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Cantata BWV 88
Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of July 15, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 18, 2001):
Background

This is the week of Cantata BWV 88 according to Thomas Braatz’ suggestion, the 8th one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. After the relative disappointment last week from cantata BWV 24, Bach returns to his ‘usual routine’, which means that he proposes to us another inspired cantata. BWV 88 has so much to offer, that it is hard for me to choose between the movements which one to review. Even the recitatives here are interesting. I chose the opening aria for bass, because we actually have here two different pictures in one movement. But any other movement of this deserves special attention. One interesting factor I would like to note is that although this cantata is definitely on higher level than BWV 24, it has fewer complete recordings (3 against 8), and all of which are included in complete cycles. I wonder if there is any reasonable explanation for this. As a background for the review of the recordings this cantata I shall use this time Alec Robertson’s book – ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’. Although the other sources (Young, Finscher in the liner notes of Teldec, Nicholas Anderson in Oxford Composer Companion) give plausible background, I found Robertson as the most illuminating. Maybe he liked this cantata as I do.

“Anyone reading the above words would take them to apply to the Gospel of the Day, the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Peter’s mission (Luke 5: 1-11), but in fact the librettist takes his text from Jeremiah 16: 16, in which God rebukes the Israelites for worshipping false gods and declares the shall be caught by His fishers. The choice of this text was obviously dictated by moral considerations such as the preacher might draw in his sermon after the cantata – a warning to Christians not to desert God. Bach, however, turns the words to his own purpose, associating them with the Gospel text with which part II begins.”

Complete Recordings

I am aware of 3 complete recordings of this cantata and last week I have been listening to all of them. There is also one recording of the concluding chorale only. See: Cantata BWV 88 – Recordings.

Mvt. 1 - Aria for Bass

“The motif, heard in the first four bars over a pedal bass, is always associated with the first line of the text and is marked pianissimo in every part each time it is repeated by the soloist. It leads to gentle phrases of semiquavers, which are introduced into the vocal part. Jesus forgives Peter’s lack of trust and bids Peter not to afraid, this lovely movement seems to say, but it is followed by an allegro quasi presto, in which the 6/8 rhythm changes to alla breve with the words, ‘And thereafter will I many hunters send out.’ The two horns in the score are now brought in to reinforce the hunting call in the soloist’s florid phrases on ‘hunters’. It comes into all the instrumental parts in the last section of the aria.”

(1) Wolfgang Schöne with Rilling (7:41)
The moving of the waves can be almost visually seen in the instrumental introduction of the oboes and the strings in this rendition. Schöne, who whose tendency to some stiffness can be observed from his singing in other cantatas, sounds here relatively flexible with lot of warmth and sensitivity. I can hear the compassion in the way he delivers the words as though Christ had spoken them. The bright and glowing of the fanfare of the horns in the second half overwhelm the strings as they depict the calls of the hunters. Schöne cope easily with the quicker of this part. The tone-painting of the nature, the drama and the intense emotion of Bach are fully expressed in this exemplary rendition.

[2] Max van Egmond with Leonhardt (6:50)
Leonhardt, who was so successful in the description of the Jordan River in the first movement of Cantata BWV 7, which was discussed in the BCML not a long while ago, is very good also here. But his description is very different from that of Rilling. With Rilling I see the nature with all its beauty and glory. Here it is less colourful, more gloomy. Max van Egmond fits the atmosphere, and sounds less varied than I remember him from other cantatas. I find this approach more one dimensional and less captivating than that of Rilling. Maybe it was done intentionally that way. As if Leonhardt wants to say to us, concentrate on the message, and do not let the pictorial nature diverts your attention from the words Jesus wants to say to you. The horns in the second part play somewhat phlegmatically and a little bit too loud, and sometimes they even cover the singer. The overall balance of this part is not good and in some places the singer and the instruments do not really match, as if they are acting in different yards.

[4] Bas Ramselaar with Leusink (6:06)
There are many ways in which the water can flow and the waves can move. Leusink is more colourful than Leonhardt, but less intense than Rilling. This pale water-colour painting is, of course, legitimate, but I feel that this movement has much more to offer than this rendition reveals. I find that Bas Ramselaar is better in the second and quicker part than in the first and slower part, in which he sounds uninteresting and not like a man to whom you would want to listen. Surprisingly, the balance between the voice and the accompaniment here is better than that of Leonhardt. On the other hand, Leonhardt is more convincing in the seriousness of his intention.

