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Cantata BWV 26
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of November 10, 2002 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 12, 2002):
BWV 26 - Introduction

The subject of this week’s discussion (November 10, 2002), according to Thomas Shepherd’s suggested list, is the Chorale Cantata BWV 26 ‘Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig’ (Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial). Michael Frank was the author of the hymn, on which this cantata for the 24th Sunday after is based, but the librettist is unknown. Stanzas one and thirteen are quoted for the outer movements, while the others are paraphrased for the four inner movements. There is no direct connection with the Epistle or the Gospel for this Sunday, but the thought may have been suggested by the Gospel, Matthew 9: 18-26 - the raising to life of the ruler’s daughter.


The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 26 - Recordings

Of the seven complete recordings of this cantata, only two are HIP - ikolaus Harnoncourt [3] and Pieter Jan Leusink [7]. All the others are from the ‘Old School’, including Karl Richter (who recorded it twice!) [2] [5], Fritz Werner [1], Helmuth Rilling [6], and Hans-Joachim Rotzsch [4].

You can listen to Harnoncourt’s recording [3] through David Zale Website:

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to:
The original German text (at Walter F. Bischof Website); English translations by Francis Browne and Z. Philip Ambrose; French translation by Walter F. Bischof; Hebrew translation by Aryeh Oron;
Score (Vocal & Piano version);
Commentary: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide); in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes.

Many of Bach’s chorale cantatas had their opening fantasias set on the organ preludes that he had previously composed. This one is derived from the same prelude in the Orgelbüchlein - BWV 644. Indeed, Helmuth Rilling [M-1] recorded the organ chorale and the chorale from the cantata back to back early in his long career, during the first half of the 1960’s. Albert Schweizer pointed out how, by especially evocative scales, Bach has depicted in the organ chorale the text of the hymn, comparing the futility of things on earth with clouds which we see appear and disappear. Just as in the short chorale for organ, thus also in the cantata, the moving clouds are represented by a succession of parallel and opposed scales. This becomes especially remarkable in the rapid flashes of the orchestral accompaniment to the opening chorus during which the theme of the hymn is sung by the sopranos and the horn in unison. The two arias of this cantata – for tenor and for bass - are also splendid.

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 12, 2002):
In the list of English translations of Cantata BWV 26 I forgot to mention two translations by Paul H. Farseth, a member of the BCML. The rough first translation is relatively literal. The second, more polished, verse translation is a performance translation that tries to match the syllable counts, accents, and image positions (within the musical syllables of each line) of the original text. You can find both translations at the page:

Juozas Rimas wrote (November 12, 2002):
The first chorus has dynamite in it and Richter's approach [5] is questionable. Leusink [7] and Harnoncourt [3] play it at a similar fast tempo and it sounds very right - some great dramatic music.

The tenor aria has some cute moments and is an overall strong major aria. Leusink's tenor Nico van der Meel [7] does his job normally. Equiluz [3] is again great - I'm yet to find a really poor performance by him. The slower tempo by Harnoncourt allows Equiluz to elaborate the ornamentation with much more emotion and content. I think when Bach writes many embelishments, it automatically indicates a non-hasty tempo to ensure that the singer can sing them perceivably. Equiluz probably can't show his best qualities with this material, but he surely makes the intricate tenor part meaningful. Richter (1977) is faster than Harnoncourt and even than Leusink but the main problem is not the tempo and not the orchestra. Schreier's [5] voice is very unpleasant - worse than Meel's! Squeezed sharp voice. At around 2:00 it became unbereable and I finished listening, sorry. I hope that Ernst Haefliger is better in Richter's first recording of BWV 26 [2] and that Richter wasn't a complete flop as far as this aria is concerned.

Hertha Töpper's [5] voice in the recitative is not as repulsive but nothing amazing either. Buwalda's [7] and Esswood's [3] takes are more interesting. Paul Esswood doesn't shout (as often in his recitatives) and even does an interesting pause before the "Freude run". He's the most emotional of the 3 performers here but I don't like Esswood's voice as an instrument.

The multiple (3?) oboes sound so great in the bass aria... IIRC you can hear multiple oboes, for instance, in the 1st choir of the Xmas oratorio (BWV 248), the Bourree 4th Ouverture (Orchestral Suite) and the "Von den Stricken..." alto aria from the John's Passion etc. It's always impressive. Why did Harnoncourt [3] choose Siegmund Nimsgern for this aria? Very mediocre bassy. Moreover, it sounds as if he was stabbed in the leg with a hot needle at 0:53 (check yourself). But he sings the fast ornaments quite well. It's a pity the voice is too banal in general. I prefer Leusink's [7] slower and steadier tempo yet his bass Bas Ramselaar (nice first name, huh?) is as mediocre so the two mentioned basses are comparable in the League of Average Basses.

I didn't expect much from Dieskau [5] here because it's not his music – no long lines without embelishments where his honey-like voice can blossom. Dieskau is more listenable but there's something wrong with him too: he does some weird things, eg at 0:45, making this performance a patchwork of nice and weird, sometimes unexplainable, ways of singing. And his ornamenatation is not impressive either. I must admit I prefer Kooy and Mertens to Dieskau always when difficult ornamentation is involved. The best Bach's bass is not best in this field... :(
As a side note, Richter's oboes are a complete disaster. A choir of 3 ducks, no less!

