Cantata BWV 117Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut
Discussions - Part 2
Continue from Part 1
Discussions in the Week of May 18, 2008
Francis Browne wrote (May 16, 2008):
BWV 117 introduction
BWV 117: Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut
This week's cantata is unusual in two ways. It is one of a small number of cantatas which have no specific occasion assigned to them and it is also one of the few cantatas where Bach set a complete hymn.
Hans Joachim Schulze (p558) speculates that he lack of a specific occasion may be simply an accident of transmission.At some point the information that may have been written on the first pages of the score may have become detached or otherwise disappeared. Certainly by the time the Leipzig publisher Breitkopf obtained Bach's manuscript at the beginning of the nineteenth century information about the occasion was not available . The hymn which Bach uses was written by Johann Jacob Schütz, born in 1640 at Frankfurt am Main where he also died 50 years later. When he was 33 he published a book entitled Christliches Gedenkbüchlein zur Beförderung eines anfangenden neuen Lebens which contained a hymn based on Moses' song of praise in Deuteronomy 32:
Merkt auf, ihr Himmel, ich will reden, und die Erde höre die Rede meines Mundes. Meine Lehre triefe wie der Regen, und meine Rede fließe wie Tau, wie der Regen auf das Gras und wie die Tropfen auf das Kraut. Denn ich will den Namen des Herrn preisen. Gebt unserm Gott allein die Ehre!"
[Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. 2 My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass: 3 Because I will publish the name of the LORD: ascribe ye greatness unto our God. Authorized Version]]
Schulze notes that the hymn was included among songs of praise and thanksgiving in contemporary and later hymnals, and in some was assigned to a specific date :the 12 th Sunday after Trinity. Dürr however notes that the hymn"was customary at weddings, and there is good reason to believe that, like BWV 97, BWV 100, and BWV 192, this cantata was written for a wedding service.'
He goes on to comment : "As in these other relatively late chorale cantatas, Bach preserves the text of the hymn unaltered. Its associated chorale melody, however, is retained only in the Mvt. 1, Mvt. 4, and Mvt. 9, the remaining verses being set as recitatives and arias. Such a setting of a chorale text itself imposes certain restrictions on the composer, and in this hymn the regular recurrence of the last line, 'Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!' (`Give honour to our God'), acts as an additional restraint. Bach responds by employing various means to lay special emphasis on this line.
Aryeh has as always provided access to a wealth of information about the cantata: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV117.htm
For contrasting accounts of the cantata I add what Gardiner  and Whittaker have to say :
Gardiner performed the cantata with others for the Fourth Sunday after Easter at St Mary's Warwick on May 21st 2000 . He writes :
"The most impressive of all to me in this concert was the final cantata, BWV 117 Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, written some time between 1728 and 1731. One of a group of works in which the hymn text is retained unaltered per omnes versus, it has no specific liturgical designation but was surely composed for an especially important celebration or a service of thanksgiving. Yet with its assertion that 'The Lord is not and never was severed from His people' it seems to answer that feeling of insecurity experienced by the Christian community during the limbo period between the Resurrection and Whitsun, and as such it provided the perfect riposte to the earlier pair written for Easter 4. Each verse ends like a litany with the words 'Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre'. Typically Bach finds different formulae for each verse ending. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1), repeated with different words as the final (ninth) movement, is a swinging 6/8 choral dance in G major, with a flurry of semiquaver figuration in the continuo. The most ear-tickling verse is the seventh, an alto aria (Mvt. 7) with flute and strings in an implied 9/8, 'Ich will dich all mein Leben lang'. It feels thoroughly French, and makes one realise how fruitful that initial contact with French dance forms and rhythms must have been for Bach when, as a schoolboy in Lüneburg, he first heard the Duke of Celle's French orchestra.
For a text which was in itself monotonous, Bach needed to be especially resourceful. According to Ruth Tatlow's theory, in structuring this work he therefore turned to number symbolism. As she points out, the central seven movements (Nos 2-8) contain 286 bars between them. 'Substituting numbers for letters (with the alphabet, A = 1 to Z = 24) the title of the cantata spells Sei = 32; Lob = 27; und = 37; Ehr =30; dem = 21; höchsten = 93; Gut = 46, which together have a total of 286. This cantata was literally based on Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut.' It also occurs to me that the number 286 can be reduced to 7 - the number of movements as well as the number of words in the title - by adding its digits: 2 + 8 + 6 = 16, and once more, 1 + 6 = 7. This in turn could explain why the opening (Mvt. 1) and closing (Mvt. 9) choruses are each 100 bars long: by the same process, 8 movements gives us 386 bars, a number which can be reduced to 8, and 9 movements total 486 bars, which can be reduced to 9. Whether one accepts that Bach began by formulating a mathematical grid to fill, I do not sense that the musical inspiration feels diminished or constrained as a result. I also find it a lot easier to imagine that, in a work in which the overriding mood is one of irresistible joy, Bach's compositional process was more mathematically intuitive than laboriously calculated.
© John Eliot Gardiner 2005
From a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage: http://www.monteverdiproductions.co.uk/recordings/bach_cantatas.cfm#sdg107
Aryeh has kindly provided the examples Whittaker quotes from the score at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Scores/BWV117-Sco.htm
Whittaker writes :
[Bach]deals somewhat summarily with J.J. Schütz's Sei Lob und Ehr' dem höchsten Gut' to form No. 117. Stanzas 4 and 9 are sung to the same four-part setting. It is strange that he who was so meticulous in his chorale settings should allow the same harmonization to stand for lines 1-4 of stanza 4, 'I cry to the Lord in my need: Ah God, hear my crying! Then assisted my helper me from death And let to me comfort increase', and the corresponding lines of 9, So come before His countenance With exultant leaping; Pay the vowed allegiance, And let us joyfully sing'. This illustrates his rather casual attitude to the text of this cantata; perhaps it was prepared in desperate haste. The orchestration of these two numbers is not even indicated. The rest of the stanzas mate. 4 is Therefore thank, ah God, therefore thank I Thee; ah thank, thank God with me! Give to our God the honour!' -and 9-' God has it all well thought And all, all well wrought! Give to our God the honour!' The first part of verse 2 is a brief bass recitativo secco-' There thank Thee the heavenly hosts; Oh Lord of all thrones, and those (who) on earth, air and sin Thy shadow dwell; they praise Thy creator-might, Which all so well thought has'. There is an expansion afterwards, an arioso treatment of Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!' (` Give to our God the honour!'), which seems unnecessary in view of the fact that every stanza concludes with this line, and that it receives considerable prominence elsewhere. It comes thrice in the seven lines of stanza 8, which are set rapidly in ten bars of tenor recitativo secco : 'Ye, who your Christ's name name, Give to our God the honour! Ye, who our God's might recognize, Give to our God the honour! The false idols commit to mockery, The Lord is God, the Lord is God! Give to our God the honour!'