Conclusion

My choice for the first movement (and for the whole cantata) is definitely – Rilling (1).

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 19, 2001):
BWV 88 - Commentary

See: Cantata BWV 88 - Commentary

The Recordings:

This week I listened to three recordings of BWV 88: Rilling (1970) (1), Leonhardt (1979) (2), and Leusink (2000) [4].

Mvt. 1. Aria

(1) Rilling begins with a wonderful, gentle wave motion in the strings and he observes all of Bach's personally entered phrase and dynamic markings which are quite numerous throughout the mvt., particularly in the 1st section. Schöne starts off well and the balance appears to be fine until the melismas on "fischen" are reached. At this point the volume in his voice seems to diminish and all that is left is a raspiness which does not always let you know which note he is really singing. The voice seems to 'get lost in the waves' provided by the strings. It is as though the volume of his voice is cancelled out at this point. In the 2nd section where a similar melisma on "senden" occurs, he does much better. The balance between the horns, the rest of the orchestra and the voice seems to be just right. I enjoyed this version best of all, but am eagerly looking forward to hearing Koopman [5] and Suzuki in the future, to see if they can improve on this version. My only fear then would be that Koopman might, once again, opt for a light entertainment style instead of providing a dignified background for God's voice.

(2) Leonhardt: What a disaster! From beginning to end, there is not much here to be recommended for a potential listener. Van Egmond does not have a particularly strong voice, so when he attempts to coax more volume from it (as on the word "Siehe"), it is pushed to its extreme limit and no longer sounds pleasant. Of course, it does not help one bit, when Leonhardt, following the intentions of his absent (or should I venture to say 'absent-minded' without any intention to slander, busimply to point out the facts) mentor, Nicholas Harnoncourt, insists on brutalizing and misreading all the phrasing and dynamic markings that Bach meticulously added to the instrumental parts (in the original set of parts that have come down to us.) There is the overly strong accent on the first beat of each measure, where instead of a phrase combining all three notes of the measure, Leonhardt has the orchestra play "dah´-ah, dat" whereas Bach wants "dah-ah-ah." This causes van Egmond to over-accent the first note in each measure as well. The impression I get here is one of choppy waves with all the fisherman hitting the waves with their oars and chasing all the fish away. The bass continuo keeps rumbling along, and where Bach completely writes out the entire word (he does not do this very often!) "pianissimo," he really means it. But does Leonhardt follow this indication, which is repeated a few times in the 1st section? No! Leonhardt simply charges through these sections like a bull in a china shop. He seems to have little or no idea about the content of the text. But who knows? Perhaps Leonhardt was captive in this situation. Perhaps he was given these 'interpretative insights' by Harnoncourt, and all that Leonhardt could do was to 'click his heels together' and carry out the orders that would destroy this composition by Bach. Van Egmond also gets lost in the waves on the same melismas just as Schöne did. The orchestral sound is clumsy, heavy-handed, and crude. It lacks any semblance of sensitivity. Section 2: Ah, the horns! Do you want to hear and enjoy the primitiveness of the sound that they produce? Let me recommend that you also listen to a comparable sound produced by Dennis Brain, one the world's greatest horn players, when he played a garden hose in the Hoffnung Music Festival. In a few instances van Egmond does not sing the words, he shouts them. But what else is left for him to do under these circumstances with a voice that is not strong to begin with? [Personal note: I have probably heard this specific recording of this cantata about 6 to 8 times over the past few years. In previous years I would only hear it once a year as it appeared on the church year calendar. My main concern at that time was in understanding the text and hopefully obtaining some enjoyment from hearing the various choirs and singers with some interest in how the conductor interpreted the score. I did not go back again and again to listen carefully as I do now, although I was aware of good and not so good performances. Now it seems that my expectation level has been raised and I am beginning to look for an ideal choir, ideal soloists, ideal orchestras and ideal conductors which may not exist. The recording industry seems to have made something possible which really would not exist otherwise. Before these cantatas were recorded, an individual would consider himself lucky to have heard a few dozen of Bach's cantatas during his lifetime. What was the quality of these performances? What does it sound like to the listener who hears a Bach cantata performed for the first and only time? What was the quality of Bach's own performances, given all the strictures that were placed on him (very little rehearsal time, instrumentalists, choir member-vocalists suddenly ill and unable to perform, etc.)? Should this be the basis of judgement today? Should we consider Ramin's recordings (as in BWV 24 last week, a recording made with little rehearsal - a fact that can not be overheard - for a radio broadcast that was then recorded from the radio), Gardiner's and Leusink's whirlwind readings of the cantatas as being comparable to what Bach heard in his day? Or should we continue to raise the level of interpretation higher and higher in order to coax yet another unusual sound from vocalists and instrumentalists alike? Are we doing a service or a disservice for all beginning listeners who want to become acquainted with these cantatas, by telling them "avoid this one" and perhaps "buy that one?" Perhaps we are shortcircuiting the pleasures we had in examining all the available versions. Perhaps the only way to appreciate quality is to listen to the bad as well as the good versions and then form your own opinion?]

