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Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

Cantata BWV 3
Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid [I]
Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Discussions in the Week of February 11, 2007 [Continue]

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 13, 2007):
BWV 3/1 Time Signatures

The time signature in the Alto, 2nd Oboe d'amore, and Viola parts for mvt. 1 is cut-time (C with a vertical slash), but the remaining parts have only a C (4/4) time signature. These 3 parts were copied by J A Kuhnau, an otherwise very reliable copyist. Also, Bach made no effort to change this time signature when he corrected the parts. What does this mean?

I have noticed this irregularity only a few times in the past, but have not paid close attention to the frequency of its occurrence. I do remember, however, coming upon a comment somewhere in the NBA KBs where the editor indicated that Bach did not appear to distinguish between these two time signatures, but also that is was more apparent or restricted to the Leipzig period or some portion thereof. Since seeing it just once, I have not been able to find this comment which could be potentially important.

A recent serious attempt to wrestle with this problem and many others pertaining to Bach's tempi and rhythmic practices has been made by Ido Abravaya in his "On Bach's Rhythm and Tempo", Bärenreiter, 2006. There we find statements such as the following:

p. 41: "It should be questioned, whether a distinction between cut-time (C w/vertical slash) and simply C (4/4) in Bach's printed works is always purposefully intended, or meaningful."

p. 176: "Quantz and Kirnberger represent the extreme opposites of tempo philosophy: Quantz (perhaps on grounds of practicality rather than principle) presented a rigid, quasi-proportionistic picture of tempo as a variable, whereas Kirnberger regarded it as a flexible, rubber-like entity. Equally conspicuous is the discrepancy between Quantz's precepts and the tempo indications in his own music. But it is their difference of method, ultimately leaving one with the dilemma of choosing between impractically rigid 'practical' instructions, or precepts vague enough as that may never become explicitly wrong. But examining Bach's actual policy of tempo indications is even more perplexing, as its lack of system does not even approximate any of the tempo philosophies of this time -- or ours."

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 13, 2007):
< p. 176: "Quantz and Kirnberger represent the extreme opposites of tempo philosophy: Quantz (perhaps on grounds of practicality rather than principle) presented a rigid, quasi-proportionistic picture of tempo as a variable, whereas Kirnberger regarded it as a flexible, rubber-like entity. >
Cool! Kirnberger's secret contribution to the history of rubber should probably be added to this handy and fascinating timeline: http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/timeline2.htm
Too bad he didn't figure out vulcanization way ahead of Goodyear, and go into a lucrative side business for himself.

Anyway, thanks for yet another reference to a fine recent book, really being on a roll to read and recommend new stuff. Ido Abravaya, "On Bach's Rhythm and Tempo", Bärenreiter, 2006. Looks like another enjoyable one to read. Do you know of a good US distributor for it, or is it just easiest to go from German Amazon? Amazon.de

What's his intriguing-looking idea about "durational strata" as advertised there? Is it like "the big beat" and "hypermeter" that I'm familiar with, or the "tactus" distinctions in George Houle's excellent book Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Amazon.com or something else entirely? Houle's is an absolutely essential book to have, IMO....

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 13, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Too bad he didn't figure out vulcanization way ahead of Goodyear, and go into a lucrative side business for himself. >
Hold on a second! Or was that Salieri's line. Charles Goodyear was almost on my block. I have done geology programs for second-grade guys at the Goodyear School in Woburn MA.

My life goal would be to have an elementary school named for me, except they are all named for me. Where you go for Edziu-cation.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 13, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>What's his intriguing-looking idea about "durational strata" as advertised there?<<
For music before 1600, Abravaya quotes Willi Apel for the most succinct description of durational strata:

"In looking over, for instance, the works of Orlando di Lasso or Palestrina the uniformity of the notation is striking..The old masters.[wrote] all their pieces in the same note-values, chiefly "brevis, semibrevis, minima", and "semiminimum", the "fusa" being used only in groups of two for a quick cadential ornamentation in the character of a mordent."

Limiting himself at first to the conservative motet (vocal) style, Abravaya observes that "uniform notation" is one of the essential features of this style:

p. 8: "Within this uniformity, each stratum fulfills definite functioins, which may be described as follows (for 'tactus allabreve {cut-time} notation):

I. The slow stratum (semibreve and longer notes), the level of the old-style 'tactus' beat, that is, one hand motion (either up or down) of a 'tactus allabreve.' On this level alone, there is little differentiation here between lighter and heavier beats. Harmonically, this level is the strictest, allowing no dissonances.

II. The middle stratum (minim) allows - albeit not often - dissonances as passing notes; but they occur primarily as syncopated suspensions, which are also prepared and resolved at the same (minim) level. The Palestrina style has often been regarded as a hovering style, free of dynamic accents, lacking differentiation between light and heavy beats; but this applies mainly to the slow stratum (I). In the middle stratum, the rules of dissonance 'per se' are an adequate differentiation between weak and strong minims (even ignoring dynamic accentuation). This level is also the domain of syllabic singing, while faster strata are normally melismatic.