Mvt. 1: Chorale
Even i is an extended chorale and not a fantasia. The soprano entries of the canto fermo, the anonymous ' Es ist das Heil uns kommen her', are quite plain with relatively little independent movement for the lower voices, though the last line is extended. There is much doubling of the violins by two transverse flutes and two oboes, but a semiquaver figure, [Ex 739] is sometimes tossed about among the three groups. The initial theme anticipates the repeated notes of the canto [Ex 740] The bassi, as will be seen, are very active and this contributes towards making the movement bustling and vigorous. The text is : Be praise and honour to the highest good, To the Father of all goodness, To God, Who all wonders does, To God, Who my spirit With His rich comfort fills, To God, Who all lamentation stills. Give to our God the honour!'
Mvt. 3: Aria Tenor
Stanza 3 is a not particularly interesting tenor aria with two oboes d'amore. Was unser Gott geschaffen hat, das will er auch erhalten' ('What our God created has, that will He also maintain') begins with a modification of the theme of the introduction: [Ex 741] The ritornello develops (a) and the above is modified in another way for a darüber will er friih und spat mit seiner Gnade walten' ('there- over will He early and late with His mercy govern'). The remainder of this section differs from the earlier; there are joyful breaks between `er', friih', and und'. The next ritornello is the second half of the introduction. The repeated notes of the canto fermo are recalled at the beginning of 'In seinem ganzen Konigreich ist Alles recht und Alles gleich' ('In His whole kingdom is all right and all equal'), which is delivered once only. (a) curls above the repeated note and forms the basis of a flourish on Königreich'. Four bars of the introduction recur and the voice starts off with a fragment of it to the ubiquitous Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!', and elongates the Königreich' run to 32 bars on Ehre! '
Mvt. 5: Recitative Alto
The repeated notes are further developed in the alto recitative with strings, verse 5. After a few bars - 'The Lord is now and ever not from His people separated, He remains their confidence, their blessing, salvation and peace. With mother-hands leads He His own continually hither and thither' - the upper strings cease and Gebt unserm Gott die Ehre!' is developed in a longish arioso, with the repeated notes and the joy-motive: [Ex 742]
Mvt. 6: Aria Bass
The same two ideas dominate the last third of the bass aria with violin obbligato, stanza 6. The joy-motive is also important in the preceding sections, which move with a quiet beauty. The continuo line is more important than the violin melody [Ex 743] and is developed in various ways [Ex 742] 'Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muß' ('When comfort and helpfail must') modifies (a) ; 'die alle Welt erzeiget' (which all (the) world manifests') forms a counterpoint to its violin continuation and later takes over the continuation itself. So kommt, so hilft der Überfluß' (` So comes, so helps the abundance',) is at first broken up by joyful leaps, with (c) above, and then a run tells of the speedy coming of the Lord's great bounty. Part of the introduction is now repeated. 'Der Schopfer selbst, und neiget die Vatersaugen denen zu' ('The Creator Himself, and inclines the Father's-eyes those to') introduces a new melody, with (c) direct in the continuo and inverted in the violin. 'Die sonsten nirgend finden Ruh" (` Who otherwise nowhere find rest') is treated in a delightful manner, nirgend' is repeated and the rest between filled by an imitation of its falling second. 'Ruh" is sustained, while the violin plays (b), low-lying, and the continuo part of (a); the words are sung again, but the first nirgend' rises instead of falling, the obbligato drops a sixth, the voice repeats nirgend', to the same interval, and then softly sinks to a sustained Ruh", during which the continuo waves blissfully and the violin plays (c). A brief interlude, (d) and (a), brings the coda already spoken of, at the end of which the introduction is repeated. The scheme is unique.
Mvt. 7: Aria alto
The only aria on a grand scale is stanza 7, for alto. Flute and [strings] have expansive phrases written in a but virtually in and the voice swings along, singing its praises in leisurely confidence The form is akin to rondo; there is a principal subject, [Ex 746-7] repeated a tone higher) and: [Ex 748]. These comprise the introduction. (a) is fitted to 'Ich will dich all mein Leben lang, O Gott, von nun an ehren' ('I will Thee all my life long, O Lord, from now on honour'), (b), with an alteration at the end, follows with the same words, (c) is deleted, but the three themes, with a change at the close of (c), are given in succession to the voice, fitted to Man soll, O Gott, dein'n Lobgesang an allen Orten hören' ('one shall, O God, Thy praise-song in all places hear'). The flute mainly doubles violin I at the octave above all through the ritornelli, departing only occasionally from the chief line; in the vocal sections it plays mostly an independent line, accompanied fragmentarily by the upper strings, which make much of the figure: [Ex 749] After the vocal section (a) and (c) come in the dominant. The tonic returns, and a modified version of (a) to 'Mein ganzes Herz ermuntre sich, mein Geist und Leib erfreue sich' ('(Let) my whole heart enliven itself, my spirit and body rejoice itself') modulates to B minor and the motto line reproduces an altered form of (b). There are sweeping phrases to Geist und Leib' and to 'Ehre', and the upper strings confine themselves to detached entries of (d). A ritornello follows; the inner strings sustain, the rising sixth of (b) forms a prominent feature of the unceasing flow of triplets for the flute, and the continuo pursues its chief motive, taken from the introduction[Ex 750] A swift modulation from B minor to D repeats the last group of lines to (a) and (b), both extended, and there is a modulation to the dominant at the end of (a). (d) is introduced in the upper strings and flute with diversified treatment. The introduction is heard again, modulating from D to A; for the final ritornello it is altered, the subdominant and dominant being touched upon before the cadence and (b) lengthened at the expense of (c). Because of the lack of variety of mood in the hymn and the frequent appearances of the last line, the cantata does not attain to the greatest heights. Nevertheless it contains much that is beautiful, and Bach's unfailing resourcefulness in coping with the motto is astonishing; not only does he not shrink from dealing with the burden of all the verses, he actually expands it, as we have seen, in v and vi."
