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Cantata BWV 4
Christ lag in Todes Banden
Discussions - Part 1

Previous Messages

Steve Schwartz wrote (July 11, 1997):
[10] Cantata BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ lay in the bonds of death"): I don't presume to rate Bach, especially against himself, but this has long been a favorite of mine, since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale on an old EMI LP [10], sadly never transferred to compact disc. The Wagner sound, slightly bottom-heavy, especially in the altos, suits the darkness of this Passion cantata. After all these years, Wagner's remains the performance by which I judge others.

Bach constructs each movement as a variation on the chorale of the same name, so that by the time of the last movement - the chorale in its "archetypal" form - we know the tune. Indeed, the tune shapes the structure of every movement, and yet every movement differs from its siblings. Each vocal movement takes a stanza of the chorale for its text. It reminds me of a great jazz soloist pulling out one surprising chorus after another. Yet another interesting feature of Bach's treatment of the tune is his separate handling of the last word of each verse - "Alleluia." Essentially, this creates variations within variations.

Barring the prelude of the opening instrumental Sinfonia, Bach structures the cantata's seven movements chiasmically around the Chorale's Versus IV:

1. Chorus
2. Duet
3. Aria
4. Chorus
5. Aria
6. Duet
7. Chorus

The Sinfonia itself takes its musical matter from the chorale tune, although Bach greatly varies the rhythm. The tune's main feature Bach exploits is an opening descending half step, often for him the musical symbol of suffering. Koopman takes the Sinfonia much faster than I'm used to, but in so doing he brilliantly brings out the chorale, unlike any other version I've heard.

The opening chorus is one of Bach's greatest. In concept, it takes off from organ preludes based on chorale tunes, where one hears an independent musical argument fitted against the tune in long notes, much like Bach's fairly well-known prelude to "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." In these, Bach usually establishes the argument and then brings in the chorale tune as an emotional lift, or the sudden revelation of the hand of God in the busy-ness of human affairs. In this chorus, however, he begins with the tune - long notes in the soprano, as opposed to his normal practice of burying the melody in the alto or tenor. Immediately, the tune fragments and bends to new shapes in the other parts, and Bach places all of it into highly independent - each voice has a different rhythm - four-part counterpoint. "Christ lay in the bonds of Death, given over for our sin. He is risen again and has brought us eternal life." It is as if the Passion and resurrection of Christ informs the world. Typically (as we have seen), Bach splits the movement in half, at the words "Therefore, let us be joyful, praise God and be thankful to Him, and sing hallelujah." At this point, the entrances reverse, with the three lower voices coming in first with adumbrations of the chorale and the sopranos finally capping the phrase. Bach somehow pulls off a "change in direction" in the music. In the first half, the music tends to "sink" down. In the second, it seems to rise. At the final phrase - "und singen Halleluja" - Bach brings off another masterstroke. The tenor begins, as usual, with a variant of the relevant chorale phrase, as the bass accompanies in what seems to be strictly functional "note-filling." However, it is the bass material, on the word "Halleluja", that increasingly dominates the musical argument. Furthermore, the counterpoint radically simplifies, until all voices, including the soprano, sing "Halleluja" in rhythmic concord - to me a musical image of all creation praising God.

Bach contrapuntally riffs on the "Hallelujas", as one after another breathlessly tumbles out, syncopated, alla breve in all the voices. This section by itself would test most choirs. How well does Koopman do? It's another mixed bag. The choir's diction occasionally goes south and parts of the choral texture temporarily disappear. On the other hand, the choral sound is wonderful, and basically clear and bright, and Koopman brings off beautifully the ascent to the climax at "und singen Halleluja." The alla breve Hallelujas have the dangerous excitement of high speed and the "off-balance" syncopation. I can't imagine anybody bettering Koopman here.

"No one in all mankind could overcome Death. Our sin caused everything; no innocence could be found. Death came so soon and took power over us, held us prisoner in his kingdom. Alleluia." Bach sets this to a moody, freely imitative duet (based, naturally, on the chorale) between soprano and alto over what seems to be a typical Bach "walking bass," but which I realized (after nearly forty years of knowing this work) is actually a variant of the chorale's "Halleluja". Again, Bach splits the stanza in half, with the soprano beginning in the first and the alto kicking off the second. Bach keeps the voices close and even has them cross, so that the soprano sometimes sings below the alto. I infer from this that Bach wants the voices to "match," so that you can't tell one voice from the other. Schlick and Wessel don't even come close, although they are extremely well tuned. I don't particularly care for the vocal colour of either in this movement - too bright. A traditional solution uses the choral women, which softens the "edge" of the sound and contributes to the anonymity of lines.