III. The fast stratum (semiminim), the level of melismatic 'virtuoso' singing. Fast singing imposes certain vocal melodic limitations (like avoiding ascending melodic skips from downbeat notes). Conversely, some liberties in dissonance treatment are granted (passing and auxiliary notes, anticipations, 'cambiatae', etc.) Only very limited syllabic activity is allowed.

IV. The vocal-'ornate' stratum (fusa) is the fastest one in 16th-century vocal style. There is practically no distinction at this level between consonance and dissonance; but melodic movement is most limited, allowing no skips at all. Its vocality is emphasized in that it is usually limited to short ornamental figures in groups of two (seldom four) notes; longer groups of 'fusae' are normally avoided in vocal music."

p. 33
>>"The age of thoroughbass" is the famous epithet given by Hugo Riemann to the Baroque era. The 'Basso continuo' became the main hallmark distinguishing Baroque styles from earlier periods, as well as from the following Classical era. The rhythmic concomitant of the basso continuo, the so-called 'walking-bass' texture - although it is inseparably associated with the bass line, hence with harmony in general - also governs an entire 'durational' stratum, the middle one (II), lending it particular significance. The walking bass persisted from Monteverdi's time to Bach, but still often occurs in compositions of later generations as well. As we shall see, the walking-bass element was also used in Baroque 'stile antico' as an additional 'modernizing' factor, whereas in the next generation, the late 18th century, it represented a 'retrospective' element. In other words, it is the same stylistic component signaling musical modernism in early Baroque, and conservatisim in the Classical period.<<

p. 116-117
"Did Bach use proportional tempi? The idea that Bach, or most of his contemporaries, regarded rhythmic and tempo proportions (i.e., long-term simple arithmetic relations between the durations of a given note value), as a universal or general principle, should apparently be ruled out. But this does not preclude the use of arithmetic proportion for more limited aims and ranges, for example, over metric changes within a single piece, or even between adjacent pieces or movements. Here Bach refers to changes of the modern (17th-century) time signature ('Taktart') in its older sense of proportional sign, either simultaneously or consecutively. The persistence of a constant beat pulse throughout such changes may be particularly 'apparent/conspicuous' when it occurs jointly with 'the persistence of a cantus firmus', in the form of a chorale melody. Well-known examples are in the passage from Verse 2 (3/2) to Verse 3 (9/4 or 9/8) of "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig", BWV 656, as well as the concluding chorale of the cantata "Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht" (BWV 105/6) where the 'proportional retard' of the string tremolo (16ths - triplets - eighth notes) is cued by changing time signatures in the string parts (C - 12/8 - C), while the vocal tempo remains constant."

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 13, 2007):
[Abravaya's book about rhythm - thanks for these excerpts:]
< p. 8: “Within this uniformity, each stratum fulfills definite functions, which may be described as follows (for ‘tactus allabreve {cut-time} notation):
I. The slow stratum (semibreve and longer notes), the level of the old-style ‘tactus’ beat, that is, one hand motion (either up or down) of a ‘tactus allabreve.’(...)
II. The middle stratum (minim) allows – albeit not often – dissonances as passing notes; but they occur primarily as syncopated suspensions, which are also prepared and resolved at the same (minim) level. (...)
III. The fast stratum (semiminim), the level of melismatic ‘virtuoso’ singing. (...)
IV. The vocal-‘ornate’ stratum (fusa) is the fastest one in 16th-century vocal style. There is practically no distinction at this level between consonance and dissonance; but melodic movement is most limited, allowing no skips at all. >
So basically...this stratification of function (different levels within the metric structure) is almost the same as the "rules" in writing Fuxian counterpoint, as to what types of dissonances or leaps are allowed to happen at which layers.

And it's apparently also similar to the stratification of Phrase, Beats, Pulses, and Taps: as analyzed throughout the book Dance and the Music of J S Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne.

Stile antico, dance music, whatever: they exhibit these strata of different note-values moving at different speeds, and having different functions in the construction (and performance) of the music.

...All of which represents one of the important processes musicians work out by practicing and rehearsing the music, i.e. learning it thoroughly to prepare for performance. :)

- Which notes are more important than which other notes, belonging to which layers;

- How much accentuation or articulation they should receive, according to their layer;

- How much room there is to bend the notes with rubato or an inegal within a layer (but not across layers);

- How the word underlay fits or goes against the scheme of these layers;

- Which whole bars or beats should be "weak" or "strong" (or in 18th century terms, "bad" or "good") vis-a-vis other bars or beats, so they receive more or less emphasis in the performance (such as singing weak syllables more quietly or shortly than strong syllables, just as they would be done in speech....);

- Which layer of the meter the conductor should be indicating as the basic unit, for each different section of the music (here's where the C-vs-cut-C stuff comes in, I believe);

- Which layer(s) of the music are appropriate for the musicians to introduce additional ornamentation, whether it's Italianate divisions or French-styled signed ornaments. The ornamentation belongs to the notes in these various layers, and it's important to recognize that some of the layers themselves already are ornamentation, to be played/sung with the appropriate freedom and making it sound improvised.