So I don't know what to do with this great bass aria. Let's wait for Mertens and Kooy, shall we?

Harnoncourt's [3] unknown boy soprano in the recitative is nice. What is happening? In one aria a boy sings awfully, in another recitative you hear a gentle kid's voice. Leusink's Ruth Holton [7] is perhaps even better. Her voice is hard to distinguish from a boy's voice, by the way. Very nice! No need to mention Richter's [5] here - Edith Mathis has a normal old-school voice but the two previous sopranos are definitely much more enjoyable.

The short chorale is a great ending. The naughty Richter [5] does something weird again - his choir is singing "Ach wie fluechtiiiiiiiiiiiig. Ach wie nichtiiiiiiiiiiiiig". Why? Did Leusink [7] and Harnoncourt [3] both misunderstood something in the notation? Anyway, Leusink's and Harnoncourt's choirs sound freer and more fluent.

The bottom line: the cantata is a very balanced one - none of its parts are much more or less impressive than others. The first choir gives a great first impression and the ending chorale is a laudable final with some very succulent stuff in between.

The best performance from the above is, IMHO, Equiluz' [3] usual prime work. Generally, Leusink's [7] and Harnoncourt's [3] recordings are comparable, whereas Richter had a bad day when recording BWV 26 for the 2nd time [5], despite his cast of stars (who all had a bad day too - what an unfortunate coincidence :).

Paul Farseth wrote (November 13, 2002):
[To Aryeh Oron] Thanks for the mention, Aryeh.

Dick Wursten wrote (November 14, 2002):
1. Reaction to "Aryeh's introduction"..
< There is no direct connection with the Epistle or the Gospel for this Sunday, but the thought may have been suggested by the Gospel, Matthew 9: 18-26 - the raising to life of the ruler's daughter. >

IMHO there certainly is a connection between the Gospel and the choice of this hymn and that connection is not only very 'light' but very 'strong'. The gospel presents the theme of life and death, in which Jesus overcomes death by raising the daughter of the chairman of the synagogue. We read automatically read this story on one level, i.e. the litteral-historical. Jesus conquers death.

During 19 centuries people read this story (and similar stories) on more than one level, i.e. they accepted the litteral-historical but also tried to find something 'for them' in it. Usually they generalized, spiritualized and moralized it. So it could have been preached about as a story of Jesus being angry at the people who made such a fuzz about death (This accent is much stronger in the parallel-account of Marc: 5:38-39, but in Bachs days they always blended the parallel-stories of the three synoptical gospels into one very rich account) or about his word that 'death is only a sleep' ...

The general 'lesson' always would have had the element of redirecting the outlook of people from the earthly life (which is only temporal and futile) to the heavenly life (which is eternal and important).

That Jesus restored earthly life to the daughter of Jair probably could easily be neglected.

ERGO: The 'hypothetical' phrase of Aryeh <may have been suggested by> can IMO be changed in the 'affirmative' <is obviously connected with>.

2. The hymn of Michael Franck (13 verses) has only one positive statement, and that is the final line. My thesis though: The final line is the basic line and contains the founding statement in the light of which all 64 other lines and statements have to be interpreted.

Philippe Bareille wrote (November 14, 2002):
In the "The man without qualities" Robert Musil portrays a character Ulrich who realises that life is vain, and so forsakes his ambitions and decides to search for the meaning of life..Inflated ideals, self-indulgence, daily vexations appear hollow, misplaced and ridiculous on the scale of time. The futility of life is the theme of the BWV 26 "Ah, how fleeting, ah, how futile,/is a man's existence!" . Listening to this cantata brought back some impressions I had when I read the fantastic novel by Musil, a novel which explores the human mind.

It is a truism to state that cantata BWV 26 is another very fine work. Indeed this cantata is a delight from beginning to end.

I am particularly touched by the tenor aria "As swift as water's mad career,/ our lives are but a rushing torrent./ The dialogue between the flute and the tenor is "characterised by the image of the rushing torrent, represented by rapid scale passages in instrument and voice alike" (A Durr).

I have listened to Harnoncourt [3], Richter [2] and Schreier (tenor aria only) [M-2]. I will just comment on the tenor aria.

I concur with Aryeh and Tom, who in the their reviews of the BWV 55 were deploring the dearth of very good tenors in the new generation. Prégardien is probably the best successor of the Equiluz, Schreier et al. I'm not particularly taken by Ian Bostridge in Bach. In addition to his CD with the Europa Galante, I heard him live at the proms in London a few years back in the MP conducted by P. Herreweghe (I think it was just after the recording). He has a lot to offer but still he is no match for Equiluz or Haefliger.

With Richter [2] and Harnoncourt [3] we have Haefliger and Equiluz respectively, in other words two great tenors of the past stylistically perfect.

Richter [2] is unfortunately disappointing. He rushes through the aria as if he wanted it to be out of his way as soon as possible. Is it to be in accord with the text? However, the [very] fast tempo destroys the melodic line, so the aria, despite Haefliger valiant endeavour, is shorn of its inner beauty. I agree with Juozas that this aria should be played slowly to reveal its treasures.

