Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bass) & Manfred Clements (oboe) / The Munich Bach Orchestra/ Karl Richter. Archiv Produktion. Recorded in 1968. 
Philippe Huttenlocher (bass) & Jürg Schäftlein (oboe) / Concentus Musicus, Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Teldec Classics. Recorded in 1978. 
Peter Kooy (bass) & Marcel Ponseele (oboe) / La Chapelle Royale/ Philippe Herreweghe. Harmonia Mundi France. Recorded in 1991. 
Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82, is one of several which expresses contempt for worldly life and a yearning for death and the life beyond. As such, it represents (from my own subjective perspective) a certain Bachian paradox, wherein some of the most life-denying texts led to some of his most life-affirming music.
The first aria of this particular cantata, however, has another apparent paradox. The pains of living in this world are not mentioned at all in its the text; indeed, the text is full of radiance and hope. Bach’s music, however, is full of pain and dissonance, expressing the suffering in this world more directly than in the subsequent arias (although it is only in the latter that the text makes explicit reference to them). This tension between text and music has led to highly varied readings of the music: Schweitzer insists that the music represents “inexpressible joy”; Albert Basso called it “a page filled with sadness”; Robert King spoke of “noble resignation”. In a more equivocal manner, Ludwig Finscher spoke of “an intensity of text interpretation which does not let up for an instant”, and which reflects “the introversion and fervent, mystically-hued yearning for death in the text”.
It would be fascinating to examine the extent of text/music tension here, and its role in the construction and interpretation of the cantata as a whole. My purpose here, however, is somewhat different – I wish to examine the ways in which various performers have reacted to this tension, and the means by which they projected their differing interpretations. I must stress at the outset that I have yet to examine what “my” performers had to say about this work, nor do I know to what extent they controlled aspects of the recording process, such as balance and editing. When I claim that certain performers highlight or disguise certain elements, I do so solely on the basis of my understanding of their performance, as preserved on record.
The different approaches can be sensed right at the start, in the performance of the opening ritornello. The two extremes are represented in my sample by Karl Richter and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The only similarity between them is that they both employ the detached articulation prescribed by Bach, but they deploy it to contrasting effect.
Richter’s slow and steady tempo creates a relaxed and controlled effect. Above the almost neutral, recurrent beats of the strings, the oboe weaves a broad, lyrical and melodic line. The sense of controlled calm can also be related to the clear sense of hierarchy: the strings clearly support and accompany the oboe, and assert their own character mainly when the oboe is silent. The oboe, in turn, is relegated to a more accompanying role when Fischer-Dieskau enters.
Harnoncourt’s reading is markedly contrasted. It is characterised by a relatively fast and – perhaps more importantly – wavering tempo, breathless string articulation (as well as a somewhat harsh string sonority), and sharply detached notes in the bass. The oboe’s line, with its compressed and rhythmically fluid playing, sounds more like a series of ornaments than like a melody. The combination of these elements creates a degree of nervousness, contributing to an almost tormented musical expression.
Another noteworthy feature is Huttenlocher’s differentiation between the two repeats of the initial phrase (“Ich habe genug”). His entry is soft, almost hesitant; but the repeat immediately after it already displays greater confidence. This will be an important feature for the rest of the performance.
While both Richter and Harnoncourt adhered to the score’s detached phrase markings (in the NBA edition – I have yet to examine whether they are authentic), Herreweghe seems to ignore them: his opening ritornello features a far smoother articulation. His tempo stands as a “compromise” between Harnoncourt and Herreweghe, in both speeds and steadiness, and he creates a sense of ebb-and-flow which contrasts both with Richter’s comparably static stability and Harnoncourt’s nervousness. Herreweghe’s texture is also more integrated. There are distinctions within the texture – the emphasis on the bass’s downbeats at every bar, for instance – but there is, overall, a greater sense of unity than in the other two recordings. Herreweghe’s strings seems to carry the oboe along, instead of supporting it (as in Richter) or disrupting it (as in Harnoncourt). When Peter Kooy enters, this is not registered as a momentous occasion: he is simply joining a process already set in motion (in more senses than one).
To my hearing, at least, these three ritornelli and vocal entries already establish different affekts for this movement. Richter comes closest to the expression of Robert King’s “noble resignation” (also eloquently realised by King himself, in a live performance with Peter Harvey); while retaining the sadness of the music, he does minimise its tensions and creates a smoother, more lyrical atmosphere. Herreweghe, while retaining a sense of lyricism, draws closer attention to the sadness and anguish, even tension. It is the latter element that is most prominent in Harnoncourt’s nervous and troubled reading.
Richter’s emphasis on serenity is even more prominent later on. His orchestral accompaniment is usually quite soft (in both senses), focusing attention on Fischer-Dieskau’s rendition of the vocal line, which in turn is characterised by intense vocal beauty – particularly prominent in many soft, dolce passages. He thus intensifies the feeling of calm sadness already suggested by Richter’s conducting.