[4] Leusink rushes into this mvt. and simply does not let up. The feeling of being rushed is present throughout the entire 1st section of this mvt. It is perhaps one reason why Ramselaar, with only a small voice to work with, uses quite a bit of sotto voce. There is no time, no breadth, no space for him to develop the notes that he sings. He also gets lost in the waves on the word, "fischen," but later when he sings "senden" he does quite well (at being heard above the orchestra.) Leusink takes his fisherman very quickly from one shore to another, not allowing the fisherman to do any fishing along the way. At least Leusink does not mutilate the 3-note phrases that Bach indicated, and once I think I detected ever so slightly an attempt at a softer dynamic, but a pianissimo it was definitely not. His basso continuo, as usual, is much too loud. As a result of the faster tempo in the 1st section, the contrast in tempo with the 2nd section is lost. The blaring horns are barely heard at times, and when they are required to produce greater volume in the higher range, they sound muted, as if they had stuffed their hand in the bell. The sound is very thin and lacks roundness and volume. Ramselaar lightly taps the notes, although his melisma in this section on the word, "senden," is quite good.

Summary
All that is left with some semblance of quality is Rilling. Let's hope for improvement when Koopman [5] and Suzuki present their recordings of this cantata.

For the most part, "the show is over," but there are a few surprises left in the remaining mvts.

Mvt. 2, Mvt. 3, and Mvt. 4a for Tenor (Recit/Aria/Arioso)

This sequence begins with a recitative on God's power of forgiveness, and at the end of it a question is asked, whether God will ever leave us in the lurch. It is immediately answered in the aria, which strangely enough has no instrumental introduction/ritornello. This method of linking the recitative and aria is very effective since the listener might be expecting something else. The form of the aria is A B B' with the last section adding the strings (staccato) and creating the feeling of a minuet. The arioso which opens part 2 of the cantata consists only of two bars/measures, a short, but dignified introduction to the words that Jesus will speak to Simon in Mvt. 4b.

(1) Rilling/Kraus: The usual attempt at dramatics by Kraus in the recitatives normally causes me to cringe at the very first notes that I hear him sing. Here he is perhaps slightly better than his usual level which I consider to be quite low in recitative singing. However, when Kraus dons his 'aria-singing cap,' things improve considerably. Yes, there are some high notes that are quite shrill, but listen to the wonderful variation in the voice when he sings, "Ja, ja" ("yes, yes.") Each time he sings it with a different inflection in his voice. Notice how carefully he attacks some of the high notes on "Ja." Without control and knowledge of the text, he could 'belt out' these notes, but instead he uses control. The result is that a feeling is projected to the listener: "This guy cares about the text, because he understands it." Can it get any better than this? Yes, read on.

(2) Leonhardt/Equiluz: Not only does Equiluz care about the text and understand it, he identifies himself completely with it, thus becoming a living vehicle for transmitting the composer's intentions. This type of excellent expression must truly be a gift, since experience alone (Equiluz certainly has had this as well) will not ensure a performance on this level. Equiluz is not overly dramatic, yet every word sung is projected with a genuine f. He is not like many other current singers of Bach arias simply engaging in an exercise in bel canto singing. He has developed way beyond that stage. I almost forget about the primitive oboe d'amore sound when I listen to his voice. In the final arioso which I think Leonhardt took too fast, Equiluz manages even to make these two measures sound just right.