Harnoncourt rendition [3] is for me much more interesting, full of subtle nuances. Equiluz is outstanding and as usual penetrates the core of this music very convincingly. The timbre of his voice is incredibly beautiful. I realised when I was listening to the BWV 55 that I have never come across any interview of Equiluz over the past 15 years, at least in British and French music magazines. He may shun the limelight! Meanwhile I have read umpteen's interviews of opera tenors more suited to media hype, such as Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras! The accompanying flute of Leopold Stastny may not be the most beautiful in the world but still despite its shortcomings is not indifferent and manages to reach the heart of the music (at times).

Schreier in the 1997 recording [M-2] comes off well thanks to his natural sense of this music, but his voice has passed his prime and the tempo is too fast for me.

To sum up: a tenor aria sung by Equiluz [3] to treasure.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 16, 2002):
BWV 26 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 26 - Provenance

Commentaries: [Voigt, Schweitzer, Smend, Dürr, Chafe]

See: Cantata BWV 26 - Commentary

Marie Jensen wrote (November 16, 2002):
Lots of words might surely be said about BWV 26, its text, its sound painting. To me this cantata simply is: November. Take a walk in the nature near streaming waters a cloudy November day. Let the cantata play in your mind. Every movement will do. And it will all be there, the colours , the decay, everything. ...At least here in northern Europe.

Alles, alles, was wir sehen,
Das muß fallen und vergehen.
Wer Gott fürcht', bleibt ewig stehen.
BWV 26

Dick Wursten wrote (November 16, 2002):
BWV 26 - Mvt. 4

Some comment on Mvt. 4, inspired by Thomas Braatz reproduction of diferent comments on this aria for bass about the foolishness of clinging to earthly treasures (An irdischen Schätze das Herze zu hängen...)
One movement, 3 different apperceptions & appreciations

SCHWEITZER states that <the theme is founded on the ‘joy’ motive, making it a cheerful song of freedom from the world>. Only when musical word-depicting (tonmalerei) is involved the mood changes accordingly.
Keywords: joy, liberation from the world.

DÜRR: speaks about the <relentless rhythm of a “Totentanz” [a dance of
death]> which <calls forth a macafear instead. It is Death playing on his chalumeau who forces mankind to dance according to his tune.>
Keywords: macabre, death

CHAFE is ambivalent (I'm not sure that I do understand what he wants to say). So I quote it once again: The bass aria <represents the foolishness of resting hopes in the world in a setting so pompous that it borders on the comic.> I understand this as Chafe saying that the foolishness of basing one's life on material wealth is the basic atmosphere of this mvt. If I'm right (correct me if i'm wrong) these are the
Keyword: foolishness and irony

ONE piece of music, three opinions. to summarize:
Schweitzer: A liberation dance
Durr: A dance macabre
Chafe: A fool's dance.

I listened to the Leusink version [7] and I did not hear what Dürr heard. The macabre was not prominent present. The rhythm was not frentic enough to suggest the dance macabre. The instrumentation (3 oboes) sounded quite serious, but not terrifying. [I heard more fear of death in mvt 3: Beautiful recitativo... !]. DÜRR is out.

I'm still in doubt whether Chafe has a point, but to be frank I don't think Bach uses a lot of irony in his music. And if I understand Chafe correctly (see above) his statement is completely based on the ironical tone of this movement. The pompousness should be heard.. the fool on the hill. I don't hear it.

For SCHWEITZER’s view I have sympathy, be it that the choice of the oboes is a minus for his keywords. joy and liberation. to heave for that.

Final remark: Mvt. 2 was too long for me... Whether this is my fault, Leusink [7] c.s. fault of Bach’s... I will leave unsaid.

extra. BTW: the hymn 'Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig' is a meditation on Ecclesiastes (the Preacher) with his refrain, bourdon: Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas est.... The two 'fluchtig' and 'nichtig' exactly explain the meaning of the Hebrew original: 'habel'...

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 16, 2002):
BWV 26 - The Recordings

Last week I have been listening to the following 6 recordings of Cantata BWV 26:

[1] Fritz Werner (1961)
[2] Karl Richter (1966, 1st recording)
[3] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1973)
[4] Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (1977)
[6] Helmuth Rilling (1979-1980)
[7] Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)

Background & Review

Only Mvts. 1, 2 & 4 are reviewed.

The background below is taken from the following sources:
Alec Robertson: ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972), and
W. Murray Young: ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’ (1989).
The English translations are by Francis Browne.

Mvt. 1 Chorus
Corno col Soprano, Flauto traverso, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
(Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial)

Robertson: The Gospel account of the raising of the ruler’s daughter perhaps leads to this discourse on the mortality of man. Bach, with his partiality for tonal symbolism, paints a picture in the orchestral and vocal parts (except for the sopranos who have the melody), who have clouds-wreaths forming and quickly dissolving in the brief life of man. As the voices cease the orchestra recapitulates the opening ritornello.
Young: Bach’s fantasia paints a symbolic picture of mists drifting and dissolving like clouds in a valley, representing the brief life-span of man. A similar image of clouds, sailing across the sky more majestically, is conjured up by the opening movement of his Fourth Orchestral Suite (BWV 1069), which Bach will again use for the chorale fantasia which begins Cantata BWV 110. Both of these cantata movements are marvellous examples of Bach’s ability to create tone-poems.