All of which is basic to the musicianship of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and other fine musicians who have studied these rhythmic principles. This is why the performances don't simply sound like a steady chug of sight-read notes, all the same as one another; and why weak bars/beats/syllables are performed more quietly/shortly than strong ones.

It's tied to an understanding of rhetoric and speech patterns, too. The music can be viewed like an outline of main points and sub-points and decorative points, etc, and played/sung that way too, to bring out its structure and message most clearly.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 13, 2007):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>>All of which is basic to the musicianship of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and other fine musicians who have studied these rhythmic principles. This is why the performances don't simply sound like a steady chug of sight-read notes, all the same as one another; and why weak bars/beats/syllables are performed more quietly/shortly than strong ones.
It's tied to an understanding of rhetoric and speech patterns, too. The music can be viewed like an outline of main points and sub-points and decorative points, etc, and played/sung that way too, to bring out its structure and message most clearly.<<
The disjointed and unmusical performances by these performers (this is a general statement which means 'more often than not' but certainly not 'always') appear to be exaggerations of the principles of 'Affekt' and any theoretical rules established by musicologists. Often the over-emphasis of these principles in practice results in distortions such as increased emphasis on certain notes and an increased detachment between one note and another in a phrase. The unaccented notes simply disappear, become inaudible. This is no longer musical rhetoric but the destruction of a melodic line or the removal of the underpinning of the vocal declamation of a recitative. The equation: speech heard on the street is the same as what should be heard in a recitative as well is another exaggeration caused through misunderstanding of "Klangrede". Just because Harnoncourt believes that ugly ideas must sound very ugly in music with aggressive sounds which tax the singer and/or instrumentalist to the limit, does not mean that Bach would have performed certain passages the way Harnoncourt does nor would Bach have followed the dogmatic pronouncement by Monteverdi that the singer should sing the way he normally speaks ("recitar cantando" with a much stronger emphasis upon 'recitar' than 'cantando'). Harnoncourt makes the mistake of conflating Monteverdi's goals in performance practice with those which he considers Bach would have followed likewise.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 14, 2007):
BWV 3/1; chromatic structure of main motif

An aspect of the main motif of BWV 3/1 (apart from the chorale melody) is its chromatic structure (as opposed to its nature, which is obvious), which had escaped me until now (thanks to Thomas for pointing it out in the previous discussions).

This two-bar motif, first appearing on the 2nd oboe and lasting for two bars, is built on a descending chromatic scale of 6 notes, from A down to E inclusive, with each note of the chromatic scale occurring in succession on the beat (on beats 2,3 and 4 in the first bar, and beats 1,2 and 3 in the second bar).

I had been regarding the motif as merely a major scale figure (in A major at the start) with G and F naturals occurring toward the figure's conclusion, but a superior consideration sees its structure as actually being built on the 6 descending chromatic notes, as outlined above.

And yet this motif, and the ritornello in gene, retains more than a hint of major scale sweetness, in contrast with the severity of the trombone reinforced bass cantus firmus in the choral sections.

Chris Rowson wrote (February 14, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< An aspect of the main motif of 3/1 (apart from the chorale melody) is its chromatic structure (as opposed to its nature, which is obvious), which had escaped me until now (thanks to Thomas for pointing it out in the previous discussions). >
.Yes, and this degree of chromaticism reinforces my "tentative conclusion" that this was not written for people to sight-read at Divine Service. Look at Oboe 2 in bar 9! Even at the very slow tempo I favour for an Adagio, this is likely to be misread the first time.

And how could anyone going to play continuo for this without having heard it and not have some horrible accidents?

Julian Mincham wrote (February 16, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< And yet this motif, and the ritornello in general, retains more than a hint of major scale sweetness, >
Neil I think I look on it slightly differently. It is built upon the descending chromatic scale certainly but I feel that the significant notes are the G and F naturals (rather than the G and F sharps) -each occurring on one of the main beats of the bar. I feel that they are crucial in establishing the character of the movement. Thus for me it's not quite that a major key sweetness remains despite the chromatic scale but the other way around----- rather a minor key somberness colours and subdues the (usually somewhat brighter) major qualities.

I labour the point a bit because I have found numerous examples where Bach has created effects of exquisite sadness from the major mode and one inevitable seeks to find how he does it. Time and again one part of the explanation is the incorporating of the minor notes (i.e. flattened 3rd, 6th and 7th) into the otherwise major melody or harmony. There are examples of all three occurring within a couple of bars.

The flattened 3rd often occurs harmonised with a diminished 7th chord. One of my favourite examples of this is the alto aria from BWV 30--an incredibly jazzy 'blues-like' effect.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 14, 2007):
< Yes, and this degree of chromaticism reinforces my "tentative conclusion" that this was not written for people to sight-read at Divine Service. Look at Oboe 2 in bar 9! Even at the very slow tempo I favour for an Adagio, this is likely to be misread the first time.
And how could anyone going to play continuo for this without having heard it and not have some horrible accidents? >

I have some similar comments about Mvt. 5, the Duetto for soprano and alto, being impractically hard for an ensemble to sight-read accurately. Fine music, of course, but needing serious work from musicians at any level.

