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Cantata BWV 48
Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of October 6, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 8, 2002):
BWV 48 - Introduction

The subject of this week’s discussion (October 6, 2002), according to Klaus Langrock’s suggested list, is the Chorale Cantata BWV 48 ‘Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom Leibe dieses Todes?’ (Miserable man that I am, who will free me from the body of this death?). Bach set two different hymns for this cantata for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: one for the opening and the closing movements and the other quoted for Mvt. 3. There are only two soloists, alto and Bass, each one is given a recitative and an aria to sing.

The Gospel for the day is Matthew 9: 1-8 – Jesus heals the palsy-afflicted man by forgiving him his sins. From this scripture the unknown librettist derived the message that Christ’s forgiveness for our sins will heal us in body and in soul.


The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 48 - Recordings

Since this cantata was composed in 1723, for the first Cantata Cycle in Leipzig, all the five complete recordings of this cantata come from the recorded cantata cycles: Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2], Koopman [3], Suzuki [4], and Leusink [5].

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:

Should I say how stupendous is the opening chorus and how magnificent is the aria for tenor? Listen and judge for yourself! The list of the soloists includes four counter-tenors against one contralto and five good tenors. Let us see who will be the most enjoyable and effective in conveying the message this time.

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

Juozas Rimas wrote (October 9, 2002):
I have to base my judgement about this cantata on Harnoncourt's [2] and Suzuki's [4] versions. I hope to get Rilling's [1] later.

The opening chorus is exceptional. It seems to have the best traits of the Mozartian ability to produce gems in the minor key with minimal means along with the usual Bach's overall mastery. The trumpet is such a nice touch - the several sounds of the instrument are enough to increase the grievousness immensely. The oboe is heard better in Suzuki's version. I hear echos of this chorus later in the tenor aria and the trumpet returns in the chorales, giving this cantata a perfect structure. Both Harnoncourt and Suzuki employ a slow tempo which is very welcome in the opening chorus for careful listening. Interestingly, Suzuki speeds up the arias while Harnoncourt saves more of the mood, induced by the chorus, throughout the cantata.

I will soon get prejudiced about Esswood because his recitative again seems to me so much worse than Equiluz tenor recitative or Robin Blaze's recitative in the Suzuki's version. I refuse to feel any emotion in his singing, especially when he is trying to emphasize things with a lifted voice. Compare Equiluz' lifted voice in the tenor recitative (at 0:31) and Esswood's lifted voice at 0:22, 0:49, 1:03. There is a difference in the voice control, IMHO, and in Equiluz' favor. Robin Blaze has a considerably more pleasant timbre to me than Esswood and I'm quite satisfied with Blaze's recitative. However, I would be interested to hear the rendition of Marga Höffgen (the only lady in the company of altos in the recordings of the cantata listed on the website).

Esswood is gentler in the aria (as if someone came up and put the microphone farther from him) but Blaze seems to be miles ahead. The oboe line proved to me once again the truthfulness of Aryeh's signature line by Forkel. On the very first listen it's hard to "catch" it but with repetitive listening it gets more and more beautiful. It's an interesting phenomenon with Bach's musics - in pop music, the first impression may be good but it deteriorates with each consecutive listen. Harnoncourt's aria is slower than Suzuki's - and I liked both tempos – but the oboe playing is more expressive in the Suzuki's version.

I don't agree with Simon Crouch's disappointment with the tenor aria. I have found so much great music by JSB which completely lacks an easily accessible, "catchy" tune. Moreover, I'd say generally such "hard" music can endure many more listens than the popular tunes. With all due amazement about, for instance, "Air on the G string", I decided to take a break from it for several years. However, I listen to the 24th fugue from WTCI and the 22th fugue from WTCII up to two times a month for a year or so now and that excruciatingly obscure music doesn't wear off...