Timings: Werner [1] (4:02), Richter 1 [2] 2:27), Harnoncourt [3] (2:49), Rotzsch [4] (3:10), Rilling [6] (2:22), Leusink [7] (2:47)

Look and see how wide is the difference between the timings of the slowest (Werner [1]) and the fastest (Rilling [6]) renditions of the opening chorus. The first [1] gives the impression that he wants to stress the span of life to the maximum. The clouds dissolve as in a slow motion. Yet there is internal tension in this rendition which hold the movement cohesive. Furthermore, the playing of the instruments and the choir is light and airy and not heavy at all. On the other hand, Rilling [6] sounds uncharacteristically rushed, as if he wants to get rid of this movement as possible. Richer [2], not far behind Rilling, also misses the main point of the chorus. But, at least his rendition has energy and power and more clarity than Rilling’s. The Harnoncourt’s [3] chorus is the worst. It is dry and lifeless. It seems that Harnoncourt was so concentrated in getting the singing and the playing being done his way that he forgot about the spiritual content and the symbolic image of this chorus. Rotzsch’s rendition [4] sounds as the best of both worlds regarding the tempo. However, I found his performance lacking drama and contrasts between slow and fast. It is too homogeneous. Surprisingly, Leusink [7], who follows usually Harnoncourt’s route, manages to bring into this chorus more life and energy than his respected predecessor. The singing is less polished than most of the others, and the playing might sound too light, yet the right spirit is there.

Personal preference: [none ideal] Werner [1], Leusink [7], Rotzsch [4], Richter 1 [2], Rilling [6], [big gap], Harnoncourt [3]

Mvt. 2 Aria for Tenor
Flauto traverso solo, Violino solo, Continuo
So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt
(As swiftly as roaring water rushes by)

Robertson: The flute, violin, and voice are given phrases, rather than developed melody, to depict the rushing waters. The tenor is kept hard at it in the lengthy first section with numerous runs on ‘schnell’ (swiftly) and ‘eilen’ (hurry)’. In the middle section Bach realistically depicts drops of water suddenly dividing before falling into the abyss. It is a splendid aria.
Young: Accompanied by the transverse flute and a solo violin, the tenor depicts the hasty flow of gushing water, which breaks over rocks before vanishing into the earth. This metaphor shows the rapid passing of our lives. Great virtuosity is demanded of the singer to cope with the speedy tempo of the first two lines. The remainder slows to represent the water drops, like time, running away.

Timings: Werner [1] (6:50), Richter 1 [2] (6:08), Harnoncourt [3] (7:42), Rotzsch [4] (6:52), Rilling [6] (5:21), Leusink [7] (6:56)

What a pleasure to hear so many fine tenor singers one after the other. All of them (especially the first five) have that golden quality, which characterise Evangelist’s type of tenor. All of them have the taste, the care for nuances and the ability to understand and to convey the message of this aria. All of them have the technical powers, which are needed to pass successfully the opening lines. And all of them have the sensitivity to touch the heart. I would like to mention especially Adalbert Kraus [6], who passes bravely and gloriously the test of fast tempo set for him by Rilling. Equiluz [3] deserves similar praises for the way he handles his lines and maintains the tension despite the too slow tempo set by Harnoncourt. Of course, he is given much more room for personal expression and he uses the opportunity with his usual accomplishment. The real hero here is Helmut Krebs [1], whose voice can cause every human heart to melt and whose sensitivity for details reveals the most hidden corners of this aria. My preference here is VERY personal and is based on feeling rather than on erudite analysis.

Personal preference: Krebs/Werner [1], Equiluz/Harnoncourt [3], Schreier/Rotzsch [4], Haefliger/Richter 1 [2], Kraus/Rilling [6], [small gap] Meel/Leusink [7]

Mvt. 4 Aria for Bass
Oboe I-III, Continuo
An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen
(To hang one's heart on earthly treasures)

Robertson: Another fine aria, Handelian in the texture of the melody. The text derides ‘Ist eine Verführung der törichten Welt’ (is a seduction of the foolish world) and in the middle section warns how easily consuming flames or boiling floods can engulf. This is a graphically illustrated first in the florid phrases of the continuo, then by the voice. The opening section returns, written out, and the da capo is confined to the opening ritornello.
Young: With unison oboes and organ continuo, he interprets the continuing visual details in this text remarkably well, especially those in the last three lines – ‘verzehrende Gluten’ (devouring embers), ‘Trümmern zerfällt’ (falls apart in ruins). Bach’s melody has a pomposity reminiscent of some of Händel’s arias, but there is no evidence of borrowing or imitating. Bach was merely illustrating the world’s pomp and vanity as stated in the text.

Timings: Werner [1] (4:29), Richter 1 [2] (3:40), Harnoncourt [3] (3:53), Rotzsch [4] (4:25), Rilling [6] (4:29), Leusink [7] (4:18)

I sang the praises of Siegmund Nimsgern, who sings this aria with Harnoncourt, couple of times in the past. See, for example the discussion of Cantata BWV 168 (Rilling’s recording) at:
In cantata BWV 26 he is also second to none. I would like to point out the flexibility and ease with which he handles everything here, slight of pomposity here and falling apart there. The other bass singers of this aria are not far behind and, as with the tenor aria, my preference is purely emotional.