[Two weeks ago I included what I thought was a gentle admonition for more discussion of the week's cantata. Those whom I had not the remotest intention of reproaching sprung quite unnecessarily to their own defence but no new contributors appeared, and last week's excellent cantata received so little discussion that I cancelled a review of recordings for lack of interest.
Experientia docet.The list will take whatever form the members want. I shall only say about this cantata -to adapt Apuleius' phrase : Auditor, intende : laetaberis]
Julian Mincham wrote (May 16, 2):
[To Francis Browne] It's of interest to compare this cantata with others that set the verses of the chorale without paraphrase or additional lines. In each case Bach solves his structural problems in different ways. BWV 107 from the second cycle is the only one with four consectutive arias (and one recit) placed between the opening and closing choruses. BWV 137 has no recits at all--not unknown in the earlier works (eg no 4) but very unusual in the later works. BWV 117 seems to be the only one which, whilst retaining the verses unchanged, has the usual mixture of arias and recuts. The really unusual aspect is the repeat of the opening fantasia (Mvt. 1) at the end and the insertion of the four part chorale not at the end but in the middle implying that there was probably some ceremonial purpose encapsulated in the structure and furthermore that the cantata was NOt a later replacement intended to fill in gaps in the second cycle. (By the way I don't understand why you say that the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is 'not a fantasia'. It is, a chorale fantasia just as are the 40 plus from the second cycle and the dozen later additions).
The other interesting comparison may be made with no 9 (another of the late chorale cantata) which uses the same chorale melody . It is a mark of Bach's amazing imagination and resource that he could compose two fantasia, quite different in character, based upon the same chorale.
William Hoffman wrote (May 17, 2008):
[To Francis Browne] Thank you to Francis for such extensive information on BWV 117, especially the selection of appropriate and insightful sources. While I cherish Whittaker's exhaustive and passionate writings and Dürr's concise, objective writings, I'm also glad to have new sources such as Boyd's OCC and Wolff's collection(s) of diverse Cantata topic essays, as well as the vital Bach Yahoo Group's insights, questions, and yes, conjectures (speculations, hy-per-the-ses).
As we get into these late, "odd-ball," somtimes innovative or transformative pieces, there are still many unanswered WHY questions, I I think, none of the three types of cantata writings has fully answer. I like the opportunity to dig deeper into an understanding of genre such as the whole enchilada of wedding cantatas or these tantalyzing works categorized as "per ogni tempo" (anytime) or "per omnes versus" (taking all the original verses). I also like to continue to ask fundamental questions of motive, method, and opportunity.
One of the ways I get a better handle (no pun!) is to look at the working (composing) conditions and the provenance of these works, especially this unique chorale cantata cycle as scholarship takes a renewed interest into specific questions of who wrote the lyrics (the other half of the composing two-person team, ? Pastor Andreas Stubel) and the historical uses and Bach's particular interest in specific chorales, especially as related to the spoken sermon topic and all the accompanying rhetorical devices, both spoken and musical. The question that intrigues me most, and perhaps sheds light on these "odd-ball" chorale cantatas, is why Bach didn't systematically compose them to fill the non-chorale cantata gaps in the 1724-25 cycle from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. Remember Bach's goal of a WELL-REGULATED Church Music and consider his calculation and focus.
Perhaps Bach did find a place for some of them in this cycle, while breaking or modifying the mold. Perhaps, like the projected Orgelbuechlien's topical treatment, left two-thirds unfinished, Bach had done enough and moved on to other challenges. I think we still have some fundamentals to learn, besides all the nitty-gritty.
Julian Mincham wrote (May 17, 2008):
[To William Hoffman] Just to relate you to my intros to the last quarter of the second cycle which I submitted in the first months of last year. The intros raised a numer of points about this very issue of why Bach did not complete the cycle and roused quite a bit of discussion about Stübel and why Bach appeared to interrupt his grand scheme. I expect all this will be archived on the website.
I think there is a lot to favour the view that Bach did not intend to complete a full year of nothing but chorale fantasia driven cantatas or, if he did, he changed his mind because the sheer intellectual effort was too much. Remember that in the last month of the year he wrote 8 cantatas--just think of the effort of writing two of thos estupendous fantasias a week as well as the remaining movements. Also there is nothing in the quality, planning or imagination of the last 13 cantatas to indicate a position of crisis (except, perhaps for the retrieval of BWV 4) that which has often been claimed, with precious little evidence. The range of formats, imaginative invention and ideas of the last 13 cantatas remains quite amazing.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 17, 2008):
Julian Mincham wrote:
>Just to relate you to my intros to the last quarter of the second cycle which I submitted in the first months of last year. The intros raised a number of points about this very issue of why Bach did not complete the cycle and roused quite a bit of discussion about Stubel and why Bach appeared to interrupt his grand scheme. I expect all this will be archived on the website.<
All of it available in living black & white, and worth reviewing.
>I think there is a lot to favour the view that Bach did not intend to complete a full year of nothing but chorale fantasia driven cantatas or, if he did, he changed his mind because the sheer intellectual effort was too much. Remember that in the last month of the year he wrote 8 cantatas--just think of the effort of writing two of those estupendous fantasias a week as well as the remaining movements.<
Also worth consideration as part of Bachs workload is that the SMP (BWV 244) may already have been underway, with an initial performance target of 1725. Failing that, SJP (BWV 245) needed revision for a second perfomance. Howeveer, the Stubel hypothesis (with only circumstantial support, hardly a theory, as yet) remains viable and attractive to some, including me.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 18, 2008):
Francis Browne wrote:
>Two weeks ago I included what I thought was a gentle admonition for more discussion of the week's cantata. Those whom I had not the remotest intention of reproaching sprung quite unnecessarily to their own defence but no new contributors appeared, and last week's excellent cantata received so little discussion that I cancelled a review of recordings for lack of interest.<
Great minds think alike. Or similar minds think the same. Either conclusion (as well many others) is possible from the evidence. I have decided to defer (but not cancel) detailed comments on the Harnoncourt LP of last weeks cantata (BWV 197), which is an excellent performance of an excellent cantata. For the picky (I am one, for sure), there is a bit of exaggeration in that statement, since I know the cantata from the performance.