Returning to the tenor aria of BWV 48: I listen to the tenor part as a subtle complement to the already wonderful ochestra part. The simple theme is repeated by orchestra and the singer many times but it doesn't get boring by any means (moreover, the aria itself is very short - well under 4 minutes). I know Gerd Tuerk from the Cantus Cölln OVPP CD. Tuerk and Equiluz are of similar, very acceptable level in the aria - I can't really choose between them. In some other cantatas Equiluz may sound exalted (over-emotional) at times but here he doesn't cross any limits. Suzuki's orchestra is much more lively but it's also a matter of taste whether you want this aria to sound like a gavotte (Suzuki) or in a more restrained form (Harnoncourt) :) In a word - it's great to have two interchangeable versions of the same work :D

The final chorale is so softly sad with the line of the trumpet! To me, it seemed to have the austere flavor of the winds that Jordi Savall's used in his rendition of the Art of Fugue. Incidentally, is it the usual Baroque habit to end a minor piece with a major note (a sort of the Baroque musical "happy end")? I expected it, as always, and it happened in this chorale too :)

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 9, 2002):
< Juozas Rimas Jr commented: Incidentally, is it the usual Baroque habit to end a minor piece with a major note (a sort of the Baroque musical "happy end")? I expected it, as always, and it happened in this chorale too :) >>

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has an article on this under "Tierce de Picardie or Picardy 3rd" stating "The raised 3rd degree of the tonic chord when it is used for the ending of a mvt. or composition in a minor mode, in order to give the ending a greater sense of 'finality.' The term was introduced by Rousseau in his 'Dictionnaire de musique' (1767), though no explanation for this name is known." Its use was common in the 16th century and throughout the Baroque and is considered 'standard' by some writers.

It is interesting that Bach would never have used this term, nor am I aware of any other term that he would have used instead. He simply followed a long-standing tradition (not esoteric nor unwritten!)

Philippe Bareille wrote (October 11, 2002):
Another cantata full of despair and woe "O wretched man I, and who will deliver me". This cantata requires to get acquainted with it at leisure, revealing its beauty only gradually.

[2] I have the Harnoncourt version only. In the opening chorus the conductor sets the tone a bit too forcefully. He is plodding along the chorus to emphasise the wretchedness of man destiny. He is a bit too didactic here and by overstating the elements of the score he turns the chorus into a labtask. He may be right rhetorically. He just wants to put the message across. However, I long for a smoother reading.

The two arias one for alto and the other for tenor have a lot to offer. In the former, Esswood despite his problems with controlling his vibrato brings an anguished tone particularly apt in this instance. I like the oboe of the late Jurg Schaeftlein always full of deep intuition and eloquence (he died in the early 80's before the completion of the entire cycle). He is technically inferior to the new generation of oboists such as Marcel Ponseele but he is no less moving.

I agree with Aryeh that the tenor aria is particularly poignant, especially when it is sung by Kurt Equiluz. The instrumental playing is a bit dry and abrupt but to my ears still enjoyable.

Another rewarding cantata. A good but uneven performance by Harnoncourt.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 12, 2002):
BWV 48 - The Recordings

Last week I have been listening to the following recordings of Cantata BWV 48:

[1] Helmuth Rilling (1973)
[2] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1975)
[3] Ton Koopman (1998)
[4] Masaaki Suzuki (2000)
[5] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)

Background & Review

Only Mvts. 1, 4 & 6 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).

Mvt. 2 Chorus
Tromba, Oboe I/II all' unisono, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom Leibe dieses Todes?
(Miserable man that I am, who will free me from the body of this death?)

Robertson: The text is taken from Romans 7: 24, and comes in the sentence in which St. Paul laments that though he wants to do right, evil lies close at hand. The law of his mind with another law making him captivate to the law of sin that dwells in his members. The main motif on the first violins, in the introductory ritornello, ascends phrase by phrase to a high point of the impassioned questioning. Sopranos and altos then comes in, in canon, with the one line of text that suffices Bach in this masterly chorus, while trumpet and oboes, also in canon, begin the chorale, ‘Herr Jesu Christ, ich schrei zu dir’ (Lord Jesus Christ, I cry to Thee), the cry of the greatly troubled soul. In this way Bach gives expression to what was in St Paul’s heart, the congregation of course recognising the allusion.
Young: The chorale tune is played by strings only for the opening ritornello, into which the trumpet and the unison oboes enter in canon as the sopranos and the altos begin to sing, also in canon. Bach gives their voices a tear-motif suited to their text. The whole choir voices the lament of the palsy-stricken man, who represents all mankind suffering with disease of body or soul.

