Cantata BWV 23
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sons
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of March 5, 2000 (1st round)
Aryeh Oron wrote (March 5, 2000)
This is the week of cantata BWV 23, according to Marie Jansen's suggestion. We have here the rare opportunity of comparing performances from all the 5 Cantatas Cycles - The 2 complete ones (H/L & Rilling ) and the 3 which are still underway (Koopman , Suzuki , Leusink ), as well as the classic Richter . Therefore I am sure that everyone in this group has at least one version of this cantata and I expect many of you to participate in the discussion. As far as I know, Gardiner and Herreweghe have not recorded (yet?) this cantata, neither somebody from the first generation of cantata performers, like Ramin. Where I experienced some difficulties with BWV 181 last week, this one is irresistible through all its four movements, from beginning to end. Bach’s inspiration does not leave him even for a moment.
Duet for Soprano and Alto
Mvt. 1. Duet for Soprano and Alto
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sons
(Thou very God and David’s son, Thou who from eternity, has, in the distance, already seen minutely my heart’s grief and my body’s pain, pity Thou me)
Translation to English is taken from Robertson’s book.
Soprano, Alto, 2 Oboes, Continuo
Regarding this slow Duet (Mvt. 1), I would like to quote from Robertson, Dürr, Isoyama and Crouch.
Robertson wrote (in his book on Bach Cantatas):
"This libretto, taken from St. Matthew xx.30-34, is the account of two blind men, thereby giving Bach the chance of writing a Duet. The text and the choice of voices show that Bach is treating the healing of blind men as related to the healing of the Christian soul."
Alfred Dürr wrote (in the linear notes to Teldec Cycle):
"Cantata 23 appears to be a work of deep personal commitment and unusual expressive power. Its text links up with the blind man’s prayer for mercy and applies it to the present time and the assembled congregation: not only the eyes of the blind man, but ‘the eyes of all’ wait upon the Lord. In the opening movement Bach combines the instrumental trio of two oboes and continuo and the vocal Duet into skilful quintet of deeply moving intensity."
Tadashi Isoyama wrote (in the linear notes to Suzuki’s recording):
"The movement is in B minor MOLTO ADAGIO. 2 Oboes playing in triplets interweave in sincerity, and the Alto and Soprano go back and forth, now one leading and now the other, in their appeal for pity. The main structure in this piece is a modification of the EXCLAMATIO figure Bach liked so much"
Simon Crouch wrote (in his Cantata Pages):
"I think that I would have given Bach the job as soon as I'd heard the first few bars of the opening movement! There's a superb "double Duet". The two oboes weave an incredible hook (I defy you on hearing this for the first time not to go away humming or whistling this figure, it's totally addictive!) whilst the Soprano and Alto sing a Duet of incredible sadness."
And I would like to add something personal:
The music of this sublime movement is so descriptive, that you can almost paint a picture according to the music, even with very little understanding of the words. The two blind men sitting at the wayside, waiting for the priest to come, entreating for him, hoping that he is really coming. Is it an early version of ‘Waiting for Godo’ by Samuel Becket? The oboes add to the melancholy and anticipating feeling. The Continuo adds a rhythm of a walking march. A though the waiting blind men hear from distance the voices of the coming convey. I was tempted to hear the various performances of this cantata like different paintings, which was drawn on the same subject.
Review of the Recordings
 Gustav Leonhard (1973; Opening Duet: 7:57)
With this performance I am seeing myself looking at an old picture, which has been restored to its original condition. The colours are very bright, you can see every detail, and the combination of colours is very well match. The boy voice sounds so appropriate here and he sings beautifully, as do Esswood, the Oboes and the Continuo. There is nothing that could be improved here, but I know that I am going to hear other versions, which will also be valid on their own terms.
 Karl Richter (1973-1974; Opening Duet: 7:02)
This very sensitive and tender treatment is coming from a conductor, whose interpretations tend usually to be on the big scale and glorious side. I believe that this interpretation is dictated by the music. But you can still identify the Richter’s touch. He uses very bright oil colours and put them on the canvas with strong brush anointment.
 Helmuth Rilling (1977; Opening Duet: 6:38)
The strong part of this performance is of course the voices. Augér and Watts voices and interpretations are the most emotional and expressive among all the recordings of this cantata I heard. I wish they had better accompaniment. The conducting here is not clean enough, in comparison to the other interpretations. As though the painter knew exactly what he wanted to do in advance, but put the colours on the canvas very incautiously. But the figures he put on the canvas are very much alive. They almost jump out of the painting.