The anonymous boy alto is superb, for those who appreciate that rarity (unless one of the jacket-and-tie guys hanging out with Max van Egmond in the jacket photo is a ringer counter-tenor). As it turns out, the LP is not such a rarity, other than for the jacket art. It has been reissued on CD, although apparently not currently available. Whatever, I am grateful to have it, and it may ease the mind of the donor. Like I am worried, Old Dude.
A comparison with the Leonhardt issue (from the H&L set) is a small detail, but exactly the sort of detail which belongs in the BCW archives. I will get to it, if no else does so sooner based on the CD reissue. That may turn out to be important, because the published timings are absurdly different: 28:20 printed on the LP jacket, but about 30:20 (by my analogue wristwatch with sweep second hand, for those who remember), and 31:39 (approx., from memory) in the BCW discography, presumably from thCD reissue.
In the meantime, an unreviewed recording from 1967 (according to my copy), subsequently reissued on CD, is an example of how much room for improvement we (BCML) have, even though we are already quite wonderful. Google Bach for info, and you find us first. That, like the reputation of the BBC, creates an obligation to strive for accuracy.
From the bench, resting, I appreciate how much energy goes into creating the weekly introductions. For the lurkers, you could simply say:
<I read your introduction. I listened to a recording. Thanks.>
Cut and paste acceptable. Identifying which recording, and a thumbs up or down opinion (I like it, I dont like it), is welcome, but not necessary.
Special hello to Terejia, thank you for writing often with unique ideas, for introducing new concepts of courtesy to BCML, for expressing yourself with confidence in English, and for too much more to list.
I have just now given an extra listen to the alto aria (BWV 197/3), in order to rethink my use of the word <superb>. Unusually good breath control, light vibrato, pleasing tone. Distinct from any counter-tenor I have heard. I stand by superb, without a comparative frame of reference.
The counter-tenor ringer possibility was mainly intended to be jocular, withdrawn. Not without a shred of possibility, however, as long as those boys remain anonymous. Thats another thread entirely.
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (May 18, 2008):
Francis Browne wrote:
< Experientia docet.The list will take whatever form the members want. I shall only say about this cantata -to adapt Apuleius' phrase : Auditor, intende : laetaberis] >
what a wonderful quote and a superb ending to such a pellucidly written post of such erudition. This auditor is not in the mood but the advice is certain to be right. Perhaps an inverted paraphrase might be You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 18, 2008):
Francis Browne wrote:
>The list will take whatever form the members want. I shall only say about this cantata -to adapt Apuleius' phrase : Auditor, intende :laetaberis<
Francis, I trust you will forgive me for offering a bit of assistance to other students:
<The charge to the reader [auditor, or listener in our case]: intende (lit. 'be attentive') -- rather like the beginning of the first English epic Beowulf : Hwaet ('listen') -- is a much more demanding commencement than 'once upon a time...' It requests the reader to be an active participant in experiencing the tale, not simply a passive listener (Apuleius's style throughout is consistent with this notion). The Latin statement, in fact, is a conditional: 'if you are attentive, then you shall take pleasure', suggesting that the reader's enjoyment depends upon the degree of attention paid to the tale.>
Further, the degree of attention one pays (and therefore the enjoyment) is likely to increase if one is planning to write a few words to share the experience with others on BCML.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 19, 2008):
BWV 117 (day 1)
Thanks, Francis, for cancelling the BWV 197 recording review. I am no longer behind schedule, trying to catch up.
Usually I like to scan the BCW list of recordings for comparison with my archives, pick a recording or two for first listening, then begin reading the introduction, and other references. I have been listening to some of the cantatas for many years, but I have only acquired an extensive batch of CDs since joining BCML a couple years back (early 2006). In many cases, including BWV 117, I am hearing specific pieces which are new to me, despite a general familiarity with the cantatas from radio broadcasts, CDs and LPs, and especially, live performance in both church and concert venue.
I cheated this week, because I saw an early post from Julian, which I wanted to read and respond to. For encouragement, if you must know.
I chose the Gardiner  for a listen through portable headphones during my daily walk (well, almost daily. I am trying to live longer, but not necessarily forever.) I walk long enough (4 km, 40 min) to listen all the way through once, stop home for battery change, and repeat a few movements. I am not sure I would have picked up the chorale relationship on my own on a first listen, if I had not read Julians post first, but I certainly would have recognized that this is a big, special, carefully structured piece of music. I might have wondered <why havent I heard it before. This is important stuff.>
I typically listen and read through the week, and write about what I have learned toward the end. Sometimes well into the following week. I have been a bit selfish, trying to consolidate for myself what I have learned, rather than sharing the learning process.
I will try a different approach this week, or at least today. The Gardiner  is a recording just about everyone on BCML could enjoy, I expect. I have Koopman  and Leusink  waiting. Rather than trying to be archival, I will give you a listening diary, as the week evolves. Delete button close at hand for those who need it.
Was I clear? I listened to the Gardiner  and enjoyed it very much. How about you?
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 19, 2008):
BWV 117 (day 2)
I have just now realized that I have the Doormann LP . I will play it, while I write, even though it is early AM (12:05), other obligations, etc. I have also begun to review the BCW archives, including (from two different correspondents, you can look it up):
>When I heard Buwalda in the aria for alto (Mvt. 7) of BWV 117, I realised why I do not like his singing in too many recordings. The simple reason is that his voice production sounds most of the time unnatural. You have the feeling that he is going to slide out every second.<
>I would like to react on what was written about Sytse Buwalda. I have heard him perform live hundreds of times, and every time I am impressed by his singing and his presentation. Never have I felt that he was going to slip or was being unnatural. On the contrary, his presentation and artfulness has never failed to captivate the audiences he was singing to. It is a pity that on CD this only sometimes comes over to some of you who have never heard him live.<
I am looking forward to the Leusink , and to forming my own opinion of Buwalda, but I cannot resist playing the Doormann LP .
