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Cantata BWV 123
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of January 6, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 6, 2002):
Introduction

The subject of this week's discussion (January 6, 2002) is Cantata BWV 123. This is the third in Vicente Vida's proposed list of cantatas for discussion and the first one for Year 2002. 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 123 - Recordings

AFAIK there are only three complete recordings of this cantata (the regular Rilling [1], Harnoncourt and Leusink). But there is also a recording of the recitative and the aria for bass from this cantata by the unsurpassable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. 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.

Background

The background below is based on several sources (Robertson, Young, Whittaker, Finscher, etc.) and something of my own. The English translations are taken from Richard Stokes’ book.

See: Cantata BWV 123 - Commentary

Review of the Recordings

[1] Helmuth Rilling (1980)
Rilling’s approach to the opening chorus expresses beautifully the magnificence of this movement. However, the longing motif theme would have benefited from more intimacy. The whole rendition is too large-scale and everything is so overt that the mysticism and the tenderness embedded in this chorus are almost not brought out. Adalbert Kraus excels in all three sections of the aria for tenor, his heartfelt singing expresses ‘Und der Tränen bittre speise’ (The bitter nourishment of tears) in the first section, he handles easily the demanding runs of the second section, and light enters his singing in the third section. Huttenlocher is not bad either in the recitative or in the aria for bass. However, his singing is not enough varied to be fully convincing in the various moods, which these two movements propose. The playing of the woodwinds along the two arias is beautiful and sensitive and leaves nothing to be desired. Rilling is at his best in the concluding chorale. He follows Bach’s guidelines accurately and touchingly ‘until at last I am laid in the grave.’

[2] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1982)
The opening ritornello of the opening chorus is played beautifully by the oboes d’amore and the flutes. Than the choir enters and their dry singing spoils the atmosphere. The playing of the oboe in the aria for tenor is so heart-rending that we know in advance what is forthcoming. Equiluz’ singing is even more moving than that of Kraus (with Rilling), and no less impressive technically. Robert Holl has a warm and full voice and he is equipped with better expressive powers than Huttenlocher has. All these good qualities serve him well in his rendition of the recitative and aria for bass. He has his weaknesses too, because he has problems to hold the listener interest along the long aria. Maybe it is the conductor’s fault, because in this recording the aria for bass is the longest of all four recordings (Rilling: 6:10; Harnoncourt: 7:53; Leusink: 6:57; DFD: 6:12). The choir’s singing in the concluding chorale is an improvement in comparison to the opening chorus.

[3] Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
The playing of the instruments in the opening chorus is charming and the choir is the best of all three in terms of tenderness, intimacy and what you can call humanity and sincerity. The balance is less clean than the two previous renditions, but what we lose in technical finesse we gain in the spirit. And after all, this is what music is all about, isn’t it? Buwalda is a nice surprise in the recitative for alto. If you can get used to his timbre of voice, you may enjoy his moving singing of the recitative for alto. It seems that this kind of movements (slow, short and not too risky in technical demands) suits his voice best. Schoch is not on the same par with either Kraus or Equiluz in the aria for tenor, neither technically nor emotionally. Ramselaar feels comfortable in the recitative and aria for bass. Maybe too comfortable, because his singing does not raise the listener very high. I can summarise his singing by saying that the playing of the transverse flute is the main factor that holds the listener’s attention along the aria for bass.

[M-1] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) (1971; Mvts. 4 & 5 only)
In all the previous recordings the weakest points were the recitative and aria for bass. It seems like a master plan that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau chose to record exactly these two movements. He did this in 1971 with three French players without a conductor. He shows us how many possibilities and nuances and how much expression and feelings are embedded in these two movements. At this stage of his career some of the beauty of his glorious voice has been lost, but in every other term he could still mite every other baritone (or bass) singer hip and thigh. When he is holding the last line (starting with word ‘bleibet’) before the da-capo of the first section of the aria, you can hear how many ways are there to interpret the feeling one has when he realises that he is going to lose something that is very important to him.