 Ton Koopman (1996; Opening Duet: 7:11)
This interpretation is very similar to that of Leonhardt, but sounds in a way more modern. As if the painter uses the same lines and frames to paint the same painting from scratch, using more modern tools and colours. I believe that it comes out of more contemporary means. The oboes are less wooden than those of Leonhardt are, the two voices are feminine and not masculine, the approach of the conductor is softer, etc.
 Masaaki Suzuki (1998; Opening Duet: 7:01)
This Japanese painting is so gentle, lyrical, clear and elaborate. You can hear clearly every detail as could have been expected from Suzuki and his forces. They have also kind of slight warmth, which I like very much, because it sounds so natural. The mark on this performance is Mera, whose voice I do not like. It is insensitive and unpleasant to my taste.
 Pieter Jan Leusink (1999; Opening Duet: 6:38)
This interpretation is painted with watercolours. This is very light performance. The voice of Buwalda is more delicate than that of Holton, but they match very well together.
To sum up, the music of BWV 23 is almost playing itself. None of the recordings of this cantata I have heard failed to do justice to the music and to please me. But each one of then gave a slightly different view of the music.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Marie Jensen wrote (March 6, 2000):
The Bible text for this Sunday is about the blind man who begs Jesus for healing his eyes, though Jesus is far away and he can't come to Him in the turmoil on the road. So BWV 23 is one long prayer. Cantata BWV 23 was together with BWV 22 the first performed in Leipzig February 1723 as Bach's "audition".
I have it in two versions, my new BCJ/Suzuki CD  and my old taped Rilling .
Instrumentally they are not the same. The cantata exists in more versions. In the wonderful opening Duet (Mvt. 1) the Rilling version has a bassoon. Suzuki has not. Midori Suzuki and Mera clear slim line style sounds great to me, but I have to admit that the Rilling singers (Augér, Watts) with their more voluminous expressivity make it sound more like a prayer. The bassoon also more depth to the music, which I like very much. As HIP and non-HIP versions they complement each other fine. I like both versions of the cantata.
Now we are in the biblical corner: The epistle of the day (1 Corinthians 13: 1-13) is Paulus famous letter to the Corinthians chapter 13 about eternal divine love Bach didn't make cantatas to the epistle but to the gospel (Luke 18: 31-43), but I'm sure he would have made a fantastic cantata to chapter 13, if he had had the chance. Perhaps music would do no good to a text, which already is so beautiful that it feels like music. But have anyone, no matter which composer ever put music to chapter 13, I would like to hear about it.
John Downes wrote (March 6, 2000):
I was at the Kings College Cambridge JEG performance last night and there was (as there has been on each of the 3 concerts I have so far attended) a recording van there. The program said that the deal with Archiv was that 12 CDs would be released to commemorate the series.
Johan van Veen wrote (March 7, 2000):
Some impressions regarding four of the six versions: Leonhardt , Koopman , Suzuki , & Leusink .
 This is the slowest performance of all four I have heard. I think this slow tempo is very appropriate here. The sighing motifs and chromaticism on 'mein Herzeleid' and 'Erbarme dich mein' come across very strongly: they get enough time to be heard. Another thing, which makes this performance impressive (apart from the treble and Alto, who blend very well) is the playing of the oboe d'amore, which produce a sombre sound, which corresponds to the key of b minor, according to Mattheson melancholic'.
 Richter &  Rilling snipped - I haven't heard them.
 I find this version not very appealing. The voices don't blend as well as in Leonhardt and Suzuki. Very strange is the small ornament Von Magnus sings on 'mein Herzeleid' which undermines the chromaticism. Very good is the organ Continuo.
 This performance is too fast, and too 'businesslike'. The voices blend well, but don't have much warmth. The sighing motifs I mentioned are almost gone before one notices them. Very disturbing - and unnecessary - is the harpsichord in the Continuo.
 IMO they don't match that well: Buwalda has a warmer, more expressive voice than Holton. My main problem is the tempo, which is too fast - the character of this Duet (Mvt. 1) isn't brought out so well. The playing of the oboes is a little pale.
Having heard this Duet (Mvt. 1) with oboes and with oboe d'amore, I prefer the latter version - the beautiful somewhat melancholic sound fit in perfectly with the content of this piece.
Ryan Michero wrote (March 10, 2000):
Hello, Cantata buddies! Sorry I'm a little behind in the discussion, but I did a little extra listening this week.