The chorus is large, but accurate. Almost immediately, my impression is that it is what I call the <traditional performance> at its best. After a bit of scrambling with the paperwork, I find in fine print, on the very front of the jacket, that the alto is Lotte Wolf-Matthaus (umlaut on <a> omitted for editorial clarity). I am already having second thoughts about this real-time reporting. My immediate goal: see how Sytse and Lotte measure up.
I am listening to the Doormann LP . I enjoy it very much. It is not at all HIP [!>)]. Too bad it is not available on CD. Now, here comes Lotte with her aria, a completely different voice from the recit. Shades of HRM?
See you tomorrow, or when I get to Leusink/Buwalda .
Neil Halliday wrote (May 19, 2008):
Francis Browne wrote:
>Whittaker writes :
[Bach]deals somewhat summarily with J.J. Schütz's Sei Lob und Ehr' dem höchsten Gut' to form No. 117. Stanzas 4 and 9 are sung to the same four-part setting. It is strange that he who was so meticulous in his chorale settings should allow the same harmonization....<
Whittaker's objection is overcome by Bach's direction (noted in the OCC) to repeat the music of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) for the 9th verse of the text, not the harmonisation of the 4th movement; Whittaker seems to have been unaware of this fact.
Julian con Whittaker's disinclination to regard the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) as a chorale fantasia; while the choral writing does have similarities with that found in normal four-part chorale harmonisations, I agree the movement is a fantasia, and a most engaging one at that. The OCC notes the contrast between the "stricter vocal polyphony" of the choral writing, and the "light-hearted concertante elements" of the ritornellos. (Listen for the little figures moving from strings to oboes to flutes usually at the start of the choral phrases).
Rilling  performs the closing chorus (Mvt. 9), with identical music, at a noticeably faster tempo than the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) (3.41 cf 4.08); this is most effective, as the two movements thereby create a different affect - the last expressing the greater joy - more in line with the different texts, despite actually being the same music.
On the subject of student involvement in the composition of the cantatas, I wonder if the realisation of the keybourd part may be considered as a type of delegation of duties; in any case this cantata has two movements in which the concluding sections of 'arioso' sound ridiculously bare with just the written bass line as accompaniment. The BCW score has satisfactory suggestions: Rilling's organist  does a reasonable job (but the timbre of the registration is a bit dull).
BTW, it's great to hear a bit of 'oomph' in the accompaniment (organ part) of the final secco recitative (Mvt. 8) in Gardiner's recording . However, apart from maybe Gardiner's exhilarating 1st movement, I won't be giving up my Rilling  as an exchange :)- .
Stephen Benson wrote (May 19, 2008):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
>>When I heard Buwalda in the aria for alto (Mvt. 7) of BWV 117, I realised why I do not like his singing in too many recordings. The simple reason is that his voice production sounds most of the time unnatural. You have the feeling that he is going to slide out every second.< <
>>I would like to react on what was written about Sytse Buwalda. I have heard him perform live hundreds of times, and every time I am impressed by his singing and his presentation. Never have I felt that he was going to slip or was being unnatural. On the contrary, his presentation and artfulness has never failed to captivate the audiences he was singing to. It is a pity that on CD this only sometimes comes over to some of you who have never heard him live.<<
< I am looking forward to the Leusink , and to forming my own opinion of Buwalda >
Ah, yes, the Buwalda controversy! One seems either to love him or hate him. As I sit here listening to viol music from the French Baroque (thanks, Ed!), I figured I'd put in my two cents worth. Not being a fan of Buwalda, I was prepared not to enjoy his singing in BWV 117. I was wrong. I personally find it to be one of his more engaging performances.
Providing sharp contrast to my appreciation here was my reaction to his performance of the alto aria in BWV 188. Before two list members provided polar opposite evaluations of the relative merits of that aria a few weeks ago, my only contact had been the Buwalda/Leusink recording , and I had prematurely dismissed the aria as inconsequential. As the dispute progressed, however, and I made it a point to listen to that recording again, as well as the Hamari/ Rilling version , I began to develop a real appreciation of the qualities described in Julian's appraisal. (Such an analysis really does help to open one's ears!) I still cannot enjoy Buwalda's interpretation, I probably will choose not to listen to it again, and I believe that my initial failure to appreciate the aria was a result of his, for me, unprepossessing performance. (Because I am so enamored of van der Meel's tenor aria in the same performance of that cantata, however, Buwalda will probably slip in underneath the radar once in a while.)
My sentiments regarding his singing in general echo those of the first correspondent below. I've felt that he works too hard at it all. Nothing seems to come easily. He also frequently displays the distressing "hootiness" that I find sometimes afflicts counter tenors.Please accept this in the spirit in which it is offered, which very much reflects my own very humble opinion and personal tastes. One should understand, as well, that my bias is, and always has been, toward the use of the female alto, although there are countertenors -- Alfred Deller and Robin Blaze, for example -- that I do truly enjoy. And, yes, I do enjoy Buwalda's singing in this cantata!
Neil Mason wrote (May 19, 2008):
Unfortunately (for my enjoyment of the Leusink series) I am not in general a Buwalda fan. His upper notes are normally hooty, and he generally sings them too loud with a forced tone.
I have occasionally, however, heard some soft singing from him that I have really enjoyed.
Perhaps he has one of those voices (they do exist) that do not record well, but sound much better live. (Perhaps not).
Arjen van Gijssel wrote (May 19, 2008):
[To Neil Mason] You're quite right. I heard him live. He really is a performer. I do not like his recordings, but admired his performances.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 20, 2008):
Steve Benson wrote:
>Ah, yes, the Buwalda controversy! One seems either to love him or hate him. As I sit here listening to viol music from the French Baroque (thanks, Ed!)<
After a few hours of Lully and Charpentier, including excerpts of the Boston Early Music Festival performance of Psyche (which Steve attended?), recording to be released June 2008, it is a matter of discipline to return to Buwalda. I will do it, just give me a moment.
It is always welcome to receive a response to a post. I enjoyed the French Baroque just a bit more, knowing that we might be sharing the experience. Communication is a funny experience. Lack of communication, not so funny.