Timings: Rilling [1] (4:08), Harnoncourt [2] (5:32), Koopman [3] (5:10), Suzuki [4] (5:55), Leusink [5] (5:16)

Although Rilling’s rendition [1] is the shortest of all five, he does not seem to miss anything. The canon of the sopranos and the altos is clearly heard, as well as the canon of the trumpets and oboes. What is more important is that it is saturated with deep sorrow and despair of the miserable human being. Harnoncourt’s rendition [2] is a waste of good resources. The singing of the choir is clean, and the old instruments have their charm. But here Harnoncourt presents his fragmented approach in its extreme. It is as if he wants deliberately to ‘kill’ any possibility of motion and expression. Koopman [3] avoids adhering to Harnoncourt’s approach. His rendition is light and clear. I could even call it light weight. It is as if he is ready to sacrifice depth to pleasant sound. The first thing one can hear in Suzuki’s performance [4] is that it is unusually slow. Slow but not heavy. He stresses this movement to its maximum, but manages to keep the internal tension and the deep emotion along the whole movement. His choir is the best of all five, clean and very well balanced. Leusink’s rendition [5] suffers from lack of preparation. Some sopranos simply sing outside of the choir, and all the components do not some up to a greater whole.

Personal preference: Suzuki [4], Rilling [1], Koopman [3], [big gap], Leusink [5], Harnoncourt [2]

Mvt. 4 Aria for Alto
Oboe solo, Continuo
Ach, lege das Sodom der sündlichen Glieder
(Ah, may Sodom with its sinful members)
Robertson: The text refers here to the Gospel in which Jesus said to the paralytic man, ‘Take heart, my son: thy sins are forgiven thee’, before curing him. His joy is reflected in the melody of the oboe solo, taken up by the solo voice.
Young: A solo oboe plays a joy-motif to illustrate the happiness of the new person after the cure. Her soul has been cleansed and is now ready for a new, holy life.

Timings: Rilling [1] (2:47), Harnoncourt [2] (3:01), Koopman [3] (2:27), Suzuki [4] (2:03), Leusink [5] (2:45)

Marga Höffgen (with Rilling) [1] sounds other-worldly in the surroundings of 4 counter-tenors. She is definitely behind her prime, since her voice has lost its stability and some of its richness. But even at this stage she surpasses them all. The deep contralto voice and the natural authority her singing reflects, serves her well in conveying the message that she is now happy and ready for the new life. I agree that Esswood (with Harnoncourt) [2] has some problems to stay in the musical line, but he has no problem to express his feelings. Landauer (with Koopman) [3] has a ‘natural’ counter-tenor voice, and he sings cleanly and beautifully. He still has a way to go in terms of expression, but he is well-equipped to develop into a first-rate singer. Here he seems to concentrate more on purity of voice production, than on conveying the message of conviction and readiness. Robin Blaze (with Suzuki) [4] is already there in terms of expression, but his voice does not have the level of beautiful purity and palette of colours that Landauer’s has.

Personal preference: Höffgen [1], Landauer [3], Esswood [2], Blaze [4], Buwalda [5].

Mvt. 6 Aria for Tenor
Violino I e Oboe all' unisono, Violino II, Viola, Continuo
Vergibt mir Jesus meine Sünden
(If Jesus forgives me my sins)

Robertson: Nothing written.
Young: This magnificent aria, featuring a violin and oboe in unison with string accompaniment, is the most melodious and emotionally charged movement of this cantata. It has a beautiful joy-motif in its swinging dance-like rhythm that enhances the fervent feeling of his text.

