Cantata BWV 122Das neugeborene Kindelein
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of December 30, 2001
Aryeh Oron wrote (December 30, 2001):
The subject of this week's discussion (December 30, 2001) is Cantata BWV 122. This is the second in Vicente Vida's proposed list of cantatas for discussion and the last one for Year 2001. After the popular BWV 147 and the somewhat esoteric affair of the Latin Cantata BWV 191, we are back to 'normal' with a Chorale Cantata. The title sounds intriguing and tempting 'Das neugeborene Kindelein' (The new-born infant child), and the cantata indeed includes many gems, as could be expected.
In order to allow the members of the BCML preparing themselves for the discussion, I compiled a list of the recordings of this cantata. I put the details of the recordings in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 122 - Recordings
Among the complete recordings of this cantata you will be able to find not only the regular Rilling , Harnoncourt and Leusink, but also Herreweghe, a favourite performer of Bach's vocal music for many members in the BCML. All of these recordings are available in CD form. If anybody is aware of a recording of this cantata not listed in the page of recordings, please inform me and send the relevant details, so that I shall be able to update the page.
I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.
The background below is based on several sources (Robertson, Young, Finscher, etc.) and something of my own. The English translations are taken from Richard Stokes’ book.
See: Cantata BWV 122 - Commentary
Review of the Recordings
 Helmuth Rilling (1972)
The opening chorus of Rilling’s recording lacks delicacy as is dominated by too much legato. I am not as disturbed by the size of the choir as I do by the insecurities in the singing and the lacking of polish. The flow is kept along the whole movement, but the cheer joy is missing. Niklaus Tüller in the ensuing aria for bas suits the demand of the aria for bass. He is determined and confident but warm, delivering the message with love to his audience. The full-voiced accompanying continuo suits him like a glove. As much as I Love Helen Donath’s singing, I have to admit that she is not in her best in the unusual recitative for soprano. I prefer her younger voice in her earlier cantata recordings with Rilling. It seems that in the time past she adopted some operatic techniques, like the over-use of vibrato, which does not suit the angelic atmosphere of this recitative. In the Terzett Rilling divides the alto part between the choir and Helen Watts, and the voices of all three singers blend well, to achieve a mesmerising effect. This is the best movement of this recording.
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1982)
Harnoncourt takes the opposite approach to Rilling’s. He uses smaller forces and it suits the cantata better. The Tölzer Knabenchor are tailored to sing this kind of choruses with their clear lines and beautiful voices. I am not disturbed here by Harnoncourt’s tendency to make small pauses at the end of each line, because the flow of the music is kept. Philippe Huttenlocher, who has recorded many cantatas with Rilling, appears here with his rival. His expression is less varied than that of Tüller, and his approach is less emphatic to his audience. There is some stiffness in his singing, which makes his delivery less convincing. The playing of the accompanying organ continuo is also not going along with the singing. The boy soprano Markus Hubber is fine, although occasionally he has some technical problems, when he to sing higher. But I feel that a boy is more suitable to this kind of recitative rather than a mature female soprano. The Terzetto is magical, better even than Rilling’s. The singing of all the participants is so moving, although the two boys’ singing is not clean from imperfections. But who cares?
 Philippe Herreweghe (1995)
Herreweghe approach to the opening chorus combines the best of both worlds – Rilling’s and Harnoncourt’s. This is intimate rendition, with wonderful playing and singing, which is moving ahead smoothly but with internal conviction. Peter Kooy is on the middle of the road between Tüller and Huttenlocher. His timbre of voice is closer to that of Tüller, but is approach is too light to be fully convincing. The soprano Vasiljka Jezovšek is not very well suited to her difficult recitative, because she is exaggerated in her expression rather than keeping it simple. The Terzetto is not as good as could be expected, because the delicate balance between the components is not well kept.
 Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
Leusink’s approach to the opening chorus is trying to follow the route of Harnoncourt and Herreweghe. But something is not working. This is one of the rare instances where Leusink sounds to me heavy-handed. The singing is far from being satisfactory and the moving ahead is not held successfully. Ramselaar here is the weakest of all the four bass singers. It seems that he does not fully understand what is the message of his aria. You simply lose interest as his rendition is progressing. Holton in the ensuing recitative is better than either Donath or Jezovšek and her boyish timbre of voice and innocent delivery, combined with the angelic playing of the flutes above makes this a fine rendition. I have not had too high expectations from the Terzetto in this recording, but somehow it works. The balance here is kept better than under Herreweghe’s direction.
