text. Her cry for help is so operatic that it becomes an interesting parody of itself. The naiveté of the text and Auger's alarming operatics gives one the impression not of a sinner tripped up by his sinful nature, but an impression instead of mental illness! This is a classic example of why the use of boy sopranos is a safer bet with Bach's soprano texts. Interestingly, this soprano aria by Auger was recorded in Feb/1982, while the rest of the cantata was recorded eight years earlier in Feb/1974. (Perhaps this is another reason why I hear disconnection. Helmut Wittek would have gone from 12-20 years old during this process, and then from 20-28 before the Hänssler release!)
The final chorale (Mvt. 6) brings us back to some sanity, the clear text and straight tone are fine example of choral singing, but now I am wondering if boys' voices would have provided a greater sense of the ethereal and unearthly sentiment of standing before the throne of God in Heaven, as the text indicates. I am not ushered before the throne of God by Rilling, only the church choir here is discussing it, and the instruments continue to vie for pre-eminence.
In summary, there are many people who think Bach really wanted to write opera, but he couldn't do it in Leipzig. Then why didn't Bach move to Rome, London or Berlin? Because Bach had a distaste for opera. The force fitting of Bach into operatic approaches does harm to the counterpoint in his Cantatas. It creates competition among the instrumental and vocal voices. I believe Rilling in his general approach has erred in this recording. The same instrumentation could have been used to a better effect with a sacred emphasis. Old instruments and unchanged male voice would have improved it even more.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (October 16, 2001):
One minor correction regarding my mention of Robert King's B-Minor Mass (BWV 232) recording- that was the King's Consort Singers (Tenors and Bass) and not King's College Choir.
I was probably thinking of the King's College- Tölzer Knabenchor connection in the Teldec Cantatas series- so unforgetablly imbedded on my mind! Anytime I write King's Co... the association pops in! Sorry folks! Kindest thanks to Douglas for pointing it out to me. (It was early in the morning, before coffee!)