The Duetto has two singers, two oboes d'amore in some reasonable unison with violins, and improvised continuo from an unfigured bass line. And this is one of Bach's relatively easy bass parts to improvise from, most of the way, although a sight-reader from this (seeing only his own part in isolation) will be hitting a lot of downbeat resolutions way before the melodic parts are ready to finish their 4-3 suspensions. Whoops. The way to learn those is to hear the other parts in rehearsal, and/or write in cautionary figures so the organist knows what to expect.

There are also some unexpected chords that are simply going to be missed on first go, such as the third and fourth bars into the middle section (i.e. after the fermata that marks the A-B-A structure). Right there it's not at all obvious from the unfigured bass part alone that we're modulating into F# minor, let alone in a harmonic inversion. It looks like C# minor, B major, E major, and A major, going only by the bass notes; but it's really C# minor, then an E# diminished 7th with the soprano's surprising D natural (whereas a C# and a 4-2 chord would be the first guess after B major is wrong), and then F# minor (but inverted) on the downbeat. But that's just the organist's problem. Whoops.

We also have to deal with several oboe and violin players all accurately counting their syncopated entrances, through the whole aria. The difficulty of unison blend between strings and oboes has already been mentioned, too: unison is a notably difficult texture to play cleanly.

And the alto singer's part stays up higher than average. And his second entrance is at a surprising time interval, only one bar behind the soprano instead of two. Meanwhile, the soprano gets to deal with various leaps of fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and octaves; and runs going up and down after them, with long melismas, and presumably with clear diction. Should we mention stamina? This aria alone goes on for some seven to nine minutes.

Xavier Rist wrote (February 16, 2007):
BWV 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid

On Mvt. 1 Chorus
The atmosphere of quiet resignation and abandonment of this piece is really sublime and poignant. Bach achieves this expressive goal through an extremely rich polyphonic and harmonic writing (of usually at least 6 real parts) and the wonderfully interlaced braid (or would you say strap work?) of the two oboe d'amore parts in the opening tutti, later resumed by the upper voices of the choir, the basses and trombone providing with the choral line the only element of trust to which the Christian can cling to, on the "narrow way" of his redemption. In a previous post, Thomas Braatz has given us an accurate and thorough analysis of the movement, to which I wish to add just a few remarks.

Let's notice in passing the resemblance between the first notes of the oboe theme and the main motive of BWV 109 "Ich glaube, liebe Herr" opening number, another of Bach's most extraordinary chorus. In BWV 3, I am sure it has been noted that the main theme has two slightly different "profiles", weather it is given to the oboe or to the voices. The four first notes are the same and then the melodic design of the next two beats is different in the instrumental and vocal versions, before coming back to identical again. Since this is not so common, I have been wondering about it for some time before understanding why. Here is the explanation: if Bach would have left the melody exactly as it is in the first bars, he would not have been able to do close fugue entrances in the vocal parts. The theme simply doesn't lend it to such a treatment under that form. In order to elaborate the contrapuntal section he had in mind for the choir he had to change the melodic design of those two beats in the middle. The wonder is that he kept those two "faces" of the melody coexisting during the whole movement, making a virtue of necessity. This kind of detail says a lot about his compositional process, and the supreme freedom with which he invents his own rules along the way, refusing to feel constrained in any way by his material.

I also would like to single out the alternation between chromatic passages (the ones that come from the three first bars "kernel") and diatonic ones, like bars 4 and 5 where Bach introduces the "sigh motive" on a moving bass line. This motive allows Bach to use harmonic retardations that form dissonant 7th and 9th chords on every beat, in such a way that the musical tension is maintained on a very high level, despite the fact that it is tonally steady. Then, from the end of bar 7 to bar 9, he will combine the two motives (a slight variation on the sigh motive under the return of the chromatic oboe dialog) adding another level of enrichment, before returning to a safer and relieving A major in bar 10 and 11.

Let's finally turn our attention to the three first bars, the "kernel". It is worth it because, as so well put by Thomas in his commentary, "it is very much like a seed from which everything organically unfolds and evolves". It is not easy to explain it clearly without the help of musical examples, but I will try. The bass line holds on all along a tenuto A. On that tonic pedal is built a harmonic scheme following a chromatic descendant line in the oboparts: 1st beat : low A (continuo) - 2nd beat : middle A (2nd oboe) - 3rd beat : G sharp - 4th beat : G natural / 1st beat : F sharp - 2nd beat : F natural - 3rd beat : E - 4th beat : high E (1rst oboe) / 1st beat : D sharp - 2nd beat : D natural - 3rd beat : C sharp - 4th beat : C natural / 1st beat : B (here the bass line leaves the pedal and goes to an E, the next bars being in E major and not anymore chromatic as I explained before).

