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Cantata BWV 81
Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 6, 2000

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 6, 2000):
Background

After plenty of performances of BWV 82, comes the week of cantata BWV 81 (according to Marie Jensen's suggestion), one of the least recorded of them. The focus here is on sheer drama and not on the beauty of melodies. And when drama is the name of the game, this is the playing field of Karl Richter. But we shall arrive there afterwards. The 3 arias - for Alto, for Tenor and for Bass (including the impressive Arioso) – describe different views of the sea and the storm in different stages. The Aria for Bass is not less impressive than the one for Tenor, but I had to limit myself somehow.

Aria for Tenor

Mvt. 3. Aria for Tenor
Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen Verdoppeln die Wuth doch suchet die sturmende Fluth die Kräfte des Glaubens zu schwächen.
(
The foaming waves of Belial’s rivers redouble their fury, still seeks the stormy flood the strength of faith to weaken)
Tenor, 2 Violins, Viola, Continuo

Regarding this very dramatic, descriptive and intensive Aria, I would like to quote from Robertson’s book. Robertson wrote:
The violins in the introductory bars of what is a scene rather than an Aria, rush up and down the scale, abating their fury only as the voice comes in the three brief ADAGIO sections – and followed by FORTE Allegros – that bring a full. At the first of these Adagios, the storm burst and as the Tenor sings ‘A Christian shall indeed like waves stand’ – a curious simile – the storm burst out again. Its fury is also expressed in the rapid runs in the vocal part - a trying one as it is consistently pitched high, but most effective if well sung.

Personal Viewpoint

And something personal:
Everyone who thinks that the best description of storm in music could be find in the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or the opening scene of Verdi’s Othello Opera, should listen to this cantata first and especially to the Arias for Tenor and for Bass. And what is most impressive about Bach’s writing here is that he draws the picture and achieves the maximal effect with minimal means – only strings and Continuo, where Beethoven and Verdi do it with the full orchestra at their disposal. The Arias call for vocal soloists with sense for drama. Operatic background may help. The dialogue form, so familiar from other cantatas, mainly between Jesus and the Soul, takes a different shape here. The relationship between the voice and the strings reminds me a ship in storm, trying to pave its way between the high, shaky and frightening waves.

Review of the Recordings

The 3 performances I have listened to (in chronological order) are:

(1) Karl Richter (1972; Aria for Tenor: 3:15)
(2) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1978; Aria for Tenor: 3:02)
(3) Helmuth Rilling (1984; Aria for Tenor: 3:14)

All these performances are of very high quality. You cannot go wrong with either of them. All the Tenors are first rate and I would like to dedicate couple of words to each one of them.

(1) Sometimes I have the feeling that a marvellous singer like Peter Schreier is taken for granted. I mean that we appreciate other Bach Tenor, for various aspects of their singing, while Schreier has it all - beauty of tone, feeling, understanding of the Bach idiom, clear accent and very strong dramatic sense. Schreier is familiar from the many recordings that he did in various fields of Classical music – Lieder, Opera, Choral, in different styles – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. All this experience enriches his ability to give his Bach performances the right qualities to each work and each movement.

(2) Kurt Equiluz is a big asset to every Bach recording he is taking part in. He is very dramatic and convincing, knows what he is doing and the meaning of the words, takes care to every nuance proposed by the music. It is not astonishing that Equiluz took part in so many Bach recordings, and that he is the main Tenor singer of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cycle.

(3) I know Adalbert Kraus only from his recordings with Rilling. I don’t know if he recorded Bach music with other conductors, or about his ability to sing other kinds of Classical music. However, when Kraus sings his parts in the Rilling’s recordings of the cantatas, and he is actually the main Tenor singer in that cycle, I do not feel that I miss anything. On the contrary, he is one the main reasons to enjoy this cycle. He is not as dramatic as Schreier is, but in the areas of feeling and beauty of tone, he has nothing to be shy about.

I appreciate each one of the performances but there are of course some differences. Richter/Schreier (1) put focus on sheer drama. The waves are high, the storm is strong and the Tenor manages to fight with them successfully. Harnoncourt/Equiluz (2) is a little bit rigid due to the conducting (and not the singing). Rilling/Kraus (3) is a little bit soft centred. All these flaws are small and they are felt only when you hear them after the Richter recording. In the final line – Richter and Schreier are, as could have been expected in advance, the most impressive and the most effective in this cantata as a whole and in the Aria for Tenor in particular.

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

Enjoy and Happy Bach Year,

Jane Newble wrote (February 7, 2000):
In his book on the Bach Cantatas, W. Gillies Whittaker says about this Aria:
"In the Tenor Aria, we are at sea. Bach had seen the Baltic at Lübeck in his youth, his visit to Hamburg in his maturity would surely provide opportunity for a trip down the Elbe to the Wild North Sea. He was able to limn a magnificent seascape from personal knowledge. Violin I dashes furiously up and down, rolling in billows of sound, the lower strings are the mutterings of the storm. Sometimes the bassi represent dashing waves and the inner strings toss spray over the decks. The voice surges in arpeggio leaps and at 'Verdoppeln' scurries in whirling demi-semiquavers. Suddenly an adagio, piano bar, with sustained upper strings and bassi pulsating in repeated quavers, stems the turmoil and the soloist sings 'A Christian shall indeed like waves', but on the next word 'stand' the fury of the tempest bursts again for three bars, while the singer sustains, as if breasting the storm. The treatment is repeated to 'when trouble's-winds round him go'. The two clauses are repeated in two bars of adagio and then the great tempest returns."