[4] Leusink/Beekman: Although Beekman has some expression, he does not come anywhere near Equiluz' performance level. The recitative does show an attempt at expression, but the aria is primarily without such inflection (more like a vocal exercise.) Nevertheless his singing is quite listenable. There is also a good balance between the voice and the instrumental ensemble. Beekman's German pronunciation leaves something to be desired. Take, for instance, the word "verirret" in which the 'i' should be treated as a short vowel, but it is not here. The instrumental ritronello at the end of the aria is a pleasure to listen to. The following short arioso is much too fast and dance-like, an interpretation that is entirely inappropriate for the introduction of Jesus' words.

Mvt. 4b Arioso for Bass

The quasi-ostinato continuo contains a downward-moving motif (falling down out of fear) that opposes the vocal motif (upward rising) on the words, "Fürchte dich nicht" ("fear not.") The opposition of these motifs, one answering the other, causes an interesting tension to develop between the voice and the instrumental accompaniment.

[4] Leusink/Ramselaar: Both conductor and singer give this a very light treatment, unsuitable for the text, the words being spoken by Jesus. There is not much expression in the voice and Ramselaar does not (or can not) sing out in a full voice. Most of the time his voice is retained in the back of the throat (much like putting your chin on your chest and singing 'ur' all the time.) Not a very convincing Jesus!

(2) Leonhardt/Egmond: The tempo is somewhat slower here and there is more gravity. I do not like the unsettled quality of Egmond's voice. This is not as noticeable when he sings softly, but as soon as he tries to project with more volume, his voice becomes problematical. He does have good expression, however.

(1) Rilling/Schöne: The raspiness (which sounds like static or interference in the voice probably comes as a result of his vibrato) is still there, but there is a bit more volume in the voice, but otherwise he has the necessary dignity and gravity to represent Jesus' voice.

Mvt. 5 Duetto Soprano/Alto and Mvt. 6 Recitative for Soprano

[4] Leusink/Holton/Buwalda: There is the usual heavy bass continuo to contend with and Buwalda's voice simply does not blend with or match Holton's. Sometimes Buwalda yodels, and at other times he sounds like a very thin reed on the verge of breaking. This is unfortunate, because this version could have been the best of those available. In the soprano recitative, Holton sings, "Laß Druck/Trug und Ungemach" (perhaps she sings 'Trug' with improper pronunciation so that it sounds like 'Druck.') instead of the original words, "Laß kurzes Ungemach."

(2) Leonhardt/Klein/Esswood: This version is too fast. The general feeling here is that everyone is hurrying to get this mvt. over with as soon as possible. The basso continuo is treated in a clumsy fashion. Klein has a peculiar, reedy quality in his voice, unlike the typical round quality that good boy sopranos usually have. The addition of vibrato here and there does not help him either. The sound is sharply penetrating and makes me uncomfortable as I listen to it. Perhaps this voice was prematurely pushed to its limits and suffered damage as a result of overuse. Esswood does not help very much here either in that the voices do not blend together very well. The recitative simply exaggerates the worst qualities of Klein's voice. This is difficult to listen to.

(1) Rilling/Reichelt/Gohl: The duet is marked 'Allegro' and Rilling treats it more like a dirge. These voices do not match except for the fact that they both use excessive vibrato. At different points in this mvt. each singer gets a chance to exhibit the absolutely worst qualities in the voice. This is a very unsatisfactory performance. In the recitative, Reichelt becomes too operatic. Instead of singing "Laß kurzes Ungemach," she sings "Laß Trug und Ungemach."

Mvt. 7 Chorale

[4] Leusink: Hurray! Almost! Leusink only omitted one fermate (where he disregards completely the fermate by shortening the note value and having the choir quickly draw a breath before proceeding without missing a beat, or even a fraction thereof.)

(2) Leonhardt: With a thrusting, heavy accent on each and every quarter note, Leonhardt manages to make the chorale sound artificial and belabored. It also sounds like they really do not even care what they are singing about. Is there anybody out there (besides Harnoncourt/Leonhardt) who can honestly say that this manner of singing a chorale is of a high quality and that it represents what Bach might have had in mind???

