Cantata BWV 108Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of May 13, 2001
Aryeh Oron wrote (May 15, 2001):
This is the week of Cantata BWV 108 according to Pablo Fagoaga's suggestion. The libretto for this charming cantata was written by the poet Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. We do already know, from previous discussions about cantatas to which she also wrote the libretto, that the level of her writing is considerably higher than the usual texts supplied to Bach. And we do already know that Ziegler’s librettos inspired Bach to spirited and intimate writing. About this cantata I can simply say that the fulfilment does not disappoint the promise. Every movement of this cantata is a pearl. Hearing the cantata as a whole is about 15 to 20 minutes of sublime satisfaction and deep gratitude to this eternal composer.
As a background to the review of the 5 recordings of this cantata I shall use again W. Murray Young’s book – ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’. Although this book was written about twenty years ago, I have the feeling that it was written with our weekly discussions in mind, because this is one of the best of its kind as a listening guide. I shall allow myself eliminating the factual data, most of which appears at the beginning of this review.
“Mariane von Ziegler’s libretto for this cantata was another of her poems emended by Bach. Two quotations from The Gospel John 16: 5-15, are used in two movements, while another of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn forms the final chorale verse.
The subject of this cantata is the Holy Ghost, whom Christ promises to send to His disciples and all the believers after His departure from the world. The arias and the recitatives are freely composed on this theme as it is expressed in the Gospel quotations.”
I am aware of 5 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 108, and during last week I have been listening to them all. I do not know of any other recording of this cantata, neither in a complete form, nor of individual movements from it. See: Cantata BWV 108 - Recordings (1) to (5).
 Karl Richter (1958; 1st recording)
 Karl Richter (1967; 2nd recording)
 Helmuth Rilling (1980-1981)
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1980)
 Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)
Review of the Recordings – Movement by Movement
Mvt. 1 Arioso for Bass
“This number is really an aria, but as the bass represents Christ speaking, Bach calls it an arioso as he always did in this case. The text is taken from John 16: 7; the words suggest a step-motif, which Bach illustrates very well. A staccato rhythm, played by the oboe d’amore and the strings, portrays both the Lord’s steps as He leaves His disciples, and those of the Comforter as he approaches them.”
(1) Kieth Engen (with Richter 1) has deep bass voice, of the kind that we very rarely hear today. Despite its depth, this voice has also flexibility. Engen’s singing delivers authority, warmth and calmness. You can easily believe that this is indeed Jesus speaking, someone in whom you are ready and willing to believe.
(2) From the instrumental introduction we hear that this is quite a different approach from the one that Richter chose nine years earlier. It is lighter, faster and has more tenderness. One could easily misled to think that this is a different conductor. Unlike Engen, Theo Adam’s voice (with Richter 2) is baritone-like rather than a bass-like. I find his expression less varied than that of his predecessor. He has less authority, although his voice is very pleasant. I feel as if he does not feel comfortable with his role.
(3) Huttenlocher (with Rilling) has an impressive voice, if somewhat dry and lacking some warmth, when compared to his two predecessors. He is a little bit covered by the accompaniment supplied by Rilling. Maybe it was done intentionally. Jesus is going away, or intends to, and therefore his voice is also vanishing. I am not convinced.
(4) Surprisingly Harnoncourt’s approach here is less fragmented than usual. And here, if we accept Young’s explanation that ‘A staccato rhythm, played by the oboe d’amore and the strings, portrays both the Lord’s steps as He leaves’, than here it is more staccato than legato. Nevertheless, from the opening notes we hear clearly that we are in a different world of sounds. As in Rilling’s case, the bass singer here, Ruud van der Meer, is also somewhat covered by the accompaniment. His voice has more warmth and his singing shows more compassion than those of Huttenlocher, if not on the same par of the first two bass singers.
(5) Leusink’s staccato playing in the first aria is sharper than that of Harnoncourt. Ramselaar (with Leusink) is more impressive Jesus and his voice is warmer than those of Huttenlocher (Rilling) and van der Meer (Harnoncourt). He is also a little covered by the accompaniment, but we are compensated by the charming playing.