Bach illustrates the third stanza with a heroic tenor aria, depicting Christ as warrior-knight defeating the dragon of death. Bach sets against the tenor, which takes the chorale tune, an energetic violin solo, one of those Baroque "perpetual motion" machines. The soloist, de Mey, doesn't really have the voice for this. His forte is agility, rather than ringing heroism, and, indeed, he sounds languid and drooping. All the vigour in this movement comes from the violin.

We have reached the cantata's pivotal movement, telling us of the war in Hell. It begins as a double fugue in three parts, with the first half of the opening chorale line simultaneously set against the second half. However, Bach soon drops this and settles into a relatively straightforward fugue, with interjections of the chorale from the altos. "It was a miraculous war, where Death and Life wrestled. Life took the victory. It has swallowed up Death. Scripture has announced to us how one death devoured the other. A mockery has been made of Death". Bach carries the martial vitality of the tenor aria to the fugue. At the words "Wie ein Tod den andern frass" ("how one death devoured the other"), the imitative entrances of a single phrase quickly overlap, so that we get the impression of the snake who eats his own tail. Cutting through all this intense activity, however, is the chorale tune in the altos. All this is duck soup to Koopman's choir. One hears just about everything in an extremely complicated texture and in the right balance.

Now retracing our steps on the mirror path, we come to another aria, this time for bass. "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" ("Here is the righteous Easter Lamb") shows Christ not only as the Lamb on the cross, but a roasted ("gebraten") lamb at that, seared by the flames of love. Compare the daring vulgarity of this with the bland "sensitivity" of today's Christian pop. To me, it shows a powerful movement in decline, if only because the culture at large has embraced the bland, broad path, rather than the hard, narrow one - narrow and hard like a knife, and just as strong and just as dangerous. Anyway, Bach treats the tune this time as an Italianate aria, with lots of note-runs on single syllables (technically, "melismata"). For me, this is the emotional deep of the entire cantata, with the dark e-minor colour perfectly incarnate in the bass voice. The violins comment on the melody in free imitation of the bass. The "alleluias" are noteworthy, in that the entrances between bass and come quickly and even overlap (a contrapuntal device called "stretto"). The general effect is to increase the listener's emotional pulse, and Bach uses stretto here to exactly that end. I've sung this aria myself, and the main difficulty for the singer (or, in traditional performances, choral bass section) is the length of the phrases. It's very easy to run out of breath. Of course, Mertens has no problems at all, not even snatching a breath for the next phrase. In fact, unless I really listen, he never makes me aware of the vocal difficulty. The interpretation is immaculate, with an elegant, subtly propulsive legato line.

The duet this time features soprano and tenor. The chorale tune - to "So feiern wir das hohe Fest" ("So we celebrate the high feast") - becomes one of Bach's contrapuntal gigues. The soprano and tenor trade off going first with each phrase, and Bach often employs invertible counterpoint (the upper line becomes the lower line next time around). The aria is freely imitative, but it often feels like canon - at the fifth, third, and unison. Despite the learning, it's still a dance, and both de Mey and Schlick dance lightly - basically, what they do best.

The final chorus presents the chorale tune in chorale style at last. Most traditional performers treat it as a magnificent summing up, but, compared to Koopman, they seem almost kitschy. Under Koopman, the chorale is much more modest, as if the congregations were joining in. From the depths of the bass, we move to the dance of the duet and then to a quiet farewell with this chorale. Koopman scores one of his finest successes here.

Robert Sherman wrote (October 22, 1999):
< Jacco wrote about cantata BWV 4: Talking about this cantata. I own the version by Suzuki [29] and by Gardiner [18]. I am not a Gardiner fan, when it comes to Bach, but this version (Erato) is a nice and well interpreted alternative to Suzuki and Harnoncourt, as he is using a choir instead of solo voices. >
I strongly recommend Richter's performance [14], which includes Fischer-Dieskau at his absolute best, singing more darkly than he usually does. Unfortunately the transfer from vinyl to CD seems to have lost some of the bass and warmth, but on its own merits the CD sound isn't bad.