Noon EDT, 5/20 (tomorrow or today, depending), more Charpentier: Missa <Assumptia est Maria>. Don't stub your toe rushing to the radio.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 20, 2008):
BWV 117 (day 3)
I was not exactly looking forward to returning to Leusink/Buwalda  after all that Lully and Charpentier. However, Bach settles in very easily, especially in the tenor aria, Mvt. 3 (Knut Schoch, to my late night eyes).
Then I got up to do this and that, next thing I know BWV 117 is over and I have to start again. Reminiscent of a legendary BPL review where the aria was a bit slow: he got up to get a piece of cake, ate it, came back, and the aria was still going. You can look it up.
There is a lot of negative ranking of Leusink chorus and orchestra work on BCW. I just dont hear it I expect many folks have this set because of the modest economics. Given the stated objectives: to make good quality Bach available, at a cost the general populace can afford, I think this version qualifies.
Last night, in comparison with Lotte Wolf-Matthaus , I thought Buwalda  was edgy, forced, on the top. Tonight, without a comparison in my ears, he still sounds that way. Not a specific performance I would choose in his defense, as of day 3. Already, I am getting twitchy to go back for comparisons of individual movements, before writing.
I listened to Leusink . As usual, I find the performance well balanced and fluid, beginning to end. Quite a technical achievement, considering that we can deduce, from reports by performers, that it is in fact a pastiche of takes of individual movements. I have read so much negative commentary about Buwalda that it is difficult to be objective. That is unfortunate. I generally try to findsomething positive to say. Maybe tomorrow.
Harry W. Crosby wrote (May 21, 2008):
Ed's comments on the recorded performances of Sytse Buwalda as Alto in all of Leusink's Bach cantata recordings --- an ongoing thread on B-C.com, as most participants will agree --- reminded me of my own reaction, like Ed's, one of puzzlement.
Buwalda sings literally hundred of times in this series, arias, duets, chorals, recitatives, and 90% + of the time he irritates me to one degree or another. When I hear him, I am often reminded of garden plant guru Roland Hoyt's classic dismissal of the weedlike tree/shrub Myoporum laetum, "It takes the place of a better tree."
However, in all fairness, I've found a few instances where I feel that Buwalda sings very well indeed, better than the others I've heard doing the same numbers. I very much like his pairings with Ruth Holton in the duets of BWV 37, BWV 91, and BWV 163. He does a fine job working with Schoch in the duet of BWV 149. And I have enjoyed his renditions of Alto arias in BWV 33, BWV 63, BWV 117, BWV 120, BWV 146, BWV 148, and BWV 182. So, is this a big pat on the back? Alas no, it is offset so heavily by all those cantata performances where I must either cringe at him, or hit the "next band button" on my remote. The man is indeed a contradiction, or as the King of Siam/Yul Brynner famously fussed, "Is a puzzlement!"
Julian Mincham wrote (May 21, 2008):
[To Harry W. Crosby] Nice to see you onlist again Harry.
What did you think of the cantata BWV 117? (Bearing in mind that you need to hear it in a version with the sinfonia reconstructed otherwise it becomes extremely misbalanced).
Neil Halliday wrote (May 21, 2008):
[To Julian Mincham] I think the reference is to BWV 188, whose sinfonia Leusink omits, IIRC.
I have just played through the samples of Leusink  and Gardiner , for BWV 117. Listening to the bass aria (Mvt. 6), I was irritated by Gardiner's violinist as usual, with those wild gyrations in dynamics on single notes; Leusink's violinist is less into such exaggerated gestures and therefore more acceptable, to my ears. Thankfully, not all HIP violinists think they have to prance around on single notes.
I agree with Harry that Buwalda is quite acceptable in BWV 117's alto aria (Mvt. 7), or perhaps I just like the music. There is a lovely instrumental cycle of 5ths section toward the end of this aria.
Notice Leusink  repeats the music of Mvt. 4 instead of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) as the final movement.
Francis Browne wrote (May 21, 2008):
BWV 117 Recordings: Ramin and Gardiner 
Out of curiosity I decided to compare the oldest and the most recent recordings of this cantata.
Ramin's recording  is a radio transcription from September 1949. The CD notes say " it was seldom possible for Ramin to rehearse the works together with the orchestra. Whenever a cantata was recorded at the Gewandhaus, its performance at the Thomaskirche at the beginning of the Sunday service had to serve as the final rehearsal. This procedure would not meet today's perfectionist standards, but had the great advantage of infectious spontaneity."
The notes also include a quotation from Ramin : " In Johann Sebastian Bach I see the ultimate personification of everything which lends meaning, purpose, vigour and gladness to human life. He is for me the supreme symbol of vital and ceaseless energy" , and a description of Ramin by the composer Wilhelm Weismann:" he innately possessed a quality akin to eternal youth, a quality which was enthralling and radiant and which time and time again reached breathtaking proportions through his vehemence and elan, something quite an academic, goaded on by his natural penchant for improvisation"
Alas, none of this seems apparent in the recording of this cantata. From from the very first bars of the opening movement (Mvt. 1) the tempi are ponderously slow. In the previous round of discussions Aryeh was able to discern some expression of joy in this opening movement (Mvt. 1) of Ramin  despite shortcomings in the orchestra and choir , but if direct comparison is made with Gardiner  the earlier recording seems not simply to be in a different style but to miss spectacularly the point of the music. The large orchestra with thunderous bass recorded in a cavernous acoustic with a large but ill disciplined choir steamrollers out of existence in the energy and delightful details of what Bach wrote. In contrast Gardiner's performance  both in the opening (Mvt. 1) and closing (Mvt. 9) movements is joyous musicmaking, where choir and orchestra are excellent.
Ramin  does not repeat the opening movement (Mvt. 1) at the end but instead repeats the chorale from Mvt. 4. He also uses the choir at the end of the alto recitative (Mvt. 5). In general, the recitatives fare better than the other movements. Aryeh thought t that the bass must have made the recording when he was old or had an off day, but perhaps perversely I prefer his forthright declamation in the second movement to the more hesitant intimate style of Stephen Varcoe. But in the aria he sings without charm and the music, seems to stop at the line Die sonsten nirgend finden Ruh- where Varcoe's sensitive approach works well.