Personal preference: Nimsgern/Harnoncourt [3], [gap] Adam/Richter 1 [2], Wenk/Werner [1], Polster/Rotzsch [4], Huttenlocher/Rilling [6], Ramselaar/Leusink [7]


Movements to take away: The aria for tenor with Krebs/Werner [1] and the aria for bass with Nimsgern/Harnoncourt [3].

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

David Smith wrote (November 17, 2002):
I've made a couple of submissions but never properly introduced myself. My name is
David Smith and I am an Anglican priest in Saskatchewan, Canada. I've been listening to Bach's cantatas avidly for a number of years now and although I haven't got much musical education I try to read what I can to help me appreciate Bach.

BWV 26 has been a delightful surprise. I believe the question of its relation to the Scripture readings has been covered in comments by Dick Wursten and Tom Braatz.
My reading of the cantata is very different from that of Smend, an "uncanny, horror-filled cantata." It seems to me more in the spirit of the line from Isaiah 40, "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever." In fact, the same image is used in the third movement: "Die Shonheit fallt als eine Blume." (Sorry about the transliteration). And surely the point of this is partly that it is a beautiful image. The passing of beautiful things is itself beautiful. And that beauty is reflected especially in the tenor aria. However, the beauty of the passing world is a trap and a temptation if the soul seeks for it what can only be found in the eternal God.

The cantata, it seems to me deals with two realities - the beauty of the transitory world
and the trap of becoming attached to it. This seems to me to be expressed in the opening chorus, with the sopranos, singing the hymn tune, representing neutrally and innocently, the fact of the fleeting character of natural life. This in itself is not a bad thing - a mist that comes and goes is a beautiful thing. But the other voices in the chorus sound the note of threat for the soul that lies in this transitoriness - that it will
become attached to what is bound to disappear. So there is both a note of beauty and a note of warning in the opening chorus.

The beauty is reflected in the musical picture of the flowing river in the first aria. Nothing is really amiss here, although such beauty is perilously attractive. Then the transition to warning occurs in the recitative. Joy turns into sorrow when man gets attached to passing natural life in the wrong way - "Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit". The bass aria is a note of warning about this attachment. If the first aria is mostly about the beauty of nature but makes us think about how perilously it invites the wrong kind of attachment, perhaps the second aria is a warning about the peril of attachment but its beauty still reminds us of nature's beauty. If both of these arias are in some way dual-edged, perhaps that explains the idea that there is an irony present.

The second recitative uncovers the root of the peril of attachment to the temporal. It is the expression of a desire to be like a god. Inasmuch as we are temporal natural beings we are simply part of the river of change and time. Inasmuch as we are capable of standing outside it and seeking our good in it, we ought to be seeking our good in the eternal God.

The final chorale directs our attachment upward to God in an expression of the common heritage of faith.

I find in this cantata a musical expression of the age-old teaching that the world of time and change is one that only imperfectly participates in the absolute and pure being of the divine. We are invited to admire the beauty of the passing world, and then to turn upwards to its source rather than become attached to it with a love that is properly meant for the eternal. A wonderful musical expression of these realities!

I've been listening to Harnoncourt's recording [3] of the cantata.

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 17, 2002):
BWV 26 - The Recordings:

This week I listened to the following recordings:

Richter (1966) (his 1st recording) [2]; Harnoncourt (1973) [3]; Rotzsch (1977) [4]; Rilling (1979-80) [6]; Leusink [7] (1999)

In this group of recordings, Richter, Rotzsch, and Rilling are non-HIP, while Harnoncourt and Leusink are HIP. All the usual distinctions apply, most importantly of all the fact that the HIP recordings use a pitch that is a semitone lower than the standard pitchused in the non-HIP recordings.

Timings of the Mvts.:

Mvt. 1 (listed from slowest to fastest):
[4] Rotzsch 3:10
[3] Harnoncourt 2:49
[7] Leusink 2:47
[2] Richter 2:27
[6] Rilling 2:22

Mvt. 2 (Tenor Aria):
[3] Harnoncourt 7:42
[7] Leusink 6:56
[4] Rotzsch 6:52
[2] Richter 6:08
[6] Rilling 5:21

Mvt. 4 (Bass Aria)
[6] Rilling 4:29
[4] Rotzsch 4:25
[7] Leusink 4:18
[3] Harnoncourt 3:53
[2] Richter 3:40

Mvt. 6 (Final Chorale)
[2] Richter 1:00
[7] Leusink 0:52
[6] Rilling 0:51
[4] Rotzsch 0:46
[3] Harnoncourt 0:42

Mvt. 1:

[2] Richter:
In his 1st recording using the full orchestral and choral forces at his disposal and with one of the fastest tempi in this group, Richter gives a relentlessly forward-driving performance. It is difficult not to get caught up in the forceful delivery of the music. There are, however, some slightly distracting features as well: Instead of having a horn playing colla parte with the sopranos, Richter decides to play this part on the organ himself using some very high, shrill stops (one of his idiosyncrasies.) This is one of the less desirable aspects of the Richter series. Richter may have frequently conducted from the organ, but his unusual choice of high stops which he uses to duplicate the vocal parts, seems to be a throwback to the early 20th century when Bach conductors easily added clarinets and what have you to what was already from a HIP standpoint a very large orchestra. The supporting vocal parts, in their enthusiasm, are on the verge of shouting their parts. With this forceful playing and singing, this interpretation is less like fog appearing and dissipating and much more like an angry mob that has been cheated of living a full life.

