Cantata BWV 109Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of November 12, 2000
Aryeh Oron wrote (November 12, 2000):
This is the week of cantata BWV 109 according to Ryan Michero's suggestion. I shall concentrate this time only in the opening chorus, for reasons that will be explained below.
I remember a day about 20 years ago coming home from a regular visit in a record shop after work. A big batch of Bach cantatas conducted by Rilling arrived to the shop. Most of them were unfamiliar to me and I finished by buying almost 20 LP's of them. They were printed in that period by Claus Verlag label and were all white, except a coloured contour. I do not know why, but when I came home, I put on the turntable cantata BWV 109. From the first notes I was captivated. I was singing to myself the opening chorus all day long almost every day in the next couple of weeks. I did not understand why everybody else was not doing the same. From that day on, this cantata has remained one of my favourites. When I did my homework for this week review, I was astonished to discover that only two more recordings were done besides Rilling's. This cantata deserves much wider recognition. But are not them all deserving the same?
The Opening Chorus - What the experts say
Alec Robertson in his book 'The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach' (1972):
"The text comes from St. Mark 9 (24), which concerns the healing of the epileptic boy whose father cried out the words quoted in answer to Jesus' saying, 'All things are possible to him that believeth'. It may be that the librettist chose this text and not that of the boy with the fever described in the Gospel for the day (John 4: 46-54) - The nobleman's son healed), whose father had no doubts, so as to link the hesitant man with St Paul's great passage from the Epistle for the day (Ephesians 6: 10-17) - Put on the armour of God) beginning 'Finally be strong in the Lord and put on the strength of His might' so as to resist the principalities and powers.
The antithesis draws from Bach striking opening movement. The main motif in the orchestral part is a group of four notes, rarely absent from the score, but never used in the vocal parts.
When the ritornello ends the soprano bursts out with the first words of the text in a fine declamatory phrase. In the course of the movement, solo alto, bass and tenor all have similar entries. 'Unbelief is set to extended phrases six times, 'believe' not even to one, which shows where Bach wishes to put the emphasis."
Ludwig Finscher in the linear notes to Harnoncourt's recording on Teldec (1980) :
"The opening chorus highlights the antithesis of belief and unbelief by its strikingly differentiated writing, which tosses the vocal and instrumental motifs backwards and forwards, thereby profoundly symbolising the interrelation of belief and unbelief."
W. Murray Young in his book 'The Cantatas of J.S. Bach - An Analytical Guide' (1989):
"Only one line, from Mark 9 (24), is used as text in this number. Even with only this last part of the Biblical verse, Bach builds a monumental chorus, which, together with the final chorale, can be considered as the best movements of the cantata. The entries of the various vocal sections produce a mystic atmosphere in their group prayer for help in their unbelief".
Simon Crouch in his Web pages 'A Listener's Guide to the Cantatas of J. S. Bach' (1996, 1998):
"The outer movements of BWV 109 provide the main interest. The opening movement is a solemn and mighty chorus with an orchestral introduction that will tug at your heart strings and the final movement is an extended chorale setting, again with a fine orchestral accompaniment
Review of complete Recordings
(1) Helmuth Rilling (1971 (Mvts. ) + 1981 (Mvts. 4-6)
The magnificence of the opening chorus is best expressed in this rendering. The instrumental introduction is grabbing you in, and then the sopranos enter with enthusiastic singing, followed by the other voices. They are competing with each other in their wanting to be heard by Jesus. I recommend everybody to hear this ebullient rendering. If you have not known this cantata before, I am sure that you will be captivated, like I did.
(2) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1980)
The fragmented approach of Harnoncourt, has never disturbed me more than in his rendering of the opening chorus. It kills everything. There is no flow and no enthusiasm. He is working against the direction of the music and the message of the text. Has he not read the linear notes to his recording? I do not believe that anyone, who has heard only this recording, would learn to appreciate this cantata.
(3) Ton Koopman (1998)
I find that Koopman gentle and transparent approach is not wholly suitable to the opening chorus. The playing of the instruments and the singing of the various voices of the choir are pleasant, but it does not take you with it. Indeed, it is flowing lightly ahead, but the power in the cries of the people for help is missing.
(1) Rilling - The best - go for it!
(3) Koopman- middle of the road
(2) Harnoncourt - avoid
This morning, before going to work, I put again Rilling's recording (1) in the CD player. What a wonderful way to start a new week! (In Israel Sunday is the first working day of the week). I have also noticed the delicacy and the consolation with which Equiluz is singing the recitative that follows the opening chorus. All the other movements of this cantata are fascinating and highly inspired. I do not agree with the claim that the pick of BWV 109 comes at the beginning and that everything which comes afterwards is on lower level. But I shall leave the analysis of the other movements of this cantata to other members of the group, or maybe I shall simply keep the option to write about them at a latter date.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Marie Jensen wrote (November 12, 2000):
Imagine you stood in front of a wall with a lot of buttons, one for each composer, and if you pushed one of them, a typical sound concentrate would flow out and fill the room. The long orchestral opening of cantata BWV 109 would be great for that because can anything be more Bachish? Calm beautiful patterns are drawn to make a golden, shining field of faith in the darkness. A circular statement goes on and on. Oboes and strings are playing, a horn which hardly can be heard. And around the circle the four voices invoice "Ich glaube!". The steady Bach machine goes on spinning, and from time to time they step one step backwards into the darkness to shout with fear "Hilf mein Unglauben". So it goes on and on for a long time. The persons move in and out of the circle. With small but effective means their fear and doubt is heard, while the orchestral circle remains as a safe ground in the middle.