For many people the aria Alto (Mvt. 7) is the jewel of this cantata. Lotte Wolf Matthaus  has in many ways a fine voice and seems a good singer but the lugubrious tempo is so ludicrously slow that from moment to moment it seems to be about to stop completely. I do not find the alto Gardiner's recording  entirely satisfactory that the general interpretation of the music is far more convincing.
As Dürr suggests the repetition of the opening movement (Mvt. 1) at the end acts as a frame to the other movements and in the modern performance this brings the cantata to an exhilarating end.
It is perhaps not surprising to find Gardiner's recording  much preferable to Ramin . In the previous discussions .Philippe Bareille said :
I love some of the great voices of the past (Ernst Haefliger, Aafje Heynis, Janet Baker..etc) but the excessive legato, romanticisation and lack of textual contrasts of the orchestras often fail to convey the expressive depths of this music. I find listening to Richter - let alone Ramin  - often tiresome and sometimes oppressive. It is simply not Bach but a kind of adaptation to suit our "modern" ears. I don't want to express a definitive and peremptory judgement but we are shaped by our education so I presume that seventeeth century people would find modern performances very strange indeed. But this music is so rich with so many levels that many conceptions are possible
My intention was not to set up Ramin  as a man of straw and then knock him down. Having listened to his performance number of times I am certain those who attended the performance in the Thomaskirche may well have been deeply moved anexhilarated by the performance of this cantata. Ramin had devoted his life to Bach's music and though what he says may seem today overblown rhetoric, I do not doubt his sincerity and integrity of his approach. And yet it seems to me that Gardiner's approach  is undoubtably much closer to what Bach intended and is simply better.
Some weeks ago in response to some remarks of Ed Myskowski I suggested that our present views in time would become as dated as those we now regard as outmoded. Certainly it is possible that 50 years from now a performance like that of Ramin  might seem more acceptable. It is possible, but without being so historically naive as to imagine our generation has reached a degree of insight and knowledge that cannot be surpassed I am more and more coming round to thinking that the change that has taken place in the 50 years between Rahman's recording and that of Gardiner  is like the startling transformation of some old paintings when centuries of varnish are removed to reveal once more the original startling colours. Even if for a long time the dark shadowy painting had been familiar and even loved, the restoration is clearly positive and cannot be reversed.
In the old recordings there can be performances that transcend time and fashion -I think example of Hans Hotter's performance of BWV 82 - but in general the progress that has been made from Ramin  to Gardiner  is almost entirely positive and irreversible. The same conclusion seemed to force itself upon me when tried to listen to Furtwangler's SMP (BWV 244) after the recent John Butt recording.
As a classicist I am by no means inclined to regard the present as the acme of history but I am sure that this present age is an excellent time for the performance of Bach's music.
Julian Mincham wrote (May 21, 2008):
[To Neil Halliday] Many thanks Neil.
Yes you are right it should have been BWV 188 I refered to not BWV 117.
Obviously there are two many cantatas--it confuses me.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 21, 2008):
BWV 117 (day 4)
I deferred listening to Koopman , until after the other that I have mentioned (Doormann , Gardiner , Leusink ), anticipating that I would enjoy alto Bogna Bartosz, as I have come to expect. Indeed, that is the case, but there are other pleasant surprises, as well. The entire performance has a wonderfully light texture, with a special dance-like character in the opening 6/8 chorus (Mvt. 1) (Chorale Fantasia?). The usual minor annoyances with Koopman (overly abrupt continuo in the secco recits., raspy organ tone) are present, but not really distracting in light of the overall performance quality. Or perhaps I am simply getting accustomed. The use of lute in the continuo is also characteristic, especially noticeable and attractive in the arioso of the alto recit. (Mvt. 5). Is it authentic, and does that matter?
At this point, the total time commitment to listen and write today is well under an hour. My guess is that anyone who bothers to subscribe to BCML can spare that amount of time weekly, at least occasionally. Good to see old friends joining in, but new voices would add a lot, both to the list and to their own enjoyment (see Franicis Browne, citing Apuleius).
I will next revert to my typical procedure of reading what I have for references (so far, I have opened BWV to confirm the time signature of Mvt. 1), doing some comparitive listening among performances, and posting a few additional thoughts in that vein, with special regard for recordings which have not yet been included in previous discussion.
At the moment, I prefer Koopman . As it turns out, he provides the recording dates, and BWV 117 is an assemblage of performances from May 2002, Aug-Sept., 2002, and Oct. 2003. I am looking forward to a direct comparison with Gardiner , to see whether my ears (or imagination) can detect any benefit in a concert recording of a complete performance.
John Pike wrote (May 21, 2008):
[To Julian Mincham] Dear Julian...sorry to be pedantic. You mean "too" many cantatas, but surely there should be another 200 somewhere..that would be just great!
Julian Mincham wrote (May 21, 2008):
[To John Pike] John? Correct on both counts!
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 22, 2008):
Francis Browne wrote:
>Ramin's recording  is a radio transcription from September 1949. The CD notes say "it was seldom possible for Ramin to rehearse the works together with the orchestra. Whenever a cantata was recorded at the Gewandhaus, its performance at the Thomaskirche at the beginning of the Sunday service had to serve as the final rehearsal. This procedure would not meet today's perfectionist standards, but had the great advantage of infectious spontaneity."<
Last thing first, if that is not too confusing. <Infectious spontaneity> is a phrase which can embrace a lot of territory, including, just as an example: <everyone made the best of helping their stand-mates through the inevitable errors.> Great advantage?
If I read correctly, however, the performance at Thomaskirche in fact also served as rehearsal for the subsequent take for broadcast and recording at Gewndhaus. Was this a concert performance with audience, or simply the recording and broadcast venue? I would guess the former, in which case the preparation and recording is quite similar to Gardiners. All the more appropriate that Francis should choose these two for comparison and contrast.
By fortuitous coincidence, this relates to the point I raised earlier, my intent to compare Koopman's performance  (assembled from takes over the course of more than a year) with Gardiner's concert performance  (perhaps much like Ramin's , at least in the amount of preparation). One key issue is the presence (or not) of a responsive (or not) audience, influencing <infectious spontaneity>.