[3] Harnoncourt:
With a heavy bass (bc) consisting of cello, string bass and bassoon (possibly even an organ), there is no way that Harnoncourt can achieve a unified statement based on the text which speaks of fog quickly appearing but then also lifting. Perhaps the muffled, rather insecure sounds created by the accompanying voices (A, T, B) were intentional, but imitating the sound of human being’s life rushing by quickly is not enhanced by insecurity and lack of clarity. Perhaps Harnoncourt went beyond even normal expectations by creating a ‘foggy’ sound in the voices while the bc occasionally provided a fog horn effect. The only part that I can identify with in this interpretation and which is well performed is the cantus firmus. This is clear, strong and sustained throughout. Would that the other effects that Harnoncourt was attempting to achieve were more convincing!

[4] Rotzsch:
Here we have the slowest version of all. This should give us an opportunity to hear things that might get lost in the faster versions. But somehow this version does not really get off the ground. The first impression is of a bc that is well fortified, perhaps too much so. The heavy sound of the string basses that even manage to make the 16th note runs become weighty and slow seems to give no heed to the words, “bald entstehet und wieder bald vergehet” [“soon arise, but just as quickly disappear.”] The single positive factor, just as in the Harnoncourt recording, is the clear chorale melody suspended above everything else by the boy sopranos of the Thomaner Chor. The German diction is superlative here, but I do not understand why Rotzsch has to resort to what sounds almost like occasional shouting in the accompanying voices. There is some lack of precision in the violins and oboes. I do not hear the colla parte horn being played here.

[6] Rilling:
By having the violins play spiccato (and with much greater precision than Rotzsch), by eliminating the string bass and using only celli and organ which play staccato and lightly, and with the fastest tempo on record, Rilling achieves a feeling of lightness while not giving up the strength of the message (there are, after all, 2 exclamation marks in the short text.) Here, for the 1st time, the listener will hear that a corno (probably a trumpet) is being used in unison with the sopranos. Since Rilling’s cantus firmus parts are usually too soft or not clearly sung, Bach’s inclusion of the trumpet here is very helpful to create the right effect. The trained voices in the A, T, and B parts give a breathtaking precision performance that adds considerably to the success of this version. Rilling’s solution to the problem of the textual interpretation is a very good one in that it takes into account both the forward rushing movement of time as well as the notion that an important, emphatic statement about the condition of man’s life here on earth is being made.

[7] Leusink:
The anemic entrance of the sopranos sans corno sets the stage for this modern HIP version. The sopranos sing the chorale in a very lackadaisical manner. The use of double bass, which, for some strange reason, always predominates in this series, adds heaviness to what otherwise could be considered a very ‘lite’ orchestra, ‘lite’ because of the muffled (devoid of sufficient formants or overtones in the higher register) sound that it generally produces. The bc sounds comical at times. The accompanying voices are more energetic, just as Bach wrote their parts, but sometimes they sound as if they are simply trying too hard. (I think that they are simply grateful that they ‘got their notes right somehow.’)

Mvt. 2 (Tenor Aria):

It is amazing just how many good tenors get to sing this interesting aria which has been put down or given a second rating by a number of commentators. We can be thankful for being able to hear these voices and compare them. In this entire group there is only one that falls short of excellence: Leusink/Nico van der Meel [7] who gives an average, if not a slightly below average interpretation of this aria. Although he has mastered some areas of vocal technique, he still has a long way to go if he wants to attain the excellence exhibited in the other recordings. He will also need to work on removing an overly nasal quality on certain vowels and diphthongs: “ei,” for instance, has much too much nasal coloring. Compared to the other tenors, his voice is a half-voice typical of many HIP vocalists nowadays which, if it continues to perform in this vein, will always lack depth, power/volume and a true ability to project a convincing message to an audience.

[3] The performance by Harnoncourt/Equiluz is in a category all by itself, not necessarily the best overall performance when considering the instrumental accompaniment. If the interpretative emphasis here is isolated mainly to ‘water’ and ‘water drops,’ then this performance succeeds admirably. I am amazed at the fluidity of Equiluz voice and with his ability to clearly establish each note in the long coloraturas without have to ‘punch’ or enunciate each 16th note with ‘he-he-he’ etc. This version flows and, in contrast, in the middle section, the water drops sound like pearls. Nothing is forced as he delicately reaches for the high notes. The disappointment with this version is that it is more difficult to get the notion fleeting time [“Die Zeit vergeht”] when the tempo is 2:21 minutes slower than the fastest version. Also the somewhat unclear accompaniment with Harnoncourt not at his best playing the cello, if he is the one doing so, leaves much to be desired.

[2] The Richter/Haefliger version gives us a full voice with plenty of interpretative power to spare. I do sense, however, that there are times when Haefliger seems to be forcing his voice, as if he did not have an easy method at hand to soften the blow on some of the higher notes. The difficult coloraturas, although excellently performed, seem to cause him to exert himself more than the subsequent tenors do.