Timings: Rilling [1] (3:34), Harnoncourt [2] (3:48), Koopman [3] (3:11), Suzuki [4] (2:48), Leusink [5] (3:16)

Baldin (with Rilling) [1] is enthusiastic, and his approach suits very well the demands of the aria for tenor. The accompaniment he is getting from Rilling is somewhat heavy. When it comes to singing an aria for tenor complex message, Equiluz [2] has very few rivals, if any at all. His singing is a model of wisdom and good taste. The accompaniment supplied by Harnoncourt seems to breathe with him. Prégardien [3] sounds as a contemporary version of Equiluz. His singing is almost on the same par with his predecessor. The tempo chosen by Koopman sounds as the right one, and the sensitive and delicate accompaniment is the best a singer can get. Türk’s singing (with Suzuki) [4] seems to be somewhat limited after Equiluz and Prégardien (this impression might derive from a too-fast tempo), but not so Beekman (with Leusink) [5]. Hearing him, I can only express my disappointment that Leusink has not used him more, much more, in his cantata cycle. He sounds fresh with his voice and mature with his interpretation: a delight to the ears and a cure to the soul.

Personal favourite: Equiluz [2], Prégardien [3], Beekman [5], [small gap], Türk [4], Baldin [1]


A movement to take away: The aria for tenor with Equiluz [2], Prégardien [3], or Beekman [5].

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 13, 2002):
BWV 48 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 48 - Provenance

Some Commentaries:

See: Cantata BWV 48 - Commentary

The Recordings:

This week I listened to the following recordings:

Rilling (1973) [1]; Harnoncourt (1975) [2]; Koopman (1998) [3]; Suzuki (2000) [4]; Leusink (2000) [5]

Of these recordings, Rilling [1] is mainly non-HIP and the others belong to the HIP category (a semitone lower in pitch, smaller instrumental ensembles playing, for the most part, instruments that are copies of original instruments, fewer singers in the choir – mainly male singers even in the alto and rarely in the soprano range, solo voices with generally limited range, volume and expression – voices sounding more like instruments)

[In order of my personal preference from bottom to top:]

Mvt. 1:

There is a great range of tempi that extends all the way from Rilling [1] (very fast at 4:08) to Suzuki’s 5:55 which is almost 2 minutes slower than Rilling’s version. All the remaining HIP recordings are at least a minute slower than Rilling’s version. Is faster better in this instance?

[5] With the sopranos and altos howling like a group of banshees on the high g’s and a’s, Leusink’s choral sound offers definite proof of the non-viability of male voices that have been trained in such a way that they are unable to control properly the sounds that are coming out of their mouths. The serious aspect of this mvt. soon begins to disintegrate into what sounds more like a caricature that is intended to provoke laughter, a quasi PDQ Bach type of take-off on what is commonly perceived as an overly serious treatment by that ‘mean-looking composer with the big wig.’

[2] With his ponderous, heavy accents Harnoncourt manages once again to create the illusion that the music is coming apart at the seams. It does not make sense to emphasize one syllable of a word to the detriment of another as in “Todes.” The final syllable is then sung more like it might be spoken as a schwa. As a result the final syllable and the musical sounds associated with it practically disappear. Bach has already accounted for the picture of death by having the singers drop by the interval of a 4th or 5th. There is no need for overdoing this the way Harnoncourt does. In any case, Bach has the basses sing a low D in m. 65 on the ‘-des’ of ‘Todes.’ What does Harnoncourt do? He probably tells the basses, “You don’t have to worry about singing the low D since it is unaccented. Just make sure that you give me a loud note on “To-“ and the listeners can then imagine that they heard the very low note on “-des.” In Harnoncourt’s defense, none of the other recordings were able to sing the low D either. This should tell us something about the quality of basses that Bach had available to him in Leipzig! The singing of the Vienna Boys’ Choir is a major improvement over Leusink’s version [5]. The lower voices, however, tend to be rather weak in spots.

[1] Rilling’s version flows much better with the help of a legato treatment that keeps the music from falling apart as in Harnoncourt’s recordings. For my taste, the tempo is rushed. This detracts from the seriousness of the text. There is a disparity between words and music. Although the vocal parts are balanced, the vibratos, particularly in the sopranos, but also in the altos at times, cause a lack of clarity, a wobbly type of shakiness that persists throughout the mvt. Instrumentally, otherwise, everything is quite clear and in balance.