It is important to understand that, although this chromatic line can be cut in half (2 times 6 descending notes separated by an octave jump), the harmonic pattern on pedal tells us clearly that it is indeed a 3 full bar unit. Let's not forget the rest of the strings which, in the background, complement the harmonies by drawing ascending diatonic movements. In other words the chromatic/diatonic dialectic that we have seen is going to play such a role in the course of the piece is already expressed in those first bars.

But here comes the intriguing part. Although being present all along the piece (except in the diatonic parts) and governing the harmonies, this descending chromatic line, obviously the core of the movement (one could say the kernel of the kernel), is indeed a "ghost" line and you have to guess it among the twists and turns of the melody more than you really hear it. Never, not once, is it expressly enunciated melodically and the notes that form it are never placed one besides the other and are always separated by passing notes, embroideries (hope it's the right English term) and other appoggiaturas. As a matter of fact there is not, in any part, one single chromatic descending movement in the entire piece. I don't know if there is any other Bach movement where chromaticism plays such an organic part (and God knows there are many) which share that amazing characteristic. For me, it can only be intentional but, unable to furnish any valid explanation other than conjectural, I leave it to your reflection. One last thing. On the fact that the last note of each choral period is prolonged in the basses and trombone (a process Bach uses rather often), I differ from Thomas' interpretation. I see it as a reminder of the first bars pedal, not the other way around. But it is really a nuance.

Cheers all. I will be away for a few weeks.

Stephen Benson wrote (February 16, 2007):
Discussion re. BWV 3 has gotten a little bit lost in the shuffle this week, and with all the talk about Harnoncourt on another thread, I don't want the week to slip by without mentioning van Egmond's BWV 3 bass aria in the Harnoncourt recording [2].

Chris Kern wrote:
< In Mvt. 3 we are still in the "despair" section of the text, the feeling of which is illustrated by the continuo. Both arias in this cantata exhibit the same pattern that is found in a lot of the chorale cantatas -- in my mind it's a problem but maybe others appreciate it more. Basically the arias are very long, and unbalanced towards the A section (which is then repeated in full). This is especially problematic for me in a continuo-only aria like this one, and there is a tendency for them to become tedious by the time I'm nearing the end of the repeat of the A section. (Whittaker evidently agrees with this; he comments near the end of this cantata that "it is advisable under modern conditions to shorten the Da Capo in most solo numbers.") >
Commentary on this cantata generally seems to support the view expressed here of the bass aria as "long" and "tedious". I don't find that to be true, nor do I agree with its characterization as an expression of "despair". The text rather seems to indicate the joyful suppression of despair, i.e., "Although I may feel hell's anguish and pain, yet always in my heart there must be a true heavenly joy." Van Egmond's supple and agile bass at an animated tempo infuses the melody with that joy.

One of the playlists I keep on my iPod is a collection of personal cantata movement favorites entitled "Bach Cantata Highlights", and this recording is right at the top of the list. The more I listen to Harnoncourt [2], the more I find that this movement is not atypical of his overall approach to Bach. One thing he is particularly good at is communicating this sense of joy, not only as a reflection of the text, but in the very act of music making itself. Cantatas BWV 26 and BWV 37 are two other excellent examples.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 16, 2007):
Chris Stanley wrote:
< Is it pure coincidence that this is the third week in succession where there is a soprano alto duet aria? >
As I mentioned earlier, it seems unlikely that it is coincidence between BWV 124 and BWV 3, especially at this crucial stage of the chorale cantata cycle, early in the half of the liturgical year from Advent to Trinity, with Bach at the absolute peak of his creative intensity. This is a convenient place to note that Bach was very likely interrupted or diverted by the death a few weeks later (Jan. 27, 1725) of the probable librettist of the cycle so far, Andreas Stübel (Wolff, B:LM, p. 278, among numerous sources).

I find the S/A duets especially enjoyable in the Leusink cycle [4], since we get to hear the oft-maligned Buwalda at his best, and paired with S Ruth Holton, who some of us imagine (note the careful choice of word, spare the flame) to be both boyish and Bachian. It makes a pleasing sound to my ears.

I hope to listen in more depth and post some comments on Sunday, but if not, even with all the distractions, there has been substantial discussion of the music the past two weeks. Thanks to everyone, especially new member Xavier.

Xavier Rist wrote (February 17, 2007):
Some quick notes about the recordings of BWV 3. I have listened to Leusink [4], Harnoncourt [2], Rilling [3], Koopman [6] and Suzuki [7].

Mvt. 1 Chorus
Leusink [4] starts beautifully, his instrumental introduction is among the best. Alas, as soon as the choir comes in, all pleasure is spoiled - at least for me. The sound that comes from his sopranos and altos is so... strange (to put it mildly) that it makes me physically uncomfortable. Oh, and the 2nd oboe plays an awful wrong note in bar 9 (fourth beat: he plays C sharp instead of C natural). It is clearly not an accident, since he does it again in the coda, and it doesn't speak very highly of Mr Leusink's hearing abilities...