Conclusion

Personal priorities –
Mvt. 1 Chorus: Leusink [3], Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2]
Mvt. 2 Recitative for Alto: Buwalda/Leusink [3], Watts/Rilling [1], Rampf/Harnoncourt [2]
Mvt. 3 Aria for Tenor: Equiluz/Harnoncourt [2], Kraus/Rilling [1], Schoch/Leusink [3]
Mvt. 4 & Mvt. 5 Recitative & Aria for Bass: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [M-1], Holl/Harnoncourt [2], Huttenlocher/Rilling [1], Ramselaar/Leusink [3]
Mvt. 6 Chorale: Rilling [1], Leusink [3], Harnoncourt [2]

And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 7, 2002):
Provenance

See: Cantata BWV 123 - Provenance

Commentary [Schweitzer, Dürr, David Humphreys, Some personal observations (pulling loose ends together)]

See: Cantata BWV 123 - Commentary

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 8, 2002):
BWV 123 Bach’s multi-level approach

See: Cantata BWV 123 - Commentary

Dick Wursten wrote (January 8, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thanks for your very illuminative excursions both on Bach’s multilevel (you could almost say: multi-media) approach.. and on the 'danse rhythm'- question...

Concerning the old 'meters'... (or should we say: tempora?) in the 16th/ early 17th century chorales: I often find it a bit of a disappointment to hear Bach homo-genizing these very interesting rhythmic melodies of the old chorales, even more so with even older hymns, which have medieval tonality and a gregorian flow...

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 8, 2002):
This week I listened to the following recordings:Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Mvts. 4&5) (1971) [M-1]; Rilling (1980) [1]; Harnoncourt (1982) [2]; Leusink (1999) [3]

[M-1] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:
There is a wonderful contrast between the stern beginning and the loving conclusion without any sudden shift occurring at any point. The aria has some very notable moments as well, but I was somewhat disturbed by Dieskau’s inability to distinguish between certain trilled notes and those that were not. His vibrato made some notes sound as if they were being trilled. He also has a problem with the lowest note where he applies a very wide vibrato. Some other arias included on this CD are from earlier points in his career and must be considered to be among the best, if not the best versions of these specific arias ever recorded. It is like hearing a Bach recording by Kathleen Ferrier after hearing what is offered on the cantata series available to us now. This is when it is possible to realize that the level of singing and voice quality are in a category beyond anything else that is available to us today. This is a level that all the Quasthoffs and Goernes are yet unable to match, if they ever will.

[1] Rilling:
Compared to the other recordings, Rilling has more of the grand sweep that lends coherency and unity to the structure of each mvt. The sopranos, as usual, have objectionable vibratos that destroy any attempt to provide a solid cantus firmus. Kraus does particularly well on the fast melismas in the middle section, but his “Heil und Licht” were not comforting in the manner in which he attacks the notes. (Sometimes his attacks can be brutal and difficult to listen to.) After a very long section of ‘barking’ in the recitative, Huttenlocher suddenly shifts to his overly sweet-sounding, insincere voice to bring this mvt. to a conclusion. There was no way to distinguish between trilled and untrilled notes in the aria, because his fast vibrato made everything sound the same.

[2] Harnoncourt:
The general impression that I receive from this recording is one of dying fish gulping for air between each half-hearted note being sung. When I listened to the introductory chorale mvt. for the 1st time in preparation for this week’s discussion, I first came upon the idea to calculate the total amount of omissions caused by Harnoncourt’s premature termination of note values, but then I rejected this idea, since anyone with even half an ear should be able to detect this obvious failing. One thing is certain: the listener is being cheated out of hearing a good portion of the music that Bach had originally intended to be heard. Where there are no rests indicated by Bach (in the recitatives as well, where the Harnoncourt Doctrine prevails), how could anyone even consider breaking up the word, “Immanuel” to put slight pauses between the syllables of the word? Rampf has intonation problems and his voice is breaking. Equiluz has a superb interpretation of the tenor aria. The shaky oboi d’amore with their primitive sound (it always sounds as if the instrumentalists are still unsure of themselves) cause occasional intonation problems. Holl is another Huttenlocher with the added problem that he has difficulty hearing the correct pitch as he tends to sing on the flat side of the notes (another Hermann Prey without the other necessary qualities that made Prey famous.) With the exception of the special accents where they do not belong, the final chorale is one of Harnoncourt’s better efforts in performing the 4-pt chorale harmonizations.