As happens in most of Bach Cantatas, BWV 122 has grown within me with every repeated listening. But the strange phenomenon that happened to me with every round is that the imperfections of each recording have become more and more overt. Maybe the best recording will be a combination of some, or that we shall have to wait patiently until Koopman, Suzuki, or somebody else, will release their recordings of this cantata.
Personal priorities - Herreweghe , Harnoncourt , Rilling , Leusink 
Combination of the best movements from the existing recordings:
Mvt. 1 - Opening chorus - Herreweghe 
Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 5 - Tüller/Rilling 
Mvt. 3 - Hubber/Harnoncourt  or Holton/Leusink 
Mvt. 4 - Rilling  or Harnoncourt 
Mvt. 6 - Herreweghe  or Harnoncourt 
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Thomas Braatz wrote (December 31, 2001):
See: Cantata BWV 122 - Provenance
See: Cantata BWV 122 - Commentary
Review of the Recordings
This week I listened to Rilling (1972) ; Harnoncourt (1982) ; and Leusink (1999) .
Listen for the imprecision in attacking the notes. There is hesitancy on the part of the sopranos singing the cantus firmus. It is as if each soprano is waiting for one of the others to begin singing. This is a below-average performance, perhaps because the choir is still insufficiently train. There is muddiness in the accompanying vocal parts. The same substandard performance is noticeable in the final mvt., where this sloppy, highly operatic style of singing continues. The choir begins to sound like an opera chorus, if you know what that can sound like. Possibly technical recording problems did little to enhance this performance. Tüller is very good, both in the aria and his recitative. Helen Donath, on the other hand, should not have been singing Bach here. With her voice at this stage of life, she might still be able to perform operettas that others might find enjoyable, but not Bach! The trio is a very heavy-handed performance. It is as though the conductor and the singers have conspired to bring out only the negative aspects of the text rather than emphasizing the message of God’s comfort and protection, which is more important here.
Harnoncourt notices some of the phrasing marks that Bach put into the score, but, in typical Harnoncourt fashion, he has to exaggerate the phrasing with very strong accents. There is a definite lack of a sense of balance and appropriateness on the part of Harnoncourt. The soprano cantus firmus is weak in the lower range. All the other voices have an unclear quality, that makes one wonder at times what note they are singing, or if they are singing at all. Then, suddenly, a word here or there is shouted out with extremely wobbly vibratos that are unable to define a precise pitch. Why worry about things like that, when expression overwhelms any sense of musicality? Are these boys incapable of singing a straight note as the cantus firmus in particular would demand? How can Harnoncourt break the continuity of the cantus firmus in the middle of a word as he does? I can think of absolutely no valid reason for allowing this to occur. There are insecure entrances in the vocal parts, the usual shaky oboes that are unable to play a single note perfectly in pitch because they attempt to cover everything up with their vibratos, and the tenors pop in and out of the choral texture. Huttenlocher thinks he is putting on a really good show, but most listeners will be able to detect easily the insincerity in his portrayal of the text. Huber, the boy soprano, is another one of the many insecure sopranos in this series with definite intonation and control problems. Harnoncourt ruins the recitative (Mvt. 3) at ms. 12 where the bc has a B flat note tied to another for a value of 4 beats which Harnoncourt promptly reduces to a single beat. Is there anybody out there that can explain to me why Bach would bother writing out notes with long note values that are tied to others of equal length, if all that he wanted was a single quarter note and nothing more? Somebody tell me, please, who started this nonsense in the first place? Was it Harnoncourt or some other misguided musicologist who never placed evidence for this so-called performance practice rule or tradition before the public so that everyone could examine what was discovered and whether it had any validity at all. This whole matter reminds me of an experience, an experiment that was related to me by a very intelligent movie projectionist who would delight in choosing different moments in a film that he would have to view repeatedly. At various points, which he would change from one performance to another, he would begin clapping. Invariably, the audience would likewise clap because it appeared to be an outpouring of the public spirit present in the audience. The trio mvt. begins with a light siciliano treatment, but then deteriorates as the alto cantus firmus becomes almost nonexistent, thus upsetting the entire balance. Add Huber’s occasional howling vibrato, strong accents, and other insecurities and the good beginning disappears as the music becomes difficult to listen to.