I decided that, since this week's cantata is BWV 23, "Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn", I would also listen to the other cantata with which it is historically linked, BWV 22, "Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe". These cantatas are very important markers in the development of Bach's style as they represent the transition between the secular cantatas composed at Köthen and the early Leipzig sacred cantatas. They are Bach's audition cantatas for the St. Thomas cantorate, BWV 23 written mostly in Köthen and BWV 22 written upon his arrival in Leipzig, and they show the composer attempting a wide variety of movements to illustrate the generally sombre moods of the day's gospel. They are certainly self-contained works, but they work equally well as a double-bill. I listened to both to get a feel for what that first performance might have been like. Most of the cantata sets I have pair them together anyway, so this was easy enough to do. All of the performers I listened to bring something unique and valuable to the works, but I tend to think that, as these cantatas are historically important pieces, the most best and most enlightening recordings take into account the unusual performance circumstances of these pieces.
An exhaustive account of the performance history of these cantatas (especially BWV 23) can be found in the essay "Bach's Audition for the St. Thomas Cantorate: The Cantata 'Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn'" in Christoph Wolff's BACH: ESSAYS ON HIS LIFE AND MUSIC. Wolff summarizes his findings in the notes to Koopman's Vol.3, and Suzuki seems to draw on the information for his own notes in his Vol.8. The research discussed in the article has important repercussions on instrumentation, pitch, and exactly which movements to perform (even this is not entirely clear as I have learned). I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the performance context and the HIP recreation of Bach's cantatas.
I'll start my discussion on a light note by relaying to you a quote included in Wolff's article from a contemporary press report:
"On Sunday last in the morning the Hon. Kapellmeister of Köthen, Mr. Bach, gave here his test at the church of St. Thomas's for the hitherto vacant Cantorate, the music of the same having been amply praised on that occasion by all knowledgeable persons..."
Assuming that the scholars are right, I would like to amply praise the "knowledgeable persons" of Leipzig for their appreciation of such fine music!
On to the recordings:
 I have a special fondness for Leonhardt's version on Teldec, but I'm not sure I can call it my favourite. Leonhardt's usual strengths are here in abundance: interesting but natural phrasing, clearly delineated lines, reliable vocal soloists, and fine obbligato playing. Paul Esswood surpasses himself with outstanding performances in both cantatas, and Equiluz and van Egmond are predictably great in BWV 22. I especially like the reedy, plangent sound of the oboes in these recordings--period winds at their most delicious. The Tenor aria "Mein alles in allem" is a bit sluggish for my taste, but this is a small problem. The treasure of these cantata performances, as Johan and Aryeh have mentioned, is the ravishing performance of the opening Duet, "Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn" (Mvt. 1). The reedy oboes and the voices of Paul Esswood and boy Soprano Walter Gampert all blend wonderfully, creating a heartbreakingly lovely sound. The sounds are wonderfully unpolished and raw, beautifully portraying human weakness during the cries of "Erbarme dich mein!" I'm listening to it now and it really is breathtaking. I have a minor quibble with Leonhardt's version: Bach's autograph score for both works specifies between "concertists" and "ripienists", but Leonhardt does not follow his markings. Hence, for Leonhardt, the full choir begins the fugue in the first Chorus of BWV 22, which doesn't transition as well from the solo singing that begins the movement. Perhaps more damaging, Leonhardt has the Tenor and Bass sections of his choir instead of soloists sing the Duet sections of the third movement of BWV 23, a strange effect that undermines Bach's intended contrast. I'm being picky, though--Leonhardt's performances of these cantatas are great, and you all really must hear the opening Duet (Mvt. 1) of BWV 23.
 I just recently received Volumes 1 and 2 of the Kruidvat/Brilliant Classics Bach series under Pieter Jan Leusink, and this was my first chance to sample these recordings. My first impressions are ofavourable: the orchestra has a lovely sound, not too polished but rich and pleasantly "antique" (in the best sense of that word. The choir sounds a bit large and undisciplined compared to that on other series, but it is acceptable and I applaud the rare (outside of the Teldec series) use of boys on the Soprano line. I do like the soloists, especially Nico van der Meel and Ruth Holton. Bas Ramselaar is also fine, with his heavy, authoritative voice. Unfortunately, I'm not fond of the nasal, unsteady voice of Counter-tenor Sytse Buwalda, featured prominently in both of these cantatas. The highlight of these cantatas under Leusink is unquestionably "Mein Alles in Allem" sung by van der Meel. WOW! The strings sound great, not too polished and blended like Koopman's strings but pleasantly and sweet with a touch of astringency that is very nice. Leusink adopts a gentle, skipping tempo that sounds just right, and van der Meel is really wonderful. Overall, though, I can't recommend Leusink's recordings of BWV 22 and BWV 23. The soloists in the opening Duet (Mvt. 1) of BWV 23 don't blend well, and Leusink, like Leonhardt, doesn't observe Bach's distinction between "concertists" and "ripienists" in choral movements. Worst of all, Leusink omits entirely the last movement of BWV 23, even though the text of the movement is included in the liner notes! True, Bach originally planned a three-movement piece, writing "Il Fine" at the end of the third movement. Yet upon arrival in Leipzig he added the fourth part, and all known performances of the work included the fourth movement. So why does Leusink cut it? I understand there are probably extreme limitations of budget and time in this project, but this recording presents a distorted vision of this cantata and cannot be recommended.