Rilling [3] displays his usual musical qualities, but I am not crazy about his version, mainly for sound balance reasons. In the beginning I find that his oboes are too far away and the strings are too loud. And when the choir enters, Basses and trombone are too much in the foreground and tend to cover the other parts.

Also for sound reasons, Koopman [6] is less than satisfactory. Not only is it recorded from far, like you are sitting in the 30th row, but they all seem to be playing behind a thick cotton curtain. As for the continuo part, it is so barely audible that they might as well have been playing in the vestry. Needless to say, most of the expressive power of the piece vanishes with such a treatment. You expect the richly layered depth of a Rembrandt or a Georges de la Tour and all you get is this pale, watery aquarelle...

Suzuki [7] is well polished but I can't help feeling he stays on the surface. The slow tempo he chooses to adopt doesn't really allow the music to move along. In the "sigh motive" bars the accents are so exaggerated that you feel you are stuck in moving sands and you loose sense of the overall line. The choir sounds good but their German articulation is really too imprecise.

In Harnoncourt version [2] I like many things: the tempo (not too slow), the fact that the oboes are very present and also their sound, meaty and unrefined yet very expressive. In the choir sections, the balance between the choral line, the other voices and the orchestra is exactly right. The whole movement has a kind of raw quality that I find very idiomatic. More importantly it is for me, by far, the most moving rendition.

Mvt. 2 Choral/Recitative
This original little piece of "teatro da chiesa" alternates three elements: a small continuo ritornello (based on the beginning of the choral treated in shortened values), the periods of the choral in a simple four voices harmonisation, and recitative sections given in turn to each solo voice.

The main differences between versions reside in the tempo of the ritornello and choral which go from slow (Rilling [3]) to moderate (Leusink [4], Harnoncourt [2]) to fast (Koopman [6], Suzuki [7]), and of course the soloists, but they are generally good so everybody will choose according to his own preferences. I personally like Harnoncourt the best, his rendition is pure and simple with excellent singers. Leusink chooses to have the four soloists sing the choral: it is a good idea and they do it extremely well.

Mvt. 3 Bass Aria
Although it has its beauty, I must admit I don't particularly care for that aria, and none of the versions I heard was convincing enough to have me change my mind.

Mvt. 5 Alto/Soprano Duet
In this heavenly duet, four parts of equal importance (continuo, violins in unison with oboe d'amore and the two voices) interweave and overlap like in a perfect little construction set, conveying an overwhelming feeling of felicity. Unfortunately you don't get that feeling in most versions I listened to.

Harnoncourt [2] is really laborious, like he is worried that his boy soprano won't be able to finish the aria. And indeed the child sounds scared all along. Not exactly what the text and music say... Also, Harnoncourt cuts the violin phrase in so many slices that one looses sight of the overall line.

Rilling [3] treats it in the exact opposite way, all legato and "à la corde", and it is not better. His alto doesn't sing so well, with an ugly vibrato, and the result sounds more heavy and awkward than joyful.

Koopman [6] is ridiculously fast, his singers become quickly very agitated, busier to keep up with the tempo than to make music.

Suzuki [7] is less fast, but still too fast. His implacable tempo lacks any form of flexibility - a tendency that I have already noted in his interpretations even after listening to only a few of them - and the general impression is one of indifference.

Not only Holton and Buwalda's rendition with Leusink [4] is clearly above all other versions, it is for me the only one that really does justice to this divine piece. The tempo is perfect with a gentle swinging quality, the four parts are well balanced and the violins and oboe line is phrased just right. Both singers seem perfectly at ease and enjoy themselves. When performed like that one would listen to this movement over and over, like it is a foretaste of paradise.

My conclusion is that this cantata has not been as lucky as some others with recordings. For the opening chorus, there is only one version that I truly like (Harnoncourt [2]). It is the same for the duet where only Leusink [4] satisfies me fully.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 20, 2007):
Chris Kern wrote:
< Discussion for the week of February 11, 2007
The text has nothing to do with the biblical reading for the day; Whittaker comments that it may have some connection to the theme of change that's in the miracle of turning water to wine -- the stanzas of the chorale move from despair to hope and trust in God, and the music follows the same path. >
A bit of a stretch, but it is consistent with the theology of Bach's librettos (not necessarily, in my mind, the same thing as Bach's individual beliefs): earthly life (water) is nothing, in comparison to life after death (eternal life in heaven, wine). Presumably, the alternatives to heaven are something analogous to wine gone sour?