The orchestral accompaniment, other than the usual heavy bc, is lighter than Harnoncourt’s treatment, and yet Leusink retains most of the accents he learned from Harnoncourt. In general the vocal parts are clearer and more transparent that the versions listed above, but the usual problems with individual voices suddenly appearing out of the vocal texture and then disappearing again, or the sound of one tenor with an insistent, raspy voice that intrudes and calls attention to itself. The yodelers are also present. The final chorale is treated like a boorish country dance. Ramselaar, singing sotto voce, but nevertheless revealing a constricted voice quality (not open) is unable to put expression into the words that he is singing. In Holton’s recitative, where there are numerous moments where no instruments can be heard at all (here Leusink outdoes Harnoncourt – and the score shows not a single moment, when the instruments are not supposed to be playing), you will notice that this type of treatment is a blessing in disguise for Holton, because her half-voice would otherwise be overwhelmed by the accompaniment. The trio mvt. has good balance if you disregard the occasional missing note that can not be heard because it is beyond the limited range of any given voice.
Perhaps the Herreweghe  is what I am really looking for in mvts. 1 and 6, since the versions that I listened to were not really satisfying.
Tüller  is my only choice for the bass aria and recitative.
Holton  with reservations because this voice is limited in range and volume (and, as a result, expression).
Perhaps the trio in the Leusink version  so as to be able to hear certain passages that have a reasonable balance, albeit on a very low level of vocal output (volume), as this is all sotto voce singing.
Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 31, 2001):
Some thoughts on listening to cantatas…
For the first time since this list began, I think, I actually own all of the recordings of this week's cantata BWV 122. So, I am currently ripping them into MP3s on my computer to listen to them more easily.
I found something interesting that makes it easier to distinguish the cantatas - I use iTunes on a Mac, and, like most MP3 programs, it can query the CDDB database and download the names of tracks on albums. Yet only three of the four recordings are on the CDDB, the Rilling  not being there. Nevertheless, this is very useful, since it names the tracks to correspond to their titles, rather than just calling them track1, track2 etc.
On to my listening...
Marie Jensen wrote (December 31, 2001):
BWV 122 : I listened to Harnoncourt, Herreweghe, Leusink, and which one would I choose, if I should listen next year? To be honest I would probably forget it, because in the Christmas / New Year period there is so much music I got to listen to:
The Christmas Oratorio of course, both Richter and Suzuki, Händel’s Messiah, Bach Christmas cantatas which have a special place in my heart: BWV 57, BWV 110, BWV 152 and the organ pastorale . I have to admit after giving BWV 122 more chances, that it drowns between all the giants, even if it wins by repeated listening.
It is a nice little cantata with a beautiful opening chorus and a bass aria with a contrast built in between sin of man and the triumphing angel announcing God’s mercy. I prefer Herreweghe  but not with standing applauses! Perhaps I should give this cantata a chance again next summer.
Dick Wurten wrote (December 31, 2001):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
 < The final chorale is treated like a boorish country dance. Ramselaar, singing sotto voce, but nevertheless revealing a constricted voice quality (not open) is unable to put expression into the words that he is singing. >
1. I learned a new Englisch word 'boorish'... meaning exactly what I heard in it (the Dutch word 'boer' > farmer... remnant of the 'Boer-war' in S.A).the observation I find correct. Singing a simple chorale in 'schlichter Choralsatz' appears to be almost the most difficult there is. Either it is sung to loud and only in vertical harmonies (= Dutch disease) or it is estheticized too much with expression on single words, diminuendo and crescendo etc...
2. I am a fan of Ramselaar. Perhaps not the most exquiste and spectacular. But I like his honest and stable performance. Never exaggerating, just 'doing his job' properly... Dutch word: 'gedegen'.. don't know the english equivalent. You can build on him. For me he is the one who makes the Leusink recordings worthwhile from the vocal point of view. [When Knut or the ALTO is programmed, I usually start zapping, with Ramselaar this is rare...] With the instrumental side and sound of Leusink I am mostly content. The aria in BWV 122 I don't appreciate, but the Bass-recitativo: excellent
3. And Ruth Holton in her recitative: okay for me.
Michael Grover wrote (December 31, 2001):
[To Dick Wursten]  I concur with your opinion of Ramselaar. I only have one box of the Leusink cantatas (the first one) but he is definitely the high point for me, and for exactly the same reasons you mentioned. He hits his notes cleanly and precisely, doesn't try to put a lot of needless flair into it... somewhat like Paul and Ringo as the Beatles' rhythm section. (OK, maybe that analogy is stretching it a bit.) To me he has a 'clear' voice, unlike most of the basses I've heard on my Rilling CD’s , and he also hits the really low notes well, which seems to be somewhat of a rarity.
Kirk McElhearn wrote (January 1, 2002):
Listening to four widely different versions of this cantata is certainly an eye-opener. The vast differences between the four conductors and their orchestras shows clearly that their visions are widely divergent.