[4] Peter Schreier, in the Rotzsch recording, has extremely clear diction and a voice that will carry the message he is singing to the most distant corners of the church. Since Rotzsch’s tempo is moderate, Schreier has time to do some interesting things with the phrasing or emphasis within the flowing coloraturas. As a result, one hears not simply 30 or more 16th notes in a row all sung at the same level, but rather subtle variations within the 16th-note groupings. This is a sign of great vocalist who continues to discover new things that will enhance the performance.

[6] Certainly the great master of the tenor coloraturas is Adalbert Kraus. As much as I cringe almost every time that I have to listen to him ‘do’ recitatives, he always seems to make up for this by delivering a superb performance where arias with coloraturas are involved. Not only does he easily match what other good tenors have offered in performing this aria, he supercedes the mark by giving a tour de force performance that can not easily be equaled. This is due to the extremely fast (the fastest in the entire group of recordings that I listened to) tempo that Rilling provides. Rilling very likely seized upon the words, “so schnell’ and made this the main focus of his interpretation. This performance is simply breathtaking.

Mvt. 4 (Bass Aria):

Here we have a similar grouping to that of the tenor soloists: There is one singleton, Bas Ramselaar in the Leusink recording [7], who also gives a clear rendition of the aria, but who, with his half voice, can not be placed with the other ‘heavy weights’ who have trained voices that are truly able to project sound and meaning. Ramselaar sings sotto voce which does nothing to carry the message with conviction. In Ramselaar’s case, he does not deliberately sing sotto voce as some opera singers might during rehearsals when it is not necessary to engage the voice the same way as it would during an actual performance before a large audience. With Ramselaar, and all the other half voices that seem to abound in many HIP recordings and performances, this sotto voce voice is all that you will ever get to hear since the voice has not been trained to produce more volume or it may simply not have the innate capacity to be anything more than it already is.

[3] In contrast the other voices in the remaining recordings have, to lesser or greater degree, the characteristic which is very desirable for an aria of this particular type. This type of bass is called in German, “ein schwarzer Baß” [“a ‘black’ bass”] of which Siegmund Nimsgern is a very good example. Listen to the Harnoncourt recording and recognize the power and depth of such a voice which conveys much more than simply the correct notes. Such a voice commands respect and can even create fear within the listener. The message contained in the text comes across much more easily and meaningfully, when someone like Nimsgern sings it. A half voice can not do it justice, or perhaps only half justice which is all that a sotto voce voice is able to offer.

[4] Very similar to Nimsgern is Hermann Christian Polster in the Rotzsch recording. Somehow this version is just a little less scary than Nimsgern. This comes as a result of trying to sing everything more smoothly with more legato. Some of the intended effect of the text is lost.

[2] Theo Adam, in this, for him early recording, does a commendable job of singing this as a ‘schwarzer’ bass might. In later Bach recordings, Adam, begins to lose the edge that he has here (he probably wore out his voice by singing too much and as result losing vocal control), but this version can be classified among the best in this group of recordings.

[6] Huttenlocher in the Rilling recording, which, by the way, has an excellent accompaniment by the 3 oboes and a very punchy bc with the harpsichord also quite active in realizing the figured bass, gives a memorable performance which can easily match the quality of the other 3 ‘schwarze’ basses.

Mvt. 6 (Final Chorale)

[2] Richter:
This version takes into account the final words that we have been waiting for: ”Wer Gott fürcht, bleibt ewig stehen” [“Whoever fears God, will remain ‘standing’”] and ‘remain standing’ is just what Richter does on the fermati that Bach indicated at the end of each line of the chorale. The fermata normally means a long holding of the note, and while Richter may sometimes overdo this at times, here it is not only preferable, but mandatory based on the text and the final important line toward which all preceding verses of the chorale have been pointing, or for which word of comfort the listener has been waiting all this time.

[3] Harnoncourt:
Harnoncourt is still stuck on the 1st words of the chorale: “how everything does fly by so quickly and how worthless everything is!” Even the unaccented final syllables of words such as “flüchtig” and “nichtig” are treated as if they were nothing substantial at all, so it is no small wonder that Harnoncourt has the choir sing the final word, “stehen” in such a manner that it becomes unsubstantial, that it loses half of its entire value. Harnoncourt devalues this important word, not realizing how, in doing so, he has destroyed the firm foundation upon which man’s faith is founded. From trying to be an interpreter of Bach’s cantatas, he has moved into the realm of undermining and destroying them. Unfortunately, this technique of singing chorales in this manner has brought forth other ill-begotten progeny among subsequent HIP conductors:

[7] Leusink, the only other HIP conductor in this group of recordings, demonstrates the extreme to which the (mis)treatment of these ending syllables (over which Bach placed fermati) can be taken. All that is left now of these syllables are grunting schwa sounds, truly pitiful endings for the great lines of a chorale set to 4-pt harmony by Bach.

Rotzsch [4] and Rilling [6] present a hodge-podge of endings to the musical lines, sometimes using enjambement and completely disregarding Bach’s fermati, at other times cutting the note value short just a bit, but then maintaining the final fermata (at least this one!)

[6] Rilling, as usual, has a problematical soprano section that is unable to maintain a clear line due to excessive vibratos among the sopranos. How much clearer everything sounds when performed by the Thomaner Chor [4] with boy sopranos and altos! There is a solidity and clarity unmatched by Rilling’s trained voices.

