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Cantata BWV 8
Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of December 9, 1999 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 9, 1999):
Background - Aria for Tenor

After so much discussion about the order in which the cantatas should be discussed, it seems to be that no energy has been left to discuss the cantatas themselves. Encouraged by the positive feedback from many of you regarding my writing to this group about cantata BWV 57 - Soprano Aria, I chose for this thread, quite arbitrarily, cantata BWV 8 - “Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben” (“Dearest God, When Will My Death Be”) - Tenor Aria (Mvt. 2).

Mvt. 2 Aria (Tenor)
Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen,
Wenn meine letzte Stunde schlagt?
(Why, my spirit, would you be fearful,
When my final hour strikes?)
Tenor, Oboe d’amore, Continuo

Before entering into detailed comparison of the performances I have in my library, I would like to quote freely from Whittaker’ Book regarding the aria for Tenor.

In the tenor aria, the watcher turns his thoughts to himself, he is no longer a mere spectator: “Was wilst du dich mein Geist entsezten, wenn meine letzte Stunde schlagt?” (Why wilt thou, my soul, be terrified, when my last hour strikes?”). The Pizzicato bassi figure is the unmistakable and insistent peal of funeral bells. Above it is a lovely oboe d’amore obbligato... Here again is the ‘Have Mercy’ theme from St. Matthew Passion. Bars 1 and 2 are melodically exact, though the phrasing is altered… One encounters this idea of pity is spoken of. It is almost a leitmotiv. Here it is followed by a long procession of semiquavers… In spite of the lyric nature of the aria the dramatic situation is not overlooked…

Review of the Recordings

See: Cantata BWV 8 – Recordings.

The performances I have listened to are:

[4] Helmuth Rilling / Adalbert Kraus (1979; Aria: 3:25)
[7] Philippe Herreweghe / Mark Padmore (1998; Aria: 3:44)
[3] Gustav Leonhardt / Kurt Equiluz (1971, Aria: 4:10)
[5] Joshua Rifkin / Frank Kelley (1988; Aria: 3:33)
[1] Karl Richter / Ernst Haefliger (1959; Aria: 4:22)

My first impression after listening to 5 Tenors in succession was that although their voices are quite different from each other, than they also have something in common and it is their love to Bach. By love I mean that all of them are very well equipped to do justice to the text an to the music – understanding, feeling, beauty of tone. Haefliger has the heaviest voice and Kelly the lightest one. Relatively to them all the others sound ordinary, or middle of the road.

Regarding the interpretation there are 3 that I would like to note.

[1] Haefliger takes the operatic approach. That means that he sings with a lot of feeling and emotion, but does not care to take the important accompaniment of the oboe d’amore obbligato into account during his singing.

[4] Kraus takes the hysterical way. That means that he is trying to convince his troubled soul (represented by the oboe d’amore) to calm down, but fails to do so because he is too afraid by himself in such a way that the words he transmits do not really represent what he feels inside. But although Rilling/Kraus treatment is very different from the others, I think that they succeed in giving us a new way of looking at this wonderful Aria.

[3] The most successful in the conventional interpretation of this Aria is Equiluz. With him and the fine oboist, you really feel that they are talking and listening to each other. There is real dialog between them, when the soul is very troubled at the beginning and gradually it is calming down due to the patient attitude of the tenor.

There are many other things that could be said about this aria and its interpreters, but I will leave it to the other members of this group.

I would also love to see contributions from other members of the group regarding the rich world of JSB’s cantatas. I think that the arbitrary way is the most useful. Why can’t anybody of you starting by describing his most beloved cantata, or the cantata he is listening to right now?

Ehud Shiloni wrote (December 26, 1999):
[To Aryeh Oron] I think that this idea of focusing my listening schedule on the particular cantata being discussed, is working wonders. Now this Tenor Aria - the distant relative of "Erbarme Dich" - is firmly stuck in my head! Very little I can add to Aryeh's comments, except to mention another version [6].

The other performances I listened to were Herreweghe's [7] and Rifkin's [5], and the Thomas version [6] falls - to my ears - in their general "neighbourhood". I have a question regarding the Oboe part [which appears to be just as significant as the Tenor's]: On both Thomas and Rifkin it is indicated that the part is played by an "Oboe d'amore". On Herreweghe's CD the notes indicate that Ponseele plays "Hautbois", and my ears are not discerning enough to determine if the instrument I am listening to is "d'amore" or just plain old Oboe. Can anyone comment on this angle? Other than that, Aryeh's comments caused me to add Haefliger and Equiluz versions to my "shopping list". Don’t you all agree that these two "singers of the past" are GREAT tenors?