Dieskau’s reading is not consistently beautiful in the narrow sense. But it is, overall, a positive reading – one that does the utmost to link music and text. This is arguably the case even when the Dieskau employs a harsher tone. His steady, secure rendition of the final, melismatic “Freude” (example 2 in your handout) brings out what several commentators called a joy motive. This is brought into sharper relief against the dolce reading of the immediately preceding “Ich habe genug” at bar 163.
Harnoncourt, by contrast, retains the nervous energy of his opening ritornello almost throughout. Against this background, the singer’s attitude seems to change and develop. As textual phrases are repeated, they are often first presented softly, almost hesitantly, but gradually the singer becomes more impassioned and insistent. To my ears, it sounded like overcoming doubts (the latter possibly represented by the orchestra), thus pointing the way towards one interpretation of the text/context incongruity. In the passage I described earlier in the Richter/Dieskau reading, Huttenlocher actually increases the volume in the “Ich habe genug” in bb. 163-164 (where Dieskau did the reverse), thus building up towards the “Freude” melisma; and this in turn leads to the sharp accentuation on “scheiden” and the final ritardando on “Ich haben genug”. The confidence gathers up, rather than being present throughout.
Here, as in other structural key points in the aria, the bass’s “Ich habe genug” silences all instruments except the continuo, which supports the singer with an authentic cadence. Harnoncourt emphasises this by allowing Huttenlocher more time in this isolated state, seeming to silence the “dissenting” orchestra. The dissent is the general, nervous atmosphere; it is easier to sense the overall effect than to pinpoint the individual strands that cause it. This is consistent with Harnoncourt’s general belief that, in Bach’s music, “the superimposition of differing articulations produces a superior articulation [...] which is felt to be rich and complex, even though it cannot be understood in detail”.
Herreweghe’s reading pinpoints disruptive elements more specifically. His lines normally sound rounder even than Richter’s, not to mention Harnoncourt’s. Consequently, when he does point out strident or harsh elements, they are even more prominent against their surroundings. There are two specially prominent elements, both of which are present in example 2: a rising-and-falling quaver arpeggio in the strings, and the opening gesture in the oboe. In this passage, they are superimposed on the “Hoffen” melisma. Herreweghe (like Harnoncourt) brings out the oboe quite stridently at this point, and he also renders the string figure with harsh, detached sforzandi (as he has done in earlier appearances of this figure). The combined effect is of the orchestra directly questioning the singer’s “joy” melisma, creating a clear sense of conflict between the two. It is curious to note, though, that Herreweghe follows this with a beautifully hushed rendition of the final ritornello, reminiscent of Fischer-Dieskau’s dolce passages.
In general, both Harnoncourt and Herreweghe create a sense of tense communication, if not conflict, between the singer and the orchestra; Richter, through his clear focus on the vocal line, avoids this tension and presents a more serene view. The impression I gained from this is that many of the features which create the text/music tension are located in the orchestral parts, and the tensions are therefore more prominent when the orchestra does more than just “support” the singer. The text of two other arias speaks of the “misery” of this world and of “the distress which afflicts me on earth”; the music – especially in the orchestral parts – seems to bring these elements into the first aria as well. (Incidentally, Dieskau does highlight these elements when they are directly mentioned in the later arias).
Some of you may have noticed my tentative tendency to speak of performances seeming to emphasize or conceal elements, apparently conveying certain messages and so forth. This caution is partly due to the fact that I do not have the necessary background information on the performers’ intentions. It is also because I regard the research here presented only as a starting-point; I am still more in the process of framing questions than of providing answers. The issues raised here can point in several directions. I am currently working mainly on the second of mentioned below (within a Ph.D. thesis on recordings of the B minor Mass), but I hope to pursue all of them later:
- The general questions of text and music relations, with Ich habe genug as an example of a work where these relations are not straightforward;
- Questions of performance/music relations, and the way differing views can of the music can be presented through performance;
- More specifically, Bach’s attitude towards text-setting – and particularly his approach to setting of “death-wish” texts (are there parallels between them? To mention one incident: I fee there is a parallel between Ich habe genug and the Kreuzstab cantata).
- The different performance schools. Here, I presented two “authentic” performances against one on “modern” instruments (incidentally, none of the three were entirely literalistic with regards to phrasing and dynamics instructions in the score). A small question: is it a coincidence that the “modern” one was also the one that allowed the singer most prominence?
So at this point I will not present any “final” conclusions. Perhaps I could end by mentioning one more point. I stated here that the Richter/Dieskau performance seemed to conceal elements in the music, which – when put in those terms – sounds like a criticism. Yet I found it at least as moving and convincing as the other two (in fact, I would hate to place any of them above the others). There is indeed, perhaps, something “one-sided” about Richter’s performance (and, indeed, Harnoncourt’s – in the opposite direction); but performance is a creative venture, not merely and interpretative one. What all three performances communicate is a combined sense of conviction – a belief in the appropriateness of their approach – and intense musicality.