Summary of Recommendations:

Mvt. 1: Rilling [6] seems to have gotten everything right here

Mvt. 2: An excellent group to choose from: Haefliger [2], Schreier [4], Kraus [6] with Equiluz [3] also giving a marvelous performance that only matchcertain parts of the text and suffers from an inadequate instrumental accompaniment.

Mvt. 4: Go for the ‘black’ basses, all of them, and forget about Ramselaar [7]!

Mvt. 6: Despite excessive fermati, choose Richter [2]. Do not neglect the Thomaner Chor with Rotzsch [4] which gives a good idea (contrary to Harnoncourt’s final chorale renditions [3]) what the sound of Bach’s choir really might have been like in Bach’s time.


BWV 's 26 and 111

Neil Halliday wrote (December 22, 2004):
Has anyone noticed the similarity in form of these two opening choruses?

I refer to the important initial motive consisting of an emphatic downward-stepping, two-note figure (two chords of A down to E, and variations, in the course of the movements.)

BWV 26 has the racing upward and downward scales, and sometimes even contrary motion scales, in the orchestral parts; BWV 111 is simpler in its construction, but equally energetic and forceful.

Without looking at the score, my piano tells me both choruses are in A minor; both have a vigorous 4/4 rhythm (which Richter takes at virtually the same speed, so much so, at first I thought I was listening to the same chorus.

Both these cantatas have received extensive commentary at the BCW, but the striking similarity of these two opening choruses does not appear to have been mentioned.

John Reese wrote (December 22, 2004):
[To Neil Halliday] Let me take a look, I'll get back to you...

John Reese wrote (December 22, 2004):
[To Neil Halliday] Interesting. The harmonic structure is strikingly similar, and I think the variation in character owes to the fact that the meanings of the texts are so starkly contrasting -- one is about "flightyness" while the other is about a "firm foundation". This would explain Bach's simpler, more solid approach to BWV 111.

It's possible that Bach either elaborated BWV 26 from BWV 111, or that he came up with the ideas independently, thinking along the same harmonic lines.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 22, 2004):
[To John Reesse] For what it's worth to the argument: these two cantatas were only a few months apart. November 19 1724 for BWV 26, and January 21 1725 for BWV 111.

And, those two first movements are based on different chorales.

And, BWV 26's first movement is in C meter, while BWV 111's is in cut-C. These tempos should not be the same, either in absolute speed or in accentuation.

Peter Smaill wrote (December 23, 2004):
Thank you for drawing attention to this interesting compositional parallel between BWV 26 and BWV111.

As regards the opening chorus of BWV ,"Ach wir nichtig", the linkage normally apparent to Bach practitioners is with the Orgelbuchlein, where we again find running scales and contrary motion depicting the transitoriness of life . Russel Stinson points out that the Cantata contains precisely the same sort of scalar configuration, and the motif is also found in Bohm's organ partita on the chorale.

The chorale is one of the few to have received a really satisfactory translation ,in terms of English metre , from the nineteenth century polymath, Member of Parliament and diplomat Sir John Bowring . Here it is:

O how cheating,O how fleeting
Is our earthly being,
'Tis a mist in wintry weather,
Gathered in an hour together ,
And as soon dispersed in ether.

O how cheating , O how fleeting
Are our days departing
Like a deep and headlong river
Flowing onward , flowing ever ,
Tarrying not and stopping never.

Thus closes for me one of the most perfect of the Cantatas , in which the text affords a series of opportunities for Bach to illustrate imagery using his fully developed powers of invention .And yet , the opening theme is treated with fidelity to the interpretation of twenty years previously , illustrating here as elsewhere the power of his musical memory.

Will Stoner wrote (December 23, 2004):
[To Peter Smaill] For members or visitors interested in MIDI renditions of the cantatas, the Classical Archives web page has (among others) the entire BWV 26 except (I think) for the recitatives. Excellent they are...

Peter Smaill wrote (December 25, 2004):
Before we progress to the delights of the early cantatas, a further arcane thought on BWV 26, "Ach wie nichtig, ach wie fluchtig".

The contrawise rushing of the scalar passage appears to commentators such as Robertson and Whittaker as betokening the rushing to and fro of transitory existence . This is indeed suggested by the meaning of the words, but there is a trigger in the words themselves .

In the original setting of the words of the chorale, by Michael Franck, the words "Leben" and "Nebel" are emphasised with capital letters, drawing attention to the fact that one is the other read backwards. And, in the revised setting by Schemelli, the expressions "Ach wie fluchtig" and "Ach Wie nichting" are transposed alternately .

Are there other examples of such word play in the cantatas? The palindromic arrangement of the SJP touches on linguistic forms , it is true , but I have in mind the cue being word play of the leben-nebel type being echoed in the musical motifs .

A Happy Christmas to all.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 25, 2004):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>>Are there other examples of such word play in the cantatas? The palindromic arrangement of the SJP (BWV 245) touches on linguistic forms , it is true , but I have in mind the cue being word play of the leben-nebel type being echoed in the musical motifs.<<
Check the following links and search for 'palindrom':


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 26: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Bach-W. Walton: The Wise Virgins, suite from the ballet (arranged music of J.S. Bach)

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