I like the way the psychological drama of doubt and fear is woven into this cantata, not only in the opening but also in the first aria "Wie zweifelhaftig ist mein Hoffen". It is haunted by fear, Novemberish: darkness, cold rain, wind and no shelter. The strings tormented dotted notes and icy disharmonies surround the singers' awful situation.
But as always when Bach goes deep into darkness, he finds Jesus again, and a gay dance is heard: the alto aria: "Der Heiland kennet ja die Seinen". Only in the b-piece the old conflict "Geist und Fleisch" is lurking.
The soul of course finds rest, but also in the final chorale on the tune " Durch Adams Fall" the drama is still heard along with the joy.
Koopman's version (3) is the only CD version I have. I especially like the use of OVPP in the ope.
The first dramatic tenor aria is the most interesting for me. I taped a concert version where Peter Schreier conducts the Anton Webern Choir and an orchestra from Dresden (4). The tenor aria is sung by Christoph Genz. Sorry I did not get the exact details.
This is one of the few places where there is no comfort left at all in Bach's music. Koopman and tenor Dürmüller seems to run too fast through this universe of fear and pain without taking a real close look at it. Dürmüller hardly reaches to sing the final words of a phrase, before Koopman starts the next. Schreier makes the string parts stand with high voltage between them, and Genz seems so tormented, that I feel the pain in my own body. The dotted notes fall like whip lashes (Might be compared with the alto recitativo from St. Matthew Passion "Erbarm es Gott!"). This is not a dusty museum interpretation, but an expression of pain, which could come from our time. The rest of Schreier's is not very interesting.
J. Rowland (Welsh) Staff wrote (November 13, 2000):
J.E. Gardiner is in synch with the list. BBC 3 is broadcasting a concert featuring BWV 109, BWV 38, BWV 98, BWV 188 on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 GMT. BBC radio 3 can be received off the net (traffic allowing). Go to www.bbc.co.uk
Andrew Oliver wrote (November 15, 2000):
This cantata was unknown to me until a few days ago. I am sorry to have to disagree with Aryeh about this, but, despite having only the recording by Harnoncourt (from Teldec) (2), I was hooked by it in the first few seconds. Aryeh says Harnoncourt's interpretation is fragmented, and I suppose it is, but I think that, in this cantata at least, it may be done deliberately. To quote an extract from an article by Stephen A Crist in Oxford Composer Companions - J. S. Bach: 'Musical contrasts, emblematic of the polarity between belief and unbelief, are woven into the texture of the entire cantata. In the opening chorus they are manifested in the frequent juxtaposition of smaller and larger groups of instruments in the manner of a concerto grosso. This is already heard in the first bar, where the opening gesture, played in unison by first oboe and first violin, is answered by the entire ensemble (horn, two oboes, strings and continuo). Similar contrasts are indicated by the markings 'solo' and 'tutti' in the first violin part, as well as by the dynamic indications piano and forte. Opposition between a portion of the group and the entire ensemble is also seen in the choral writing, which thins to a single part much more frequently than usual...'. (I can thoroughly recommend this book to list members, as it includes an article about each cantata. It is edited by Malcolm Boyd.) The whole cantata is powerfully dramatic, most of all in the tenor aria. In the recording I have, this is sung by Kurt Equiluz. I cannot do better than quote again from the same article: '...the agitated mood associated with the Christian's intense doubt and the trembling of his terrified heart is graphically depicted by jagged melodic contours and dotted rhythms... The unusually adventurous harmonic structure of the B section embodies the polarity between belief and unbelief...'. Equiluz interprets this superbly. This aria is light-years away from being 'wallpaper' music. The more you concentrate on it, the more you will find in it.
The last comment also applies to the alto aria. Whereas the tenor aria portrayed unbelief and doubt, this one illustrates belief and trust. It beautifully interprets the verse on which the words are based. (2 Timothy 2:19) I have said nothing about the two recitatives, but they are also packed with interest. As for the closing chorale, this is no simple hymn tune but a great statement of Bach's own faith, the words being drawn mainly from 1 Peter 2:6,7. The overall impression this cantata leaves me with is that Bach himself thought of it as of great importance, because he seems to have poured his whole intellect and soul into it, taking especial care over the smallest details.
Note that both the gospel for the day, John 4: 47-54, and the passage from which the title and words of the opening chorus are drawn (Mark 9:24) are concerned with healing. Think of that, and think of Marie.
Jane Newble wrote (November 18, 2000):
As I have been in Holland most of the week, I have not had much time to listen.
I have two versions of this cantata: Koopman (3), and Leusink .
 First I listened to Leusink. The instruments as usual are beautiful, and sound really 'antique', but I was not too happy with the singing and the interpretation.
(3) Then I listened to Koopman, and what struck me straight away was the 'alternate' singing in the first chorus. Much more drama and contrast. The certainty of belief against the cry of assailing unbelief. Nobody but Bach could have written those first bars. And I really feel that Koopman is bringing out the desperate feeling of being torn apart by doubts and unbelief, and the two dimensions or levels in the opening words of this cantata.
Just now I listened again to the opening chorus in the two versions, and the difference is very striking. Perhaps the contrast is accentuated because Koopman uses a single soprano against male voices. It is very beautiful and impressive.
Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 19, 2000):
Sorry I'm a bit late with this but...
My own reaction to the cantata is based only on the Koopman recording (3) (it's the only version I have) and what I found is that I enjoyed the choral movments and I'm not wild about the tenor or alto aria. The opening movement I like: There's an urgency to the singing that matches the text and the voices and instrumentation is nicely balanced. I enjoy the final chorus and especially the interplay of oboes and strings and voices. What I don't like about the arias is that the voices sound 'pinched' or 'tight' to my uneducated ears and the voice and instruments don't sound as balanced as I would like. Ah well, each to his own!
And now on to this week's cantata!
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 109: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3