 Koopman's versions (on his Vol.3) are altogether better and more accurately performed. I think all of the singers make a strong impression here, including Barbara Schlick and Elizabeth von Magnus (who don't always please me) as well as Paul Agnew and Klaus Mertens. The Chorus is fine as always, with Koopman observing Bach's "concertists"/"ripienists" distinctions to fine effect in "Aller Augen warten, Herr". The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra as always plays excellently, with Marcel Ponseele's oboe a constant delight. There is also some fine, crisp ensemble playing by the strings in "Mein alles in allem", where Koopman adopts a quicker tempo than Leusink for a bit more energy and a bit less radiance. Koopman takes the final chorale of BWV 22 at a very quick pace for no apparent reason, making it sound really rushed. The Duet (Mvt. 1) that opens BWV 23 comes off well though, with Schlick and von Magnus both in fine form, blending nicely with the warm, limpid oboes d'amore--very nice even if it doesn't reach the heights of Leonhardt's version. There is something curious about Koopman's version of "Christ, du Lamm Gottes", though. The liner notes go into great detail about how Bach added trombones and a cornett to the choral lines for the first performance, dropping the pitch of the piece a half tone (from C minor to B minor), using oboes d'amore to accommodate this shift in pitch, then at a later date removing the brass and shifting back up to the written pitch. Then it says, "The present recording prefers the B minor version of the work, but dispenses with the brass reinforcements in the final chorale." Fine, but cornett and trombones are listed in the scoring for the movement in the booklet, and, sure enough, close listening reveals the brass instruments in the background tooting along with the choir. Strange! But overall Koopman's versions are very good.
 To me, though, the most consistently satisfying versions of both cantatas come from Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. Not only does Suzuki respect all of Bach's performing indications and pay close attention to original pitch and scoring, but also he conducts surely and naturally, penetrating right to the heart of these works. These cantatas are just so much more vivid to me in Suzuki's recordings. The opening Arioso-Chorus of BWV 22 is wonderfully judged, with fine solo singing by "Evangelist" Gerd Türk and "Vox Christi" Peter Kooy (foreshadowing their roles in Suzuki's new St. Matthew Passion) and an exciting reading of the fugue, complete with "concertists" in the exposition. Yoshikazu Mera is one of my very favourite singers, and he gives a moving account of the aria "Mein Jesu, ziehe mich nach dir". As usual, he exhibits incredible vocal control, holding the frequent long notes starting with a clear, pure tone, adding a touch of vibrato at the end. He sounds great with Alfredo Bernardini's oboe playing, which, for my money, is even more persuasive than that of Marcel Ponseele in both cantatas. Kooy and Suzuki even elevate the following recitative to great heights, creating a moving miniature drama out of the simplest music. "Mein alles in allem" is also very well done here, with Gerd Türk just as fine in this lyrical music as in more declamatory passages, and with nicely articulated string playing and a quick tempo--delightful. The final chorale of BWV 22 is nicely judged, with the lyrical instrumental melody sounding lovely. The Duet (Mvt. 1) that opens BWV 23 is not as moving as in Leonhardt's version, but it is still great here, with Midori Suzuki, Mera, and the oboes d'amore sounding very beautiful together. Johan complained about the use of the Cembalo here, but this is historically justified: There is a surviving performance part for BWV 23 labelled "basson e Cembalo", causing Wolff to speculate that either a harpsichord was used in addition to organ at the first performance or that a harpsichord was added later because of an organ in need of repair. Suzuki's readings of the two closing Choruses of BWV 23 are also excellent. "Aller Augen warten, Herr" sounds great, with a quick tempo and sharp articulation in the choral lines and soloists Türk and Kooy singing the Tenor and Bass lines in between the choral ritornelli. Bach's original cornett and trombone parts add weight to the choral lines in "Christe, du Lamm Gottes", not buried in the mix but helping to create some rich, spine-tingling sonorities. The excellent notes set the seal on these lovely and enlightening performances. These cantatas are fine examples of Bach's art, and I couldn't ask for better performances than Suzuki gives us here.