[3] Leusink:
The light treatment of the orchestral section deprives the opening mvt. of its inherent depth and serious nature. The general impression of the entire cantata performance is one of a lack of conviction limited in part by the half-voices in the recitatives and arias and by the improperly trained (uncontrolled) voices in the choir. The soloists frequently allow a ‘dead’ quality to creep into their singing. This happens when they sing certain passages or notes without a vibrato and without fully understanding how they might convey the text to the listener. Mainly, they give the impression that they have not “lived with” or identified with the music long enough to absorb it thoroughly. They are limited by the reduced nature of their small voices to such an extent that their main goal is simply to “hit all the right notes” however softly this can be done without exerting their voices or attempting “to sing from the soul.”

Choices:
Mvt. 1: Rilling [1]
Mvt. 2: None
Mvt. 3: Equiluz [2], Kraus [1]
Mvt. 4 & Mvt. 5: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [M-1]
Mvt. 6: Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2]

Dick Wursten wrote (January 8, 2002):
Returning from a Epiphany concert-mass with music from Michael Praetorius, the difference with Bach’s approach becomes extreme. What a difference esp in 'sound'. Trombone, Viola da Gamba, Blockflöten (and the enchanting changes in tempo from 2-metrum to 3 etc..).

[3] I can only judge BWV 123 from the Leusink-performance. As usual a little bit un-inspired, with the glorious exception of mvt 2, where Buwalda does a nice
job ! (as Aryeh already pointed out. I agree).

The reference to Epiphany is indeed not very obvious, but the general spiritual mood is at least consistent with this feast, when it is considered as the feast of the Magi offering there treasures to the newborn child. Is not the over-all message of this cantata that we should be glad that we 'have' Jesus, because 'having him' is worth more than all treasures of this world (he is the 'highest treasure', höchster Schatz' Mvt. 1) . The 'Jesusminne' as Thomas Braatz called it must have been present in the hearts of the Magi when they presented their presents.

And it must still have been there when they wandered home, along a different way... It is a cross-road, but 'Having Jesus with them' will have made their life worthwhile..

Something like that, could have been part of the sermon on 'Three-Kings-day'.

Andrew Oliver wrote (January 12, 2002):
I particularly like the chorale melody on which the opening chorale is based. We are told that the words of the chorale are by Fritsch (1679). They and the melody are, I understand taken from Himmels-Lust, published that year, but I do not know whether Fritsch also composed the melody.

[2] Harnoncourt's choir sounded acceptable to me. Not inspiring, but adequate. I really enjoyed the sound of the orchestra in the first movement; whether or not they are playing precisely as Bach intended or only approximately so, I don't mind, because the beauty of this marvellous composition lies in its spirit rather than in its exact notation.

Tom Braatz writes:
< This concerns the interpretation of how "notes inégales" are to be performed. These, according to Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) in his "Versuch einer Anweisung die Fl. Traversiere zu spielen" Berlin, 1752 are "the quavers that follow the dotted crotchets in the loure, sarabande, courante and chaconne [that] must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp manner." Regarding the string instruments, he states, "they must detach the bow during the dot" of the dotted quarter note. >
How it applies to Bach, I don't know, but I do know that inHandel's works, freedom of interpretation is often allowed in the performance of dotted notes. They are sometimes played as double-dotted, for the simple reason that consistency with the rest of the composition seems to require it, although neither Handel himself, nor his scribes nor his publishers ever used double dots. He used the same notation for note ratios of 1½:½ as for 1¾:¼. This delaying of the second note may also have given rise to the introduction of a rest between the two, although unmarked.

Equiluz maintains his usual high standard (in Harnoncourt's recording). I like the bass voice of Robert Holl, although both he and the boy alto Stefan Rampf have occasional intonation problems, but not enough to disturb my enjoyment.

As usual, the closing chorale is a joy, and I am entirely happy with the performance of it. If I have one quibble, it is directed at JSB. Why was it necessary to spoil his beautiful harmonisation of it by using one of his favourite devices, the tierce-de-Picardie, not once but twice?