 

BWV 8 "Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben?"

Neil Halliday wrote (August 28, 2003):
At present, only the tenor aria (Mvt. 2) of BWV 8 has been commented on, at the BCW (in 1999!).

Mvt. 1 (chorus, with transverse flute, 2 oboes d'amore, strings, continuo):

"Dearest God, when will I die?...the heirs of Adam...for a little while, poor and wretched are on earth, and then themselves earth become."

These forbidding words are set to music that expresses, not grief, but "shades of gentle regret" (Robertson); Bach wants to gently lead us from the natural fear and horror of death, to the promise of a joyful, eternal life, which is the subject of the second half of the cantata.

Robertson relates that "Spitta, so often concerned to deny Bach's tonal pictorialism, was moved by the beauty of the instrumental introduction to write 'the sound of tolling bells, the fragrance of blossoms pervade it - the sentiment of a churchyard in springtime.'"

Robertson again: "..the strings play...'pizzicato'...the flutes reiterate very high-pitched phrases of six semiquavers while the continuo has deep low tones. These...accompany the long breathed melody for oboes d'amore."

[4] Rilling gives an expressive, attractive performance, but I suspect a slower tempo would reveal even more beauty in this music. (Timing: 4.34).

Mvt. 2. (tenor aria; oboe d'amore and continuo, timing: 3.25.)

"Why will you, my soul, be horrified, when my last hour strikes? My body leans daily to earth, and there must a rest-place find, where so many thousand lay."

Again, avoiding the expression of grief, "the melody, which the voice part takes over from the oboe d'amore, mediates comfort and trust" (Robertson).

As noted by Aryeh, Rilling also gives the fastest version, of those listed, for this movement; but again, this performance is very listenable, and doesn't sound rushed. Kraus's vibrato can be strident at times, but fortunately he mainly eschews vibrato on the long melismas, for example, on the word "tausend", and the timbre of his voice is attractive at these times.

Mvt. 3 (recit. for Alto, strings and continuo).

"Indeed my weak heart feels fear, worry, and pain: where will my body rest find?...my possesssions will be dispersed, and where will my loved one's in their wretchedness be separated and banished?"

The music here is mournful, with long held notes on the strings.

Mvt. 4 (aria for Bass, transverse flute, strings and continuo.)

At last the long awaited change in sentiments:

"Now yield you mad, pointless sorrows! My Jesus calls me: who would not go? Nothing that pleases me, possesses this world. Appear to me, blessed, joyful morning, transfigured in glory with Jesus to stay."

This is a very attractive movement. Quoting Robertson: "The tempo, 12/8, is that of the opening movement, but here it is used for one of Bach's gigue-like arias of uninhibited joy. The flute...announces in joyous rushes, the return of trust in the mercy of God."

The contrast between the flute and the bass voice, in this movement that begins sounding like a flute concerto, is remarkable.

Huttenlocher is very expressive, with a vibrato that, though evident on melismas as well as long notes, is well-controlled; and the length of the note he is required to hold on the word "Sorgen" is breathtaking (for the listener as well as the singer!); Huttenlocher achieves this seemingly without effort.

The timing, at 5:15, seems perfect to carry the joy of this music.

Mvt. 5 (recit. for Soprano and continuo.)

"Seize now, O world, my possessions! You take my flesh and body, so take also my poverty...However, what shall I inherit, except my God's fatherly true?"

Arleen Augér is expresive and attractive here; and Rilling supplies full length continuo chords on cello and organ.

Mvt. 6 (Chorale 1:08).

"Ruler over Death and Life, make once my end good...Help, that I an honest grave next to godly Christians have, and also finally in the earth nevermore to shame come."

Rilling [4] gives a typically enthusiastic and well-recorded version of this final chorale.

(Postscript: these translations are as literal as possible.)

 

BWV 8 music examples

Neil Halliday wrote (September 2, 2003):
Speaking of organ, at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV8-Mus.htm
we have an example of a Koopman recitative [10], with short chords on organ and cello.

What a disappointing sound! How small do you want to go? Bring on some of that Pachelbel organ sound - anything - to enliven this recitative, and give it some impact.

BTW, I have uploaded an example of a 'hit-parade' aria, available at this same webpage - namely, BWV 8 bass aria, with Rilling/Huttenlocher [4]. This recording demonstrates both engineers and musicians performing in an exemplary fashion.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 8: 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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