This is reminiscent of the following notes by Alan Lomax, to the LP (Atlantic 1351) 'Negro (sic) Church Music':

<Death have Mercy, sung by Vera Hall, Livingstone, Ala. White spirituals express a real love of death and a longing for the release from the earthly torment in the orderly pleasures of heaven. [This concise statement agrees with my understanding of the Lutheran outlook] Negro spiritual composers take a somewhat different view. They look forward to heaven as a place of rest, where there will be love, equality, and joy. Death itself is feared. <end guote>

I think the question of Bach's personal theology in relation to 'orthodox' Lutheran theology is a topic open to a lot more discussion, regardless of the theology expressed in the cantata librettos. I find Bach's lifelong encounters with death, as detailed and analyzed in Gaines (Palace of Reason), much different from the Lutheran doctrine, perhaps better expressed by the Negro spiritual outlook (at least as interpreted by Lomax).

< Mvt. 6 is the usual closing 4-part chorale; the journey of the text from darkness to light is complete here and the singers express their faith in Jesus and their desire to be with him. >
<O my Savior, if I were only with You!>, in the Pamela Dellal (c) translation of the closing line. Lutheran? Bach? What's the rush, I say, and I wonder if Bach wouldn't agree.

< [2] Harnoncourt:
The singers in the duet mix together much better; I always like hearing H&L's boysopranos even when they're not so great -- this one does a good job, I think. >
I have only just now got around to giving this a quick listen, a very impressive version of the duet.

< [4] Leusink:
Holton and Buwalda's voices blend together magnificently in the duet >
As is this one, which I previously mentioned briefly. A nice opportunity for comparing Ruth Holton with a boy soprano, which I will get back to.

< (As a side note, this is one reason I like listening to as many versions as possible -- this is not the first time that a cantata has been "rescued" for me by listening to a 2nd or even 3rd or 4th version of it.) >
Not to mention the possibility of assembling in mind the 'ideal' composite performance, probably just a bit different for each of us.

Sorry (or blessedly?), I am out of time for the moment.

Harry W. Crosby wrote (February 21, 2007):
Ed Myskowski's response to Chris Kern resonated with me in ways other than those of the moment. Chris had said of the Harnoncourt recording of BWV 3 [2]:
CK: < The singers in the duet mix together much better; I always like hearing H&L's boy sopranos [2] even when they're not so great -- this one does a good job, I think. >
EM: < I have only just now got around to giving this a quick listen, a very impressive version of the duet. >
CK: < Leusink [4]: Holton and Buwalda's voices blend together magnificently in the duet >
EM: < As is this one . . . A nice opportunity for comparing Ruth Holton with a boy soprano >
HC: Also, to me, a good opportunity to observe of this pair that I have found Buwalda [4] particularly effective in duets. The lower parts of his range tend to be fuller, stronger than those of the typical counter-tenor, therefore a more effective contrast with either sopranos or tenors. Good examples abound throughout the Leusink series.

CK: < As a side note, this [comparison] is one reason I like listening to as many versioas possible -- this is not the first time that a cantata has been "rescued" for me by listening to a 2nd or even 3rd or 4th version of it. >
EM: < Not to mention the possibility of assembling in mind the 'ideal' composite performance, probably just a bit different for each of us. >
HC: Amen to all of this. I bought the BACH EDITION largely for the purpose of acquiring another 70 or so cantatas not represented in my collection. Since then I have been continually surprised to find Leusink & Co.'s [4] versions more to my taste than others by better known conductor/groups long admired by me, and reportedly by members of this comment group. This is not a blanket endorsement. In some comparisons, I found Leusink wanting, sometimes very much so. But in my tests, with my individual taste, he is winning near half the time. I find his soloists generally strong, especially Holton and Remselaar, and all of them capable of excellent recitative delivery. I attribute part of my admiration for Ruth Holton to her style of delivery and the very quality of her voice --- which some find unimpressive. Often, when I hear her sing an aria, recitative, or duet, her voice realizes my preference in style and tone quality. A few minutes ago, I compared her version of the lovely recitative in BWV 59 after listening to two of her competitors on the two different Gardiner recordings. I found this a straightforward example of the elements that attract me (and by no manner of means the most vivid such contrasts).

Neil Mason wrote (March 4, 2007):
You wrote:
< The Duetto has two singers, two oboes d'amore in some reasonable unison with violins, and improvised continuo from an unfigured bass line. And this is one of Bach's relatively easy bass parts to improvise from, most of the way, although a sight-reader from this (seeing only his own part in isolation) will be hitting a lot of downbeat resolutions way before the melodic parts are ready to finish their 4-3 suspensions. Whoops. The way to learn those is to hear the other parts in rehearsal, and/or write in cautionary figures so the organist knows what to expect.
There are also some unexpected chords that are simply going to be missed >
Did JSB himself play the continuo part in the cantatas? If so, he'd know what to expect!

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 11, 2007):
BWV 3

This cantata brought out a lot of discussion, so much that it was difficult keeping up with the reading, never mind adding commentary. One item that slipped by was the Gardiner recording [5].

The specific performance is my first choice, although both Leusink [4] and Koopman [6] are nearly as good, if you happen to have those already. To my ears, tempo extremes are the single item which make a performance difficult to listen to (wannabe drummer's perspective?). There are none of those in this instance, although certainly at other places in Gardiner [5] (indeed, in all the current series).