Donald Satz wrote (October 22, 1999):
[14] Fischer-Dieskau/Richter was a great combination on Archiv. I second Robert's recommendation and also suggest their partnership in cantata BWV 56, undoubtedly the best performance I've heard on record.

Steven Langley Guy wrote (October 25, 1999):
[14] Although Karl Richter's recording of BWV 4 has the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it is an otherwise very modern affair. It does use modern brass (a modern valve trumpet instead of a cornett which is simply a very different instrument, and wide bore modern trombones) and a string orchestra instead of a 5 part solo string ensemble. The ensemble Bach uses in BWV 4 'Christ Lag In Todesbanden' connects this fascinatingly anachronistic cantata with the cantatas of Buxtehude, Christoph Bernhard (see his cantatas: "Trilarer si nescirem misericordias" and "Herr, nun Lassestu deinen Diener a 10" - both feature 2 violins, 2 violas, bass + 2 cornetts & 3 trombones in unison with the capella voices), Sebastian Knüpfer (who wrote two cantata settings of "Christ lag in Todesbanden", one for three SATB choirs, 2 Cornetts, 2 Violins, 2 Violas, Violoncello & Organ (1693) and the other for SSATB solo voices, SSATB capella choir, 1 Cornettino, 3 Bombards (shawms), 1 Violino Piccolo, 1 Violin, 3 Violas & Bass Continuo), Johann Kuhnau (whose 1693 setting of "Christ lag in Todesbanden" is scored thus: SATB concertato (soloists), SATB capella (choir), 2 Cornetts, 2 Violins, 2 Violas & Organ Continuo) and the many works of Johann Schelle. Some of these settings may have been heard by Bach or he may have seen the scores.

[15] Harnoncourt's recording is quite nice but a cornettino is used instead of a treble cornett and its slightly "squeakier" timbre does take something from the mystery of this sublime work. His tempi are to my liking and I do prefer a lively pace in the first Chorus.

[18] Gardiner's choir is way too big or too loud and his choir of tempi doesn't sit well with me. (Okay, all you Gardiner’s fans out there! Take note! I do like and love some of Gardiner's other Bach recordings - so please do not flame me)

[28] For my money, Koopman's new (ish) recording on Vol. 1 (ERATO 4509-98536-2), worth buying as a good sampler of Koopman's general approach to the cantatas) of his complete cantata series is one of the best renditions of this work - just listen to the way Bruce Dickey's cornett and Charles Toet's trombone 'lock into' the voices of the solo soprano and alto and magically transform the sound into something unearthly in the movement "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt". Koopman also offers the alternative movements.

[29] I think Bruce Dickey also plays on the Suzuki recording which like Koopman is at a higher pitch.

Matthew Westphal wrote (October 29, 1999):
I really think BWV 4 works best one-voice-per-part (as do most of the early cantatas, IMHO). The ones I recommend are:

[27] American Bach Soloists (Koch International Classics 3-7235-2). It uses cornett and trombones with soloists Judith Nelson (sounding nearly as good as she did in the early-mid 1980s, much better than in some other recent recordings, Daniel Taylor, Benjamin Butterfield and Kurt-Owen Richards. It also includes fine performances of BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen" (Julianne Baird, Drew Minter, Benjamin Butterfield, James Weaver) and BWV 182 "Himmelskonig, sei willkommen" (Christine Brandes, Judith Malafronte, Jeffrey Thomas, James Weaver). The ABS does some of the most interesting and beautiful instrumental work I've ever heard in Bach cantatas.

[24] Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort and Players (Virgin 45011) with Emily van Evera, Caroline Trevor, Charles Daniels and David Thomas. Parrott uses one-per-part for strings as well as voices. The opening Sinfonia is daringly slow - and breathtaking; the performance in general is more energetic and even emotive than you might expect from a small group of English musicians. The other work is the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) (the performance of which is equally good).