Mvt. 2 Aria for Tenor
“Representing a disciple or a believer, the tenor replies to the Lord, saying that no doubts will hinder his belief, even though Christ has departed. His trust in the Lord will console him in the knowledge that his faith will lead him to peace among other redeemed Christians. A solo violin adds a beautiful effect to his vocal delivery.”
Mvt. 3 Recitative for Tenor
“This short declamation marks the transition from the theme of the Lord’s departure so that of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The rest of the cantata will deal with how the Holy Ghost influences us. Here he says that the Lord’s Spirit will so direct him that he will go on the right way. Then he asks the rhetorical question, anxiously wondering if the Spirit sent by Christ is not already here with him.”
(1) Peter Pears (with Richter 1) was at the heights of his powers when he made this recording. Such beauty of tone and such execute expression. I do not know about his accent, but I really do not mind because I am convinced. One can hear the comfort, the belief, the longing. How beautifully he lengthens the word ‘gewünschten’ (longed for) and charges it with so much meaning. The question at the end of the recitative can be clearly heard.
(2) Haefliger (with Richter 2) is more extrovert here than Pears. He expresses his distress and even rage in this situation. The voice is pure delight, but it has less pain than Pears’. The deep pain was saved for the recitative. At the end of the question you hear almost silence, as if his throat was choked.
(3) Schreier’s voice (with Rilling) is light and golden and his singing is joyous and shining. In the recitative he gives meaning to every phrase, every word and every syllable. The question at the end is left open on the air.
(4) Equiluz’ voice (with Harnoncourt) is darker than that of Schreier, but he is full of expression, longing and willing for comfort.
(5) Marcel Beekman (with Leusink) has young and fresh voice, with lot of tenderness and softness. His expression is less deep than his predecessors, but I believe that this promising singe will improve in time. The question at the end of the recitative remains unclear.
Mvt. 4. Chorus
“All voices and instruments produce this monumental motet movement, which consists of three separate fugues. It seems that Bach is trying to show the power of the Ghost through the energetic and forceful canonical choral singing. The voices are doubled by the oboes and strings in a joy-motif, which makes one of the most brilliant choruses that Bach ever composed. The text is taken from John 16: 13.“
(1) Richter’s first rendition of this chorus is full of force, as it should be. Earlier this week, in one of the times that I was listening to these recordings, I found myself in my car, holding the steering wheel in one hand, and waving with the other in the air like a crazy, according to the rhythm of this Richter’s recording. This phenomenon has not returned with the other recordings. Looking at the playing time one might easily be led to believe that this rendition is slow and heavy. And I found that in this case, the opposite is the truth. This is the most sweeping recording of this movement. And it proves that the force comes from internal feeling and not from external quick execution. If you are sure in your way, you do not have to rush anywhere. The intensity is strengthened gradually as the voices enter one after the other.
(2) The chorus in the second Richter’s recording is faster than the first one. It is still exiting, but less power is felt. The lines of the various voices in the fugue are less clearly heard.
(3) The lines in Rilling’s rendition of this chorus are lucid and clear. But this rendition also lacks any power. Did Rilling miss the point here, or had he a different intention than the one proposed by the text?
(4) Like Rilling’s, Harnoncourt’s chorus also lacks power and drive, even though the voices are beautifully interwoven.
(5) Leusink’s rendition of the chorus is more powerful than either Rilling or Harnoncourt, if not on the level of Richter 1. The lines are less clear than those of Harnoncourt and most of the others.
Mvt. 5. Aria for Alto
“There is a feeling of intense longing in the exquisite melody, which combines with a joy-motif at the end. Only strings and continuo are used to paint a scene of beatific peace, which the Holy Spirit imparts. The smooth serenity of this aria makes the listener feel the flow of grace from the Holy Spirit.”
(1) Lilian Benningsen (with Richter 1) has a true contralto voice with beautiful colour. He vibrato is somewhat felt, but that was accepted in the times when this recording was made. I have the feeling that has she sung today, she would save most of it, because she has full control of her execution. The grace she is getting from Him is felt in her singing. She uses the slow tempo to express her plea with lot of sensitivity.