Here are some comments:
Mvt. 1. Choral, Das Neugeborne Kindelein
There is an incredible lightness in Herreweghe's version . It is as if the music just is; there is no attempt to make it stand out as anything other than melody, pure and simple. His rhythm is also the liveliest of the four, not only the tempo being slightly faster, but the accents on the notes contribute to a more joyous feeling. Leusink's version  is very close to Herreweghe's; there is less of a swing to the music, but the choir and orchestra balance is about the same. The Harnoncourt version  is a bit heavier, and especially has less echo. It sounds like the Leusink choir is in a different location from the musicians. The volume of the voices in the Harnoncourt version is also a bit more forceful, but there is also a better texture. At about 2 minutes into the movement, the higher voices are heard very clearly, almost individually. This recording is excellent from a sound point of view. However, the fade out at the end sounds very brusque and artificial. Rilling  has a stronger sounding orchestra, and his choir is very present, perhaps a bit too much so. It drowns out the instruments at times.
I vote for Herreweghe  for this movement.
Mvt. 2. Aria (B), O Menschen, Die Ihr Taglich Sich Sundigt
Rilling  is the only one to use a harpsichord in the continuo. When listening to all four versions, his sounds a bit "plinky" because of this; the harpsichord is not recorded well, and this is often the case with his cantatas. The organ fits well in the three other versions. Bass Niklaus Tüller sounds like he is struggling upstream against a tempo that doesn't fit the music. His voice is fine, but his articulation is a problem. Herreweghe  continues with his light, almost sprightly approach, giving the accompaniment a solid base, and soloist Peter Kooy sounds right at home here. He neither forces the music nor does he let it control him. Harnoncourt's continuo  has an energetic sound, and the organ is more present than in the other versions. Bass Philippe Huttenlocher's voice is very deep, and I find it a bit disagreeable. His vibrato combined with the rapid leaps is confusing and not very musical. Bas Ramselaar  singing in the Leusink version has a light voice, much like Kooy.
It's a toss-up between Herreweghe  and Leusink ; I prefer Kooy's voice, however.
Mvt. 3. Recitativo (S), Die Engel, Welche Sich Zuvor
Again it all comes down to voices. Ruth Holton's voice  is attractive, but that second note just doesn't get her singing off to a good start. She is flat again a bit later as well. Markus Huber in Harnoncourt's version  is not bad, at least not as bad as I would expect from a boy singing a melody as tricky as this. Helen Donath in Rilling's version  is far too Wagnerian for my taste. Vasiljka Jezovsek  doesn't cut it either; she sounds as if she is not up for this melody, she is a bit weak and lacking in conviction.
No winners here.
Mvt. 4. Aria (SAT), 1st Gott Versvhnt Und Unser Freund
The singing in Leusink's version  is terrible. I can't tell if it's the alto or soprano, but someone is way off key at times. Musically this is very nice, though, with a beautiful cello sound. The Harnoncourt version  is much better. The slower tempo and lighter sound works well, and, for a change, the boy soprano fits in well in this trio. This is a very moving version of this aria. Rilling  uses an organ in the continuo; this is surprising, since he used a harpsichord before. That is a lack of continuity. The singing is good, but too operatic for my taste. The singers' vibrato tends to make the whole thing sound confusing. Herreweghe  starts with the same jaunty tempo and rhythm as in the opening choral. The singing is pretty near perfect; each of the soloists comes through clearly and they all fit together beautifully.
Herreweghe  gets another point.
Mvt. 5. Recitativo (B), Dies Ist Ein Tag, Den Selbst Der Herr Gemacht
Herreweghe  is the fastest of the lot, and Peter Kooy is perfect. Leusink  is a close second. Nuff said.
Mvt. 6. Choral, Es Bringt Das Rechte Jubeljahr
Leusink  is the fastest is this brief choral movement. His choir sounds very present, and has fine texture. Harnoncourt's choir  sounds like a mob, not a choir. The voices are all impossible to distinguish. Is it that much larger than Leusink's choir, or is it just the recording. Rilling's choir is large, but has a full, rich sound. If you like this kind of choral sound, this is where Rilling  really stands out - majestic, powerful, noble. But, again, as in the first movement, Herreweghe  is my choice. The light choir sound, the excellent mixture of the instruments and voices, and the fine texture. However, there are a lot of hissing sounds coming through when the chorists sing sibilants. This is a bit annoying.