Samuel Frederick wrote (October 29, 1999):
(To Matthew Westphal) Thanks for these recommendations, Matthew. I'm happy with the Purcell Quartet recording of the Lutheran Masses using the one-voice-per-part approach and have wanted to listen to other Bach pieces performed this way. Are there even more recordings (that is, other than the ones you mention) which use this approach (good or bad)? Also, what are Rifkin's most successful recordings (and which remain in print)?

Johan van Veen wrote (February 29, 2000):
[37] Some time ago there was a discussion on the performance practice of Bach's cantatas in which every part is sung by only one singer. A new recording has just been released with four cantatas performed this way, by the German ensemble Cantus Cölln. I would like to give my impressions. First the details.

Four cantatas are performed (in this order):
1) Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)
2) Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106)
3) Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196)
4) Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12)

The ensemble Cantus Cölln consists of:
Johanna Koslowsky (Soprano), Elisabeth Popien (Contralto), Gerd Türk, Wilfried Jochens (tenor), Stephan Schreckenberger (bass), Karin van Heerden, Beate Knobloch (recorder), Uwe Hartwich (trumpet), Katharina Arfken (oboe), Andrea Keller, Werner Ehrhardt (violin), Antje Sabinski, Claudia Steeb (viola), Werner Matzke (cello), Jean-Michel Forest (violin), Lorenzo Alpert (bassoon), Carsten Lohff (organ)
Director is Konrad Junghänel.

The performances are excellent from a technical point of view. All players belong to the very best on the early music scenes. The string players for example are all members of Concerto Köln, one of the best orchestras in baroque and classical music.

One of the preconditions for a successful on-to-a-part performance is that the voices blend. You just can't put some solo singers together and hope they will do their best to sound like an ensemble. But although these singers all have solo careers, they work together very closely in this ensemble, and have done so for years. That definitely pays off. The Choruses and chorales as well as the duets sound great. They all use hardly any vibrato, and in particular in some Choruses where the harmonies are very important, that has a very striking (positive) effect on the emotional impact of the performance.

The program contains four early cantatas, all composed around or before 1714. I don't know what view Konrad Junghänel holds on the point of one-to-a-part performances (the booklet doesn't give any information about that), but in general the performance of early cantatas in this manner doesn't meet as much opposition as does such a performance practice in the Leipzig cantatas.

What about the interpretation? My feelings about that are somewhat mixed. I feel that the emotional content of some of the cantatas isn't fully exploited.

Least successful is the cantata BWV 4 'Christ lag in Todesbanden'. This is a chorale cantata in which all verses of the chorale are set to music. It has a symmetric structure: after the Sinfonia the first verse is for 4 voices and instruments, like the last. In the centre is the 4th verse, again for 4 voices and instruments, and this is surrounded by two duets and two solos. In most recordings the last section is a four-part chorale setting, but this dates from 1724/25, and was not how it was originally conceived. The music of the first performance hasn't survived. In this recording the last verse is sung to the same music as the first verse. The argument for this is the symmetric structure. But how Bach has originally composed this last verse is not known. So this solution is based on an assumption. Would Bach really have used the same music for a different text? The other difference with most recordings is the use of strings only. In the later version a cornett and a trombone are involved, although they only play colla parte.

This cantata is not all happiness and joy. The text of this chorale constantly refers to Jesus' death at the cross, and its cause: sin. It is not surprising that Bach has set this whole cantata in c minor, according to Mattheson a key, which can hardly be linked to cheerfulness, 'how hard one tries'. It makes you rather thoughtful. Interesting is that Mattheson characterizes this key as something which both makes you sad and gives you consolation. That is exactly what this chorale is all about. The problem with this performance is that it underplays the sad side. The tempi are too fast. The contrasts are not strong enough, for example within Versus I (Christ lag in Todesbanden) between the first seven lines and the 'Halleluja' at the end. The heart of the cantata is Versus IV (Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg), and unfortunately this is the worst part of the performance. The tempo is so high that it sounds like a madrigal by Johann Hermann Schein. The text (Das Leben behielt den Sieg, es hat den Tod verschlungen - and: Wie ein Tod den andern frass, ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden) doesn't ask for such a speedy tempo - here it is almost a caricature.

As far as the instrumental aspect of this CD is concerned, the players may be technically better than for example those on the Teldec recording. But they are far less colourful. What I am missing is the characterization of the content of the text by the instruments. They are too often just accompanying the singers.