[1] Rilling: Yes, yes! This is it, but do I hear the horns playing along here? They are not indicated in the score, and may have left before the sermon. Who knows? Perhaps they had to play something else in one of the other Leipzig churches on that particular Sunday? What are they still doing here?

Summary

Pick and choose from the remaining mvts.

Boyd wrote (July 19. 2001):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
<EDIT> Before these cantatas were recorded, an individual would consider himself lucky to have heard a few dozen of Bach's cantatas during his lifetime. What was the quality of these performances? What does it sound like to the listener who hears a Bach cantata performed for the first and only time? What was the quality of Bach's own performances, given all the strictures that were placed on him (very little rehearsal time, instrumentalists, choir member-vocalists suddenly ill and unable to perform, etc.)? Should this be the basis of judgement today? Should we consider Ramin's recordings (as in BWV 24 last week, a recording made with little rehearsal - a fact that can not be overheard - for a radio broadcast that was then recorded from the radio), Gardiner's and Leusink's [4] whirlwind readings of the cantatas as being comparable to what Bach heard in his day? Or should we continue to raise the level of interpretation higher and higher in order to coax yet another unusual sound from vocalists and instrumentalists alike? Are we doing a service or a disservice for all beginning listeners who want to become acquainted with these cantatas, by telling them "avoid this one" and perhaps "buy that one?" Perhaps we are shortcircuiting the pleasures we had in examining all the available versions. Perhaps the only way to appreciate quality is to listen to the bad as well as the good versions and then form your own opinion? <EDIT>
While I find the aforementioned great commentaries valuable, I can't help but think they are in part at odds with the meaning of the text. Descriptions such as: "the placidly heaving lake," "the mild rocking of a boat," "the colorful, Romantic atmosphere" can't be taking into account the meaning of Jesus' calling of missionaries. The historical context of these very missionaries is that they suffered great violence, and the disciples who heard Jesus, would have probably recalled the story of Jonah, the reluctant missionary. Indeed the rest of the Cantata introduces the idea of a christian wavering in indecision. Men are certainly not fish, and Men tend to put up a rather more crafty fight.

I think Whittaker strikes morto the heart of the matter as his commentary of BWV 88. He refers to the Old Testament passage as the reminder that an angry Jehovah first scattered the children of Israel who are now being gathered back and pardoned. Whittaker speaks of missionary zeal, and exciting adventure, of commanding lines, and later, wavering indecision. The magnificent rolling sequences are seen by Whittaker as the waves of missionaries pouring over the land. To me this is not a last word, but a better grasp of where the text actually takes us: on to dry land in order to fish for souls, with nets landing upon human hearts.

I can heartily agree with the comments below. Tom, your comments about the expectation we have of performance these days make a good point. Many of Bach's cantatas were apparently performed upon only a week's notice. They were written with specific musicians and singers in mind that Bach knew personally. One director told me that Bach is virtually indestructible, meaning that Bach can make the worst of performers look good. I think this resilience is built into Bach's music for the very reasons mentioned- the short preparation period for musicians, etc. Schweitzer's suggestion to gather friends round the piano and just get at performing the Cantatas reminds us that Bach meant these musical gems to be received by the commonest of church goers. Bach's Cantatas are not the inhertitance of merely experts and intellectuals but the inhertitance of a meagre cadre of church musicians and singers who were probably not the best of their time.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (July 20, 2001):
For once I discovered that I had 2 versions, the Leusink [4] and the Leonhardt-Harnoncourt (2) which latter set I have barely opened in the three months it's been here. I listened to the Leusink and then opened vol. 5 of the L-H only to discover that CD 4 was given twice and CD 3 was missing. Now I have to check the whole box. Sounds like there is a God and he doesn't want me near the cantatas.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (July 21, 2001):
(2) Well, I wrote Berkshire (broinc.com) and, even though it's a manufacturer's problem, I hope that they will rectify it. I indeed expect them to do no less. But I expect some difficulties, as always in such matters. All the other vols. Have the correct CDs. Vol. 8 has a totally crushed booklet.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 88: 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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