I am constantly amazed how Bach uses the music to make the words alive. I love just listening to cantatas, without even knowing what they are singing. That is one level. The next level means more attention, and actually listening several times, with the words, to see what they mean, not just for the purpose of translating, but in a spiritual sense. It is time that is richly rewarded, and it makes me appreciate Bach even more.

The only version I have of this cantata is Koopman [4], and I like it very much. The Tenor, Jörg Dürmüller, is strong, and to get all those notes sung in just three minutes is astonishing. I wonder what sort of timing Rilling [3] has for this Aria, just out of curiosity. I shall be listening to it more often in the next days. This is a very good way of beginning to get to know a cantata, to have to listen over and over again! However, when I read Aryeh's wonderful description of the different versions, I do feel it is a handicap to only have one, so I shall look out for the Richter to start with. Is that on the Bach Meisterwerke CD's?

Marie Jensen wrote (February 8, 2000):
I only know cantata BWV 81 in the Harnoncourt version (2). I have only few things to add Aryeh and Jane very fine descriptions. The orchestral play in the Aria is simply fantastic. In my imagination I even see the foam over the dark waves. And then those sudden calm periods filled with light and mercy. I'm close forgetting the Tenor!

I love very much the dramatic sides of Bach. They are often forgotten because he is associated so much with calm clarity. Just for a tiny moment imagine that the famous Air and this Aria are written by the same composer.

Aryeh compares with Beethoven. It reminds me of another very passionate Bach work BWV 1052, still have a taped version with Veron La Croix/ J.F. J Paillard like a horse ride between demons.

I have an idea for the list, but right now not the time, perhaps later: to take up themes for example, Bach and water, Bach and the devil and so on. Concerning water, it is interesting to compare with BWV 26 "So schnell ein rauschend Wasser fliesst", where Bach is sound painting a river, or the slow steady ship in the recitative "Mein Wandel auf die Welt ist einer Schiffart gleich" in BWV 56. (If you have a BWV 82 already, you probably also have a BWV 56). Concerning the devil: these "Belials Bächen" compared with the elegant sly devil sneaking in on tiptoes in BWV 107 (Wenn auch gleich aus der Höllen) or when the gates of hell open in St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244). It is an idea not really structured yet. Let us see. In deep respect for Bach the sound painter!

Ryan Michero wrote (February 10, 2000):
This is a pretty unusual cantata, isn't it? If you subtract the final chorale, which sums up the events before to bring the work to a close, BWV 81 almost sounds like an excerpt from an opera. It has no opening chorus, starting instead with an evocative alto aria, sort of a cross between a "sleep" aria and a lament, with achingly lovely long-held notes in the vocal line. Then the storm begins with a wild tenor aria and concludes with a more controlled chaos as Jesus tames the weather. Lots of fun music here, even if this is not one of Bach's most unified and expressive pieces.

I have the versions by Harnoncourt (2) and Koopman (4), and it is tough for me to choose a winner between these two. Both conductors excel in this kind of dramatic music, and they both have compelling interpretations. I like Koopman's alto aria a bit better since Bogna Bartosz seems to have more expressive control over the resources of her voice than Paul Esswood has. Koopman's orchestra, throughout the cantata, is a bit warmer and more tonally lovely, with the lute in the continuo adding nice touches to both the lament and storm music. The tenor aria is very fine in both versions. Kurt Equiluz for Harnoncourt is, as Aryeh noted, very much attuned to the meaning of the words and manages to sound quite afraid of the storm without compromising tonal beauty. However, Equiluz uses a bit too much vibrato to hear Bach's complex vocal runs clearly, which is a shame. Jörg Dürmüller (goodness, so many umlauts!) is a fine singer and I'd like to hear more of him in Koopman's set. He has an expressive voice of great tonal beauty. True, he doesn't sound completely secure in Bach's fast runs with Koopman's fast tempo here, but the feeling of "on-the-edge" music making is quite exciting. Klaus Mertens never disappoints, and he is wonderful as the voice of Jesus in the last two solos of this cantata. I don't like Ruud Van Der Meer as much as Mertens, in spite of the aptness of his surname for this particular work! However, I find Harnoncourt's interpretation a bit more compelling here. He introduces a crescendo/decrescendo effect on the swirling violin lines in the last aria, more directly evoking the rising and falling water and gusting wind--very exciting! Both Koopman and Harnoncourt versions are excellent recordings, and I would recommend both.

I'm interested in hearing the Richter version (1). The other Schreier/Richter performances I have heard in past were great, so I am sure BWV 81 is no exception.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 81: 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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