On the whole, an interesting recording, and - with all the reservations I have - one of the best of its kind.

M. Saramago wrote (February 29, 2000):
[To Johan van Veen] [37] Thanks for your impressions on that cantata CD. Could you tell us the label and if possible the catalogue number?

Johan van Veen wrote (March 1, 2000):
[37] Sorry I forgot that. It is on Harmonia Mundi France - HMC 901694; playing time: 70'23".

Jacco Vink wrote (March 2, 2000):
[37] I recently heard the Cantus Cölln CD in a CD store. I did not listen to the whole CD, but I heard most of (BWV 4) Christ Lag in Todesbanden. Unlike Johan, I was actually very impressed by the performance. Later at home I compared with Suzuki and in my opinion the Cantus Cölln version is better. For me the higher tempo, especially of Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg, seemed the right one. Note that the words mean: "It was a miraculous war", so a fast tempo seems not at all strange. Obviously this is very much a matter of taste, go to a shop and listen to it. I have not bought the CD yet, but I am considering it.

Matthew Westphal wrote (March 19, 2000):
[37] Here are some more impressions. This is the long version of what I whittled down to make a review for

The one-singer-per-part theory seems to have made the most headway in the early cantatas -- probably because the arguments over the interpretation of the Entwurff don't apply.

In the case of "Christ lag" (BWV 4), Cantus Cölln has serious competition in even the single-voices category from both the Taverner Consort/Parrott (Virgin) [24] and the American Bach Soloists/Thomas (Koch) [27]. To my ears, Cantus Cölln wins, which is saying a lot. In the full Choruses you can't hear the individual vocal lines so well. I don't think that's because of the small forces (it's not true of Parrott or of Thomas, who doubles the voices with cornett & trombones) but rather because Junghänel's fast tempo and the singers' sharp enunciation of German stress the syllables rather than the melodic lines. It's definitely not what I'm used to hearing, and not everyone will like the shift in emphasis, but these musicians are very effective at their approach. The solo and duo numbers are marvellous – not as charged with energy as Thomas, but engaged, subtle and engrossing. Stephan Schreckenberger in particular gives the only account of "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" I've ever heard that managed some subtlety in delivery without sounding under-powered. Compare him with David Thomas for Parrott (not subtle) and Kurt-Owen Richards for Thomas (under-powered) and you'll understand what I mean. In place of the simple (and anti-climactic) Leipzig-style four-part harmonization of the chorale melody that we usually get for the final movement (and which, according to the booklet notes, comes only from a 1724 Leipzig revival of the cantata), Junghänel repeats the music of the first Chorus with the text of the final verse. Unorthodox, yes, but I sure liked it. (Although I wonder just how justified it is - after all, we probably shouldn't go snipping and pasting Bach's music as was done with Händel in the bad old days.)

I haven't yet praised Wilfried Jochens' singing, at once vigorous and sensitive, or that of the ladies, who are outstanding. Soprano Johanna Koslowsky can float an ethereal chorale melody, toss off vruns and take your breath away with a descending figure trailing off into silence (the end of "Es ist der alte Bund" from the Actus Tragicus). All done with equal skill, and all in a tone so pure she could almost pass for a boy Soprano. Alto Elisabeth Popien is every bit as good.

With Herreweghe and Jacobs already on Harmonia Mundi's roster and with some expressed reluctance on Junghänel's part to bring the one-on-a-part approach to some of the larger Leipzig works), I don't know how many more cantata recordings we'll get from Cantus Cölln. But I hope they at least do some more early works like Aus der Tiefe (BWV 131) and Gott ist mein König (BWV 182).

Harry J. Steinman wrote (March 22, 2000):
[37] Hey, a quick note to Matthew and Frank and All. Thanks for the recommendation of the Cantus Cölln recording that included the Actus Tragicus (Harmonia Mundi 901694) as well as BWV 4, 12, and 196. This is WONDERFUL singing and instrumentation. Everything is so crisp and clean...the soprano is wonderful (as are the other singers). This ensemble has quite a distinctive and pleasing sound. I HIGHLY recommend this recording to any and everyone.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 4: Christ lag in Todesbanden for Easter Sunday
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