Incidentally, a frequent criticism of the Leusink  set of cantatas is lack of time for rehearsal. I have occasionally pointed out that the performance schedule was comparable to Gardiner's , without the travel demands. It now appears (new to me) that the rehearsal opportunities for both are also comparable to Ramin , from a different era.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 22, 2008):
Neil Halliday wrote:
>I have just played through the samples of Leusink  and Gardiner , for BWV 117. Listening to the bass aria, I was irritated by Gardiner's violinist as usual, with those wild gyrations in dynamics on single notes; Leusink's violinist is less into such exaggerated gestures<
And Leonhardt's violinist  also (for less exaggerated gesture); I'm presently inclined to select Leonhardt's bass aria as the finest of the lot, since I also quite like van Egmont as the vocalist.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 22, 2008):
Neil Halliday wrote:
>I'm presently inclined to select Leonhardt's bass aria as the finest of the lot, since I also quite like van Egmond as the vocalist.<
Thanks for the reminder. I mostly think of the H&L set  as a reference for the evolution of HIP performance practice, but both Kurt Equiluz and Max van Egmond are always good, many times the best performance to single out for a specific aria.
Apologies for confusing subject lines. I thought it only fair to do what we are to others, listen and write a bit. I listened, I wrote a bit more than usual. Most important, I learned and enjoyed, in the process. What a surprise, eh? Nothing new since Apuleius.
Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (May 24, 2008):
Current Performance [was: BWV 117 Recordings: Ramin  and Gardiner ]
Francis Browne wrote:
< In the old recordings there can be performances that transcend time and fashion -I think example of Hans Hotter 's performance of BWV 82 - but in general the progress that has been made from Ramin to Gardiner  is almost entirely positive and irreversible. The same conclusion seemed to force itself upon me when tried to listen to Furtwangler's SMP (BWV 244) after the recent John Butt recording. >
In various areas of Classical Music different times are better. In most areas of vocal/operatic music the present time is one of massive homogenization with no such thing as French opera left or Russian opera and even Italian opera often sounds most unitalianate, such performances on Met broadcasts as Andrea Chénier and Manon Lescaut have been absurd to my ears. they simply are not what was ever intended but represent a unitary
In the case of Baroque music we have a totally different situation. We all know the reasons for this. nevertheless the use of counter-tenors MAY NOT (or not always) be an improvement over mezzos and contraltos and the use of non-German oratorio singers is certainly not effective to my ears. the lack of presence of boy soloists is a shame and a disrespect for Bach in my perspective.
< As a classicist I am by no means inclined to regard the present as the acme of history but I am sure that this present age is an excellent time for the performance of Bach's music. >
Yes of course. As to Furtwängler who, I believe, you mentioned, he, Mengelberg, and no doubt Mahler and many others had no idea how to perform baroque music and simply improved it into Romantic, Late Romantic music and also excised goodly portions, esp the beautiful, the most beautiful parts.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 21, 2008):
BWV 117 (day 9)
The promised comparison of Gardiner  (concert performance) and Koopman  (studio conditions (?), composite of takes).
Chorus, Mvt. 1. Koopman  sounds lighter, more delicate, the published timings indicate just a bit slower. Preferable, IMO. Rather than live and spontaneous, Gardiner  sounds just a bit forced. These are picky comments, both performances are in fact excellent.
I find Gardiner  preferable in the tenor aria, Mvt. 3, relaxed and spontaneous. There is nothing specific to fault with Koopman , but perhaps a bit lacking in expression? On checking the notes, it is james Gilchrist in both instances, just a bit slower with Gardiner. There you go.
The violin obbligato with the bass aria, Mvt. 6 is a point that I first thought might be the best example of the spontaneity of concert performance, with Gardiner . I listened again, after reading Neils comment on exactly this point, and I tend to agree with him. There is a distinction between overacting and spontaneity, and perhaps Gardiner (or the violinist) crosses it. Nevertheless, not a strong negative for me, but also not something I would highlight to favor concert recording.
Those who prefer counter tenors will probably find Robin Tyson with Gardiner  the preferred version. I have already mentioned my fondness for alto Bogna Bartosz with Koopman , which only continues to grow with more listening. For me, that is reason enough to favor the Koopman version. I wish to emphasize that I am making minor distinctions between two outstanding performances in the HIP (stile moderno ?) vein.
I also wish to emphasize that neither my ears nor imagination could find anything convincing to share with you regarding the superiority of concert performance recording, much to my disappointment. Perhaps another time.
Some details and loose ends. I also played the Doormann  LP again, while writing tonight. Lotte Wolf-Matthaus sounds classic, for her era, to my ears. I was interested to realize from Francis comments on Ramin  that this was actually her second recording (1960) of BWV 117, some eleven years later. As I write, I realize that the recording date and comments from the first discussions have a different date (1967 rather than 1960). for this recording. I will double-check and confirm with Aryeh off-list.
Also of interest is the fact that the notes to the Cantate LP series are by Alfred Dürr. In all cases that I have checked, these are the first drafts of notes which were ultimately incorporated in his text, now setting the scholarly standard. I would be the first to agree that data from liner notes needs to be carefully checked for accuracy, but I would also be the first to suggest that liner notes are often a rich source of novel thinking.
Dürr concludes his notes (1960):
<For this recording it has been possible to amend several textual errors in previous editions by a fresh comparison with the autograph score. Apart from some other small points, this has particular reference to the start of the second half of verse 4, and the final recapitulation of the first movement (not the fourth!).>
This point was apparently overlooked by Leonhardt , in 1981, and Leusink  in 1999. I would suggest that the apocryphal letter from Leusink to his publisher, cited in the BCW first discussion cycle, is unlikely. The <letter> endorses repeating Mvt. 4 for reasons of economy of musical forces, i.e., money. A much more believable explanation is that Leusink simply used an out of date BGA score, 39 years after Dürr's first publication (at least as liner notes) of his findings.
Nevertheless, you cannot beat the Brilliant Classics price, and Leusink achieved his stated goal of affordable Bach for the masses.
Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Events in the Church Year - Part 5 [General Topics]
Cantata BWV 117: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2