(2) Marga Höffgen has also marvellous contralto voice. I find it hard to choose between those two ladies. Richter prepares her entry with gentleness. Höffgen’s voice has more metallic timbre and more bright and her vibrato is a little bit less felt. It has more nuances and she has more means for expression. And I still find Benningsen’s singing hard to resist.
(3) Carolyne Watkinson’s voice is more of the mezzo-soprano type and somewhat pale when compared to her two predecessors. It has also kind of fragility, which I find disturbing. Her expression is also blander than theirs.
(4) In Harnoncourt rendition of this aria we are compensated for the disappointment of the chorus. Esswood singing is calm and beautiful. Although he is equipped with expression, intelligence and beauty of tone, he keeps himself somewhat restrained. As if he wants to tell us that the main focus should be the music and not him. He is always in the service of the music and of the message he has to convey.
(5) Buwalda’s voice (with Leusink) is less stable, his expression less varied than those of Esswood. I find his approach somewhat one-dimensional, and still he has some pain under the surface, which I find appealing.
Mvt. 6. Chorale
“Tutti forces perform verse 10 of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn. This verse describes the guiding power of the Holy Ghost to direct our steps into God’s grace. As a concluding chorale, it summerizes admirably the theme of this cantata.”
All the recordings of this cantata can please, because I find the music irresistible. My personal first choice, the one to which I shall return first when I want to hear this cantata again, is Richter 1 (1).
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Thomas Braatz wrote (May 16, 2001):
Background [Spitta, Schweitzer, Nicholas Anderson, Eric Chafe, Dürr, Wolff, Dingeman van Wijnen, Ludwig Finscher]
See: Cantata BWV 108 - Commentary
Comments on the Recordings
My comments are on the recordings by Richter (2), Rilling (3), Harnoncourt (4), and Leusink (5).
Mvt. 1 Basso Solo
(2) Richter has a large orchestra which demands a large voice such as Theo Adam's. There is a good balance between them and the tempo is very suitable to allow sufficient expression of individual words. Sometimes Adam is too operatic, as, for instance, when he swoops up to the word, "denn."
(3) Rilling's ostinato bass is rather pronounced (typically his bass lines tend to be too loud), but the oboe d'amore, although very bright in color, is played well. Although I do not particularly care for Huttenlocher's singing for reasons that I have already stated, his performance here seems to be somewhat better than many other arias that he has sung for Rilling or Harnoncourt.
(4) Harnoncourt demonstrates some of his usual traits: the two-note phrases (left unmarked by Bach), as, for instance, on the word "hin-ge-he" where 'ge' takes a slight natural accent, Harnoncourt has the voice and entire orchestra hit the note on 'ge' very strongly while the 'he,' unaccented as it is, disappears entirely. There are a few places in this piece, where I defy anyone to truthfully claim that they have actually heard a soft note where there is no sound present of that note at all. Balance: the orchestra is simply too loud and ponderous for poor Ruud van der Meer. He does not have too much of a voice to begin with, so there are places in the lower range that are almost inaudible. I do not understand why Harnoncourt's oboe d'amore has to sound as if it is 'skating on ice,' which gives me the feeling as though the player is not in complete control, just about 'to lose' it, but never really does. This makes me feel uncomfortable and distracts me from really enjoying the music. It is as if I am watching a figure skater who lacks smoothness and grace and seems, because of shaky feet, to be ready to fall at any given moment.
(5) Leusink's oboe d'amore is excellent in comparison, but the instrumentalists, despite the lighter touch that Leusink gives the music, are too loud for Ramselaar. This is, for the most part, due to the overly strong bass line. Ramselaar copies some of Ruud van der Meer's phrasing. The impression Ramselaar's voice makes on me is that it is not open, but rather narrow and confined through pressing and constricting the air flow through the larynx.
Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3 Tenor Aria + Recitative
(5) Leusink's version is a semitone lower than Rilling's (3) or Richter's (2). He has produced a chamber music ensemble with the bass this time not being too loud. What a relief! The interplay of voice and violin is simply wonderful. To be sure, the voice is not very large, but just because it does not have to overcome any loud playing by the instruments, it can develop some beautiful effects, for instance, on the ascending motif, "gehst du fort" ("if you go away,") Beekman creates a wonderful bell-like tone on the final note, "fort." But his version is not particularly rich in variation of expression as some of the others.
(4) Harnoncourt does some interpretation of the text by having Alice, his wife,[I assume that she is playing] play with rubato (it sounds like she is having a slight problem keeping steady time ("Zweifel" - "doubt"), but she always catches up.) What I do not like about her playing is that it is so thin and scratchy. Equiluz has much more expression than Beekman. Equiluz gives more of himself without losing control of the voice [there are arias where this happens because of the nature of the music and the loud accompaniment that Harnoncourt provides.]
(3) Rilling's version is the fastest. How wonderful to hear a nice violin sound! Everything here is more forceful. There is a relentless pressing forward and a sense of urgency which makes Schreier sound much more like being engaged in vocal pyrotechnics. Compare this with Leusink's low-key approach to this music. On the words, "gehst du fort," Schreier effortlessly moves up the scale. To illustrate the depth of expression, just listen to the end of the recitative, where the vocalist repeats twice the question, "Ach, ist er nicht schon hier?" ("Oh, isn't he here already?") Each time Schreier sings the question, it has a different expression, with the last question, so positioned that it leads directly into the next mvt.
(2) Richter's lush orchestra sound seems almost massive in comparison to the other versions, but it has a dignity all of its own as you can almost feel the grand strokes and gestures supplied by the larger string section. Haefliger's expression is also excellent as he occasionally has to push a little harder in the high range to supply sufficient volume against the orchestra. If you listen carefully, you will hear that Haefliger tends to favor the 'flat' side of the note (in some arias, he really is flat, but not here). But listen to the great expression in the voice with the question at the end of the recitative! You can tell that this man has accumulated much experience in singing Bach's vocal works (Evangelist, Arias and
Mvt. 4 Chorus
(2) Richter's version, although not lacking in enthusiasm, has a number of inherent problems: the organ, playing all the vocal parts, sticks out and makes clear that the choir is having intonation problems; the choir is not always together, nor are the voices always clearly heard. Richter 'hammers' home the message with staccato throughout at a brisk tempo. See above for the interpretation of 'God as a hammer.'
(3) Rilling's version is just the opposite of Richter's. Rilling takes a slower tempo and treats the fugal themes with a legato that ties the notes together. This simply sounds much more musical as a result. It is harmonious, yet energetic and forceful throughout. The only unpleasant factor is among the sopranos and occasionally the altos, as I can detect certain voices standing out and not blending in with the others. This has a strong climax, just as Richter also had.
(4) Harnoncourt has the same tempo as Rilling, but what a difference! Contrary to all expectations (and we know that Harnoncourt can be quite contrary when he wants to!) he does not use the 'hammer' approach which would suit him fine. No, he has to apply legato throughout this mvt. The result: no enthusiasm at all, the chorus is limp and hesitant throughout. The basses are muffled at times, the altos sound like buzzing bees on their running passages, and the sopranos sing words that can not be understood.
Harnoncourt simply is not in his element here. The conclusion is the most unsatisfactory of all, it ends as a whimper, not a bang of great enthusiam.
(5) Leusink uses a faster tempo, almost hurried. The text becomes unclear. The enthusiasm is there, but there is too much of it when the falsettists take over in the soprano and alto parts. They simply become unbearable. Leusink does somehow manage a solid ending.
Mvt. 5 Alto Aria
(5) Leusink has a nice instrumental ensemble, except that the bass is too thick and heavy. This is unfortunate for Buwalda, who tries his best to manage the volume of his voice against such heavy odds.