About Bach Cantatas on Brilliant Classics
Max Schmeder wrote (May 13, 2000):
 I've heard that the cantatas are not so good.
Galina Kolomietz wrote (May 14, 2000):
 For whatever it's worth, here's my opinion. The quality is uneven, so there are some good moments (and you can't beat the price), but in general these are hard to recommend. Of the soloists, tenor Nico van der Meel is the best; in fact, he is quite good by any standards. He reminds me a bit of Nigel Rogers - a very musical singer, even though the voice is not beautiful... Bass Bas Ramselaar is also reasonably good. But the other tenor, Knut Schoch, sounds grainy and often insecure. Ruth Holton strikes me as a very unconvincing Bach soprano. Her voice sounds colourless and disaffected. I like "white sopranos" but up to a point... When they start sounding "like a mouse in cheese" I draw the line. But the person who I find to be absolutely unacceptable is alto Sytse Buwalda. To my ears, his voice is rough and unpleasant, and there is nothing in his interpretation to offset that.
Ryan Michero wrote (May 14, 2000):
 Galina, gives a very good account of these recordings. I am glad to have them at the price because of the few great moments in them, bjust about every other cantata series is preferable. I agree that Nico van der Meel is fantastic, and that Sytse Buwalda is unacceptable. The one point with which I disagree is your dislike of Ruth Holton. After all, Bach wrote his soprano music for boys. Here is a voice with all the freshness and purity of a boy but with the technique and musicality of a mature woman--a perfect Bach soprano. A mouse in cheese? Not to my ears.
Lucas As wrote (May 16, 2000):
 I can't understand the criticism. It's really a great cycle. Leusink's unpolished and enthusiastic recordings gives the music the spirit and emotional tension which other recordings are missing.
Yes, there are moments that I really can't enjoy the recordings, but in fact all other Bach-cycles give me the same experience. There is -unfortunately- no such thing as a perfect Bach cantata project.
I also possess the complete Bach Cantatas performed by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, which is the other cycle I wouldn't want to miss. I think the two cycles are complementary in many ways. It's quite interesting to hear the music performed by the great musicians of twenty years ago.
Some other cycles tend to be glamorous, but where has the music been? The criticism that there are many great moments but that the whole is disappointing is more appropriate for those recordings. By the way, Sytse Buwalda is a perfect choice.
Ryan Michero wrote (May 17, 2000):
 Oops. Forgive me for being unclear. I didn't mean every other cantata cycle was preferable but every other HIP cantata cycle. I do like Leusink's recordings, but I think the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Koopman, and Suzuki sets are all more consistently satisfying.
I was also thinking of the best cantata series to recommend to a beginner. While the Leusink is the least expensive, it is also the least satisfactory in giving you valuable information about the cantatas (i.e., translations of the texts, extensive notes on the works, alternate versions, etc.). In one cantata, BWV 23, Leusink omits a movement where all evidence says Bach performed one. Every other HIP series includes the movement as they are generally much more thorough in such editorial matters. And when blemishes in ensemble and singing (that could be corrected with another take or more rehearsal time) or lack of inspiration (no time for to find the heart of the music) ruins whole numbers, I feel sorry for the people who cannot listen to better versions of these marvellous works. I value Leusink's Cantata series, but it is not my desert island Bach Cantata project (that would be Suzuki's--, as most of the list members know).
(The complete Bach Cantatas performed by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt) I agree, but here again I think both Suzuki and Koopman are more consistent. Have you heard any of the Koopman or Suzuki cycles?
(Sytse Buwalda) Some people love him, some people hate him. I'm in the "hate him" camp. IMHO he sounds a bit like a better-trained version of me when I try to sing along with the cantatas--lots of trouble hitting the notes.
Lucas As wrote (May 19, 2000):
 The cantata BWV 23 has been performed for the first time in 1723 and then contained only the first three parts. Only in the 1740 performance Bach added the choral "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" Indeed it's a pity that Leusink didn't record this choral.
I agree with you that the hurry to record all the cantatas within one year asks its prize. Nevertheless, I love the enthusiasm on these records.
I don't know the Suzuki cycle, I really should (but you know: time, money...) I know some of the Koopman performances. I do have some problems with his interpretations and the choice of the soloists. Beautiful orchestra, though.
(Sytse Buwalda) What can I say…?
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 23: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4