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 12, 2002):
Andrew Oliver stated:
< We are told that the words of the chorale are by Fritsch (1679). They and the melody are, I understand taken from Himmels-Lust, published that year, but I do not know whether Fritsch also composed the melody. >
Yes, he did, if my sources are reliable.

[2] < Harnoncourt's choir sounded acceptable to me. Not inspiring, but adequate. I really enjoyed the sound of the orchestra in the first movement; whether or not they are playing precisely as Bach intended or only approximately so, I don't mind, because the beauty of this marvellous composition lies in its spirit rather than in its exact notation. >
Freedom of expression and interpretation has reached an extreme here. It might have been more honest to entitle the Harnoncourt performance as "Bach-Harnoncourt" similar to the way we recognize a Bach-Stokowski performance/transcription.

< ...freedom of interpretation is often allowed in the performance of dotted notes. They are sometimes played as double-dotted, for the simple reason that consistency with the rest of the composition seems to require it, although neither Handel himself, nor his scribes nor his publishers ever used double dots. He used the same notation for note ratios of 1½:½ as for 1¾:¼. This delaying of the second note may also have given rise to the introduction of a rest between the two,
although unmarked. >
It is the introduction of the rest in the vocal lines which is bothersome because the syllables of a single word are dissected leaving nonsensical hiatuses between the notes of a phrase that obviously should be sung legato without artificial interruptions of the type that Harnoncourt inserts into the Bach score.

< As usual, the closing chorale is a joy, and I am entirely happy with the performance of it. If I have one quibble, it is directed at JSB. Why was it necessary to spoil his beautiful harmonisation of it by using one of his favourite devices, the tierce-de-Picardie, not once but twice? >
Here is my guess regarding this 'lapse' in Bach's chorale setting: It is somewhat unusual, as Dürr indicated, for the repeat of the "Abgesang" to occur. Perhaps the mention of "death" ("the grave") was sufficient for Bach to conceive of repeating the final section as an echo (the sound dying away). The echo would appear then just as it was sung at full volume the first time through, but with the piano dynamic which Bach indicated. Hence the tierce-de-Picardie would also appear twice.

Andrew Oliver wrote (January 12, 2002):
Tom Braatz wrote:
[2] < It is the introduction of the rest in the vocal lines which is bothersome because the syllables of a single word are dissected leaving nonsensical hiatuses between the notes of a phrase that obviously should be sung legato without artificial interruptions of the type that Harnoncourt inserts into the Bach score. >
Yes, I agree that it is disconcerting for vocal lines to be broken up. I sometimes wonder why Bach himself broke up the word 'eleison' in the bass and tenor lines of the first Kyrie of the B minor mass (BWV 232).

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 13, 2002):
Andrew Oliver stated:
[2] < Yes, I agree that it is disconcerting for vocal lines to be broken up. I sometimes wonder why Bach himself broke up the word 'eleison' in the bass and tenor lines of the first Kyrie of the B minor mass. >
In ms. 62-63 (and the close repetition of this in ms. 166-117), it is only in the alto/tenor/bass parts that provide an accompaniment-type figure to the florid (melismas) soprano parts that Bach clearly marks the rests that he wants. Whereas Bach is doing this here to delineate more clearly a secondary, contrasting motif, he also does this in the cantatas when the voice (usually in a solo aria) part expresses terror, shock, etc. Bach is very explicit in marking passages of this type specifically, thus implying that when he does not, he expects a legato to be employed, giving each note its full value. You must admit these short passages in the midst of this glorious mvt. from the B minor mass (BWV 232), where all the other occurrences of the word 'eleison' are devoid of rests or intended breaks, does not allow a conductor to treat all the other repetitions of the word with 'freely interpreted pauses' the way Harnoncourt possibly would. If you hear these pauses elsewhere in this mvt. then you will know that the conductor is following the Harnoncourt Doctrine.

Richard Grant wrote (January 15, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] I've always thought that the "broken" reading of the "eleison line here' was so marked to highlight the emotion of the speaker/singer, the Greek meaning "be merciful" or "have mercy". I think Bach often furnishes his scores with these kinds of "emotion-highlighting" accents that appear at first to be just musical notations.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 123: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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