(4) Harnoncourt has the same tempo as Leusink, but he has to insist on the strong accent on the first note in a two-note phrase to be followed by nothingness, or near-nothingness, where Bach actually wrote a note. This aspect of Harnoncourt's direction is truly ridiculous. It is a shame that he could not rely on his inner musical ear to tell him otherwise, because I am certain that others, to no avail, already would have pointed this out to him, to keep him from destroying so much of Bach's music by persisting in his aberration. Esswood's performance is nicely done, but if you listen carefully, you will hear that he, similar to Haefliger, also tends to sing on the flat side of the note, and that on occasion this becomes so apparent that it becomes difficult to listen to. [Not here, however]
(3) Rilling's orchestra is even a bit too loud for such a strong, operatic voice such as Watkinson. She has a somewhat unpleasant fast tremolo in her voice.
(2) Richter's Töpper is my favorite in this group. By taking the tempo more slowly than the rest, Richter preserves an element of seriousness that seems to elude the other conductors. The string orchestra sound, once again, is lush and expansive. Richter even indulges in a long ritardando just before the voice enters for the first time. This is a rather unusual place for a ritardando, even for such a 'romanticized' version of Bach as this. The sense of legato playing also carries over into the singing which is very warm in expression. Töpper easily 'stands up' to the large orchestral forces. Listen to the wonderful quality of this voice on the word, "überschütte" ("pour over me.")
Mvt. 6 Chorale
(5) Leusink has a good tempo here and the fermati are not cut as short as he usually performs them. The lower voices are somewhat weak, and, of course, the falsettists on top, are completely out of balance. There is no blending of choral voices here.
(4) Harnoncourt: Would you believe it? This is a rather good rendition of a chorale. You can actually hear a legato treatment here. Was he ill on this day, and did the choir master take over for him? We'll never know!
(3) Rilling: Every voice is clearly heard, unfortunately among the sopranos there was one that was heard too much. This is the way I like to hear the fermati and the general tempo throughout is good.
(2) Richter: There may be enthusiasm here, but that is not enough to overcome the problems with the terrible sounding organ and the bad intonation in the choir, particularly where the third in the chord is being intoned.
Andrew Oliver wrote (May 20, 2001):
All movements of this cantata are well worth hearing, but the ones I like most are the bass aria, the alto aria, and, of course, the closing chorale.
As regards the connection which Tom Braatz tells us that Schweizer perceived between the first movement and the SMP (BWV 244) (immedbefore the second chorale), there are points of similarity, but no really striking parallels that I can see or hear. Both contain scale passages and step progressions of paired notes, and, of course, there is similar wording: Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe.... (this cantata), and Wann ich aber auferstehe, will ich vor euch hingehen....... (SMP). Concerning Harnoncourt (4) and the Vanishing Note Syndrome, by putting my headphones on and turning the volume up, I believe I can all of Ruud van der Meer's notes except for two. There are, however, several others which are very soft and not far from being inaudible. We also have to remember that the mind tends to supply notes that it considers should be there, even when they are totally missing. Having said all that, I do like v.d.Meer's rendition very much. I also like Ramselaar's (5), but slighly less.
I said last week that there are some cantata movements which suit Buwalda's voice (5) much better than others. His performance here (of No.5, with Leusink) is one which I like, and, though Esswood is also very good, I think I favour the former of these two. This movement, in Harnoncourt's version (4), is afflicted even more than usual by Vanishing Note Syndrome. The blame can only be laid on Harnoncourt himself, because it affects both Esswood's voice and every instrument. There are two chords which disappear entirely, one of which is the final one of the movement.
In compensation, as Tom rightly pointed out, Harnoncourt's (4) closing chorale is very good indeed, and, whereas I usually prefer Leusink's versions (5) of the chorales, in this instance Harnoncourt's is better.
As always, any recording of a Bach cantata has to be better than none.
BWV 108 - report
Christian Panse wrote (Maay 21, 2003):
Last Sunday was the Sunday Cantate and I had the pleasure to participate as bass soloist in a performance of BWV 108 "Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe", one of the foreseen cantatas for this special Sunday.