I was not very familiar with this cantata before listening to these four recordings. I don't often do this, and, above all, I don't have this many recordings of a lot of the cantatas. My receiving the Rilling  set last week certainly ; now I have three complete sets, plus a bunch of Herreweghe recordings. (I still have no Koopman and only one Suzuki.)
I understand now what Aryeh must feel like listening to all his recordings of each cantata in extenso. This can be a grueling experience, but the results are interesting. It is certainly easier to judge individual recordings by comparing them with others, but I already knew that...
In any case, I don't think this cantata belongs in the top ten of the greatest cantatas; nevertheless, the opening choral movement is attractive, the bass aria has the sound of Bach's best bass arias (did you ever notice that bass arias often have this kind of rhythm?), and the trio is very attractive.
My choice for best version is Herreweghe , followed closely by Leusink . No one version is perfect, though - they all have weaknesses.
Michael Grover wrote (January 7, 2002):
 Before we move onto BWV 123, I just wanted to throw out my few thoughts on BWV 122. I'll be able to somewhat compare these two cantatas against each other since I have them both on the same Rilling Hänssler CD.
The first movement chorus is a very nice showcase for Rilling's orchestra and choir, both of which are exemplary. The minor key seems somewhat of an odd choice for a celebratory Christmas chorus -- it has a bit of a dark, moody feel to it. At least I'm assuming it's in a minor key. I'm no expert, but that's the feel I get from it. I suppose not every chorus can be "Jauchzet, frohlocket"!
The second movement aria is well sung by Niklaus Tüller. This is the first time I've heard him, and I was pleasantly impressed. Quite an improvement over Huttenlocher, the other Rilling bass I've heard most often. Tüller does very well except in the very low ranges. He sounds almost like a baritone. A word about the instrumental recording, though... I always listen to the cantatas on headphones, both because I can concentrate better and because if I were to try to listen to them on a stereo system, I would face a family revolt. The harpsichord in the continuo in this movement is both (1) mixed pretty far forward, so it's very prominent, and (2) strongly on the right side. It's pretty distracting and draws attention away from the rest of the performers. It would have been better if it could have been placed in the center along with the vocalist. In fact, unless Bach called specifically for cembalo here (I don't have the score), I find it a curious choice over the organ. Maybe Rilling chose harpsichord to add a brightness to the relatively dark continuo strings (cello & violone)?
The third movement recitative is a perfect example of how interesting and beautiful recitatives can be, in my opinion. Rather than the drab, boring affair many may assume recitatives are, Bach adds several wonderful small touches to this movement. I LOVE the flutes that come in at "Erfüllen nun die Luft"! In fact, I'm trying to remember, but this may be the first time I've ever heard more than one flute part in a Bach movement. I know the two recorders in the Actus Tragicus (BWV 106), but can anyone tell me other instances in either the vocal or non-vocal works where there are multiple flute parts? I also enjoy Helen Donath's voice in this movement.
The terzetto starts out nicely, the organ and strings and alto chorus providing a nice, gentle counterpoint to each other. But then the soloists come in and shatter it. Adalbert Kraus seems to be trying to make up for the fact that he isn't featured in a solo aria in this cantata. In fact, he and Donath are so overwhelming in this movement that the first time or two I listened to it (wasn't listening very closely), I was wondering if Rilling recorded an alto soloist at all! Then I concentrated and finally heard her (Helen Watts) blending in near the end. She really is overpowered by the others, though. Once those three stop singing, the movement ends nicely.
Tüller comes back in to sing a recitative before the choir returns for the closing chorale. Unfortunately, the chorale sounds muddled and too heavy. Here I could make a comparison with the Nordic Chamber Choir, conducted by Nicol Matt. Aryeh, you may want to add them to your website for recordings of individual movements. Their version of the chorale is on the first CD of the Brilliant Classics vol. 23. Time is 1'09". The reason it is so long compared to the Rilling (0'44") is because they sing two verses: the text to movements 1 and 6 of the cantata. Matt has the organ go from continuo to concertante in the second verse for a little variety and it is a nice touch. The NCC sing with great clarity and sensitivity, and I much prefer their version of the chorale to Rilling's.
Well, that's it. Now on to BWV 123!
Michael Grover wrote (January 7, 2002):
[Regarding his writing about the 3rd movement in the message above] Silly me. No sooner had I written and submitted this review, when I looked at the instrumentation for BWV 123 and saw there movements with two flute parts! Not only that, but the "flutes" in the 3rd movement of BWV 122 are, of course, actually recorders. "Flauto dolce" -- I obviously wasn't listening THAT closely, or I would have caught my mistake sooner. Oh well.
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 122: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3