[3] Koopman’s version is more moving than any of the preceding recordings. The tromba plays the chorale melody without any vibrato. This, I believe, is an improvement over the previous versions. The bass is weak and seems to disappear at times, but otherwise the feeling expressed by the words is maintained throughout the mvt.

[4] Suzuki seems to have ‘gotten it all together.’ The slow tempo allows for more details to be uncovered. Certain cadences that were rushed through in the other versions can now be savored for all their poignancy. All the parts can be heard clearly and everything is now in complete balance. This is the version to come back to again and again. Listen to the sheer beauty of the final seven measures!

Mvts. 2 & 3 Alto

[5] Beginning once again at the low end, Leusink/Buwalda’s attempts at expression fail their mark. In his aria Buwalda is somewhat better.

[1] Very different in the non-HIP category, but just as difficult to listen to is the Rilling/Höffgen version with an operatic treatment by a powerful, full voice that is simply too much for the cantata-style treatment that Bach had intended. Someone should have told Höffgen, “This is not a Wagner opera!” In her aria, Höffgen seems to lose control of her voice at times, but at least the seriousness of the aria is preserved and does not lapse into the light, courtly-dance type of treatment.

[2] In the recitative, Esswood in the Harnoncourt version becomes intolerable when he forces his voice to produce more than it is capable of. He also is forced to render some strong accents which are unpleasant as well to listen to. In the aria Esswood has more genuine expression than Buwalda. Also, Esswood has contained his usual intonation problems which makes for a better listening experience.

[4] In the Suzuki/Blaze recording of the recitative, Blaze gives a theatrical performance that belongs on the opera stage. He also seems to be ‘overdoing’ the pronunciation of the German words. I perceive this as ‘verfremdend’ – a disingenuousness that causes a distraction for the listener that should not become apparent if the singer is truly in control of the text and the voice. Suzuki’s extremely fast tempo puts a ridiculous ‘spin’ on the words, a ‘spin’ certainly not intended by the unknown librettist or Bach.

[3] Landauer, in the Koopman recording, creates some occasionally penetrating hignotes that sound too harsh vocally, even if they are expressing words like “bitter.” The aria, at a slightly slower tempo, does much better justice to the text. Although this version with this singer could definitely be improved upon, it is better than the others.

Mvts. 5 & 6

[5] Leusink/Beekman seem to be able to express a purity of soul that is achieved through a simplicity of means. This version is very listenable when understood from this perspective. There is some emotional engagement, as also in the following recording, but this can not be compared to the higher level of expression and technique achieved by the three top contenders.

[4] The performance by Suzuki/Türk is quite comparable in many ways to the former, the main difference being that Suzuki has decided to take the fastest tempo of all the versions (2:48 compared to Harnoncourt’s at 3:48 – exactly a minute faster). The result is that the emotional expression is completely contained in the fast tempo and leaves very little opportunity for the voice to ‘do very much’ with the melody that is sung. From this standpoint alone, the Leusink/Beekman version would seem to be an improvement over Suzuki/Türk.

[3] The Koopman/Prégardien recording is on the next higher level of performance, a level that distinguishes itself with the incommensurate quality of talent reserved for the very best who are able to convey music and text to the listener directly and honestly. They completely control the material and their voice and become the ideal ‘vehicle’/’instrument’ for reaching the hearts of the listeners who submit unreservedly to the magical quality that the singers can create.

[1] Rilling/Baldin’s performance, although quite removed from all of the other recordings in this group because of the non-HIP characteristics, is just as moving as Prégardien’s. Baldin is able ‘to speak to’ the heart of the listener intensely just as well.

[2] Although Harnoncourt persists in breaking the phrases in numerous micro-phrases, he does allow Equiluz ‘to do his magic’ in the slowest rendition of the aria. The power of Equiluz’ presentation nevertheless succeeds (despite Harnoncourt’s efforts) in tying all the loose ends together and thus creates a memorable performance.

Mvts. 3 & 7 Chorales

In order of preference from bottom to top: Leusink [5], Harnoncourt [2], Koopman [3], Suzuki [4], Rilling [1].


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 48: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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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Last update: ýAugust 22, 2012 ý00:40:32