The performance took part in the oldest church (late middle ages, about 500 seats) of my home town. There is also a boys' choir, but this time a choir of adults sang the "Wenn aber jener..."-Fugue and the closing chorale, the latter together with the whole congregation. The parish was able to summon up no less than eleven baroque string players from their own members - the oboe d'amore player was "borrowed" ;-)
The cantata was performed between the reading of the Gospel and the sermon. I was the first one to sing, and so I immediately had to deliver that tricky aria with all those demisemiquavers - but everything went well, phew. After that I could lean back and enjoy the rest of the work.
As always, I found it a special experience to perform a cantata as part of the regular church service as it was originally intended, as opposed to performances within concerts, may they even take place in church buildings as well.
Bradley Lehman wrote (May 21, 2003):
Cantatas in Sunday morning services
Christian Panse wrote:
< Last Sunday was the Sunday Cantate and I had the pleasure to participate as bass soloist in a performance of BWV 108 "Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe", one of the foreseen cantatas for this special Sunday. (...)As always, I found it a special experience to perform a cantata as part of the regular church service as it was originally intended, as opposed to performances within concerts, may they even take place in church buildings as well. >
Sounds great, Christian, and congratulations on the performance.
We have a Sunday morning "Leipzig service" here in our town once a year, too, with a Bach cantata in its position among the hymns and sermon. It ends up sounding Rillingesque here: with the choice of instruments, playing style, singing style, and the conductor's background as a Rilling student. There are noon concerts and evening concerts in the week leading up to this. They call it a "Bach Festival" although there usually isn't much Bach played and sung in the balance against everything else: the emphasis instead (the spin they give it) is on the work of composers who were "influenced by" Bach, which means just about anything goes. http://www.emu.edu/bach/2003
Arjen K. Gijssel wrote (May 21, 2003):
[To Christian Panse] I gather that it was Bremen, Germany where you performed Cantata BWV 108? I did it myself with the Laurenscantorij, in the Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, the Netherlands last Sunday.
I can copy your remarks on the difficulty of the work. It is rather high, with a lot of melisma's. It is the instrumentalist Bach who made this Fugue, with less consideration to the choir members. But it is beautiful music.
We perform a Cantata each month in a regular sermon. We even do that with the SMP each year. It creates a special athmosphere, different from a classical performance in a music theatre.
Has your performance been recorded? We record each one. Check out some excerpts on www.laurenscantorij.nl . (not yet BWV 108).
Neil Halliday wrote (May 22, 2003):
[To Arjen K. Gijssel] This is a wonderful set of mp3 examples.
The 1st chorus of BWV 182 is particulatly engaging; a graceful (moderate) tempo, a recorder which manages to make itself heard throughout much of the movement, a violin with a lovely cantabile style, avoiding exaggerated articulation (for the most part), clarity from the cello, and a well balanced ensemble.
The choir is very good, with the sopranos and other voices 'swelling-up' into the huge acoustic of the church while maintaining clarity. Half way through, the recorder plays a trill on a note which is soon sung at the same pitch by the sopranos (minus the trill) - a delicious touch of Bach's brilliamce and mastery.
(A minor point - isn't this fashion of ending a piece with a long rest between the penultimate, and the last note (chord), in place of a rallentando, getting out of hand?)
I found the dark-hued timbres of the instruments in the opening of the Mozart mass very powerful indeed. The sombre nature of the music is almost overwhelming. Listen to the drum beats.
The Schein Psalm 42 shows off the expressive capabilities of this choir to good effect.
I believe the tempo adopted in 'O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross' (SMP) is too fast, but I have to admit to liking Klemperer's version.(Klemperer is perhaps too slow in the opening chorus, but this movement is of a more contemplative nature, and can therefore stand his reading of it). The 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner' is difficult to record in this church, of course, but one can hear loads of commitment from the players.
Congratulations to all concerned.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 22, 2003):
A few corrections (after consulting the score of BWV 108):
It's not the 1st chorus of BWV 108 on this mp3, but the last; and that trill on the recorder (C#), is followed up by ALL the lower voices, but NOT the sopranos, singing a C sharp, over a long held note of the same pitch name in the continuo. (I must have heard an overtone).
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 108: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3