Given that, the live perfomance recording adds a lot to my enjoyment. Is that a distinction I can prove to you, conclusively? Can I point out details that say 'this is live'? Can I even find words to describe the overall effect that I like?

No, no, and no.

I did not attempt a side by side comparison of individual movements. If I did, I suspect I might prefer Buwalda and Holton [4] in the duet, which some of us liked enough to comment on previously. Overall, Gardiner's performance [5] seems to have a special quality, a continuity, often lacking in some of the studio pastiches, however fine the soloists and other performance details.

This is a set worth considering for a number of reasons, and it has had predominately positive comments in the past. Besides the live recording and pilgrimage concept, which may or may not appeal to the individual listener, the packaging is attractive, and the notes add original insights to our (the big WE) thinking. The layout on disc, by liturgical day, prepares us for round three of the discussion a couple years down the road. If chronology is horizontal, then having a look by across the chronology by liturgical reference, as Doug (and Julian, and me) have suggested, may be termed 'vertical' (?).

Long way to go before then, but never too soon to prepare. And with gardiner, you can do a quck and easy preview for the sets already released, when they come up in the chronologic discussion, as in this case. It will be another level of illumination.

 

Performance of BWV 3 and BWV 153 today

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (January 25, 2009):
I am just coming back from a concert where our ensemble, the Chapelle des Minimes (Brussels, Belgium), performed two beautiful cantatas: BWV 3 ("Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid") and BWV 153 ("Schau lieber Gott, wie meine Feind").

Our artistic director had also added a five-parts motet written by Johann Michael Bach (father in law of Johann-Sebastian) based on the same choral as the two cantatas: "Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe".

The conductor was Philippe Gérard, pianist and conductor, who regularly leads the Chapelle des Minimes. The vocal soloists were Jasmine Daoud (soprano), Albane Carrère (alto), Ludwig Van Gijseghem (tenor) and Bertrand Delvaux (bass). While the tenor had already sung with us, the three others are young singers, which we had never heard before. Too bad the bass was a little ill and could not give its best, but all three have beautiful voices, and I bet they will become better known in the years to come.

The two oboes d'amore (Elisabeth Schollaert and Stefaan Verdegem), who have an important role especially in BWV 3, were also excellent.

In the course of my introductions to the cantatas, I asked a question about examples of Bach dealing with war. Even if it is mostly war against the devil, BWV 153 is quite illustrative in this regard, particularly in the tenor aria (#6).

I must say that the three "simple" chorals, one of which is the opening piece of the cantata, are actually not so simple to sing. They have very special harmonies, and for the inner voices, some parts sound especially strange! (test this with for example measures 9 to 12 of the last choral for the alti...).

The motet made a nice contrast, with rather simple harmonisations. We performed it with minimal accompaniment (organ and cello), and with a dance-like style (relatively fast tempo).

BWV 3 is remarkable for its opening movement, and is very enjoyable for the choir to sing (except maybe for the basses which have for once the cantus firmus...). The verse about the "narrow way" ("schmalle Weg") is particularly intersting as it depicts musically the idea of "trübsalvoll" ("troublesome" ), notably with chromatic patterns. The conductor asked us to emphasise the contrast between the part with dotted notes and the ones with simple quavers (more sustained).

We performed #2 (recitativo) with the four soloists, who came near us for this part. This provided a contrast between the choral bits (sung by the choir) and the recitative parts (sung by the soloists).

The da capo of the bass aria was skipped to spare the poor soloist 's voice. It must be very frustrating to be forced to sing that sort of piece with a health problem...

The two feminine soloists were wonderful in the beautiful elaborated duet (#5).

I just notice now that the recording of cantata BWV 153 by Sigiswald Kuijken and the Petite Bande took precisely place in the Minimes church where we performed it today! I also read a (mitigate) account of their live performance in the same church two years ago (I do not know whether it was that one which was recorded). While we usually perform our concerts in the rear part, near the door, they apparently had to play in the chancel, where it is very difficult for the musicians to hear one another. The acoustics of the church is already a bit tricky, I cannot imagine what it must have been lik!

Once again the link to our website for those interested: http://www.minimes.be/home.php?new_l=en
and the poster of the concert: http://www.minimes.be/images/concerts/2009-01-25_affiche_concert.pdf

Jean Laaninen wrote (January 25, 2009):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< I am just coming back from a concert where our ensemble, the Chapelle des Minimes (Brussels, Belgium), performed two beautiful cantatas: BWV 3 ("Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid") and BWV 153 ("Schau lieber Gott, wie meine Feind"). >
Thanks so much for sharing your most recent experience with Bach live. You have an enviable opportunity.

Jane Newble wrote (January 25, 2009):
[To Thérèse Hanquet] Thank you Thérèse, for sharing this. It must have een a wonderful experience to sing these beautiful cantatas. I have only ever sung in the Mass and the Magnificat, but I shall never forget it. Hopefully when we move to a more 'cultural' area of the country I might take part again.

 

Continue on Part 4

Cantata BWV 3: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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