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Cantata BWV 135
Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of July 1, 2001 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 3, 2001):

This is the week of Cantata BWV 135 according to Thomas Braatz’ suggestion, the 6th one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. As a background for the review of the recordings this cantata I shall use this time the liner notes to the recording by Gönnenwein, which originated from the German Cantate label and reissued in LP form by Musical Heritage Society in the 1970’s (Sorry, no CD edition, AFAIK). The notes were written by Werner Neumann and translated into English by Virginia R. Woods.

“The cantata for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, ‘Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder’ (Oh, Lord, rebuke me not) belongs to Bach’s chorale cantata publications or cantata cycle in which the textual basis is taken exclusively or predominantly from favourite Protestant hymns. Therefore, the text already appears in this form as a unified and complete cantata work. Our cantata is one of the earliest ones found in this publication, which actually belongs to Bach’s second year at Leipzig. It was probably first performed on June 25, 1724, thus about a year after Bach began his duties at Leipzig.

The basic church hymn ‘Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder straf nicht in deinem Zorn’ (Oh, Lord, Rebuke me not in thy anger) is found in the hymnals of Bach’s time under ‘Songs of Penitence’. Cyriakus Schneegaß (1597) its author has paraphrased this chorale from the sixth Psalm and has preserved to a large extent its thoughts and word characteristics. Besides the five-stanza hymn, a separate sixth stanza was added at the end as praise to the Holy Trinity. The first and the last stanza of the hymn conform word for word to the cantata text; whereas, the second and the fourth stanzas are adapted to the recitatives and the third and the fifth to the arias. These stanzas in the cantata quote almost literally the main lines and retain the important word images. This cantata text, perhaps more than any other, remains so closely to the church hymn pattern that it helps us to see clearly the manner in which Bach treated his texts. Of course Bach freed the hymn stanzas metrically in order to fit them to the modern aria and recitative. Therefore, the chorale cantata becomes for Bach the pattern in which the traditional method of chorale treatment is united in principle with the form of modern opera singing.”

Complete Recordings

I am aware of 5 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 135, and during last week I have been listening to all of them. There is also a recording of two individual movements from it (the opening chorus and closing chorale) by a renowned Canadian choral group. See: Cantata BWV 135 – Recordings.

(1) Wolfgang Gönnenwein (Mid 1960’s?)
(2) Karl Richter (1974-1975)
(3) Helmuth Rilling (1979)
[4] Gustav Leonhardt (1983)
[6] Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)

Recordings of Individual Movements

[M-4] Elmer Iseler (1985; opening chorus and the closing choral (Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 6) only)

The recitatives

“Both of the recitatives, the first for tenor and the second for alto, use the simple ‘secco-style’, and yet Bach introduces the second one by a short arioso (adagio) that obviously links by means of much figuration the stanza text ‘Ich bin von Seufzen müde’ (I am tired of sighing) with the first line of the chorale. We especially recognize this melody as the old hymn of repentance ‘Herzlich tut mich Verlangen’ in Bach Passion music. Also, the end of the first recitative with the words ‘Ach, du Herr, wie so lange’ (But, Oh Lord, how long?) seems to belong slightly to the eight line of the chorale but in variation form. The first recitative is marked by chromatic steps in the bass and by a stimulating melody, enriched by the typical Baroque pattern of movement on the words ‘schnellen Fluten’, ‘abwärts rollen’, and ‘Schrecken’.”

(1) Gönnenwein - The sensitivity in Johannes Höfflin’s singing causes you to identify immediately with his misery, weakness and fear. Emmy Lisken is too operatic and her vibrato is too much felt to do justice with her recitative for alto.

(2) Richter - The weeping in Schreier’s rendition will enter easily every human heart. His experience as Evangelist serves him well in giving significance to every detail. For example, the very short break before the word ‘bange’ (terror) might cause you a little shudder. I have nothing but praise for Anna Reynolds. Yes it is unavoidable to hear her vibrato. But it is also unavoidable to hear the gloom and the deep despair.

(3) Rilling - Hearing Kraus immediately after Schreier and he sounds pale. He is doing the right things, but he is not convincing. Watts is a civilised performer, but here she is not going very deep under the surface.

(4) Leonhardt - Marius van Altena is a nice surprise. The accompaniment is very scarce, so that he can give his full attention to the content of his recitative. And he indeed uncovers every corner, almost to the same level that Schreier does it. I like both Jacobs’ timbre of voice and his sensitivity in the recitative for alto.

[6] Leusink - Schoch sounds somewhat from distance, but the main problem is that he does not touch your heart. When I hear Buwalda immediately after Jacobs I feel that the weight of the recitative for alto is too heavy for his shoulders.

Recitative for tenor ranking – Schreier (2), Höfflin (1), Altena (4), Kraus (3), Schoch [6].
Recitative for alto ranking – Jacobs (4), Reynolds (2), Watts (3), Lisken (1), Buwalda [6].

The Arias

“Joining the two recitatives together in a trio movement with woodwinds (2 oboes and bassoon), the following tenor aria in C major begins in a singing andante and spins out the melody further in imitation. The closing words of the aria ‘so erfreu mein Angesicht’ (so gladden my countenance) sound again like the last line of the chorale melody, only this time in a free text. In similar manner the energetic and compelling bass aria (A minor) clothes itself toward the end with a melodic quote ‘Mein Jesus tröstet mich’ (for my Jesus comforts me) taken from the second chorale line. In this way Bach binds all the free vocal forms of the cantata to parts of the chorale melody, the basis for the main movements.”

(1) Gönnenwein - Johannes Höfflin continues the same approach of the recitative. Although he is not bad, I think that more variety in his approach would have helped. Jakob Stämpfli belongs to the small group of the best Bach singers of all times. This rendition is slower than all the others are, but it gives room for the singer to express himself more clearly and not to sound in competition with the accompaniment, a phenomenon which we can hear in some of the other recordings.

(2) Richter - Schreier changes into a totally different mood in the aria, so that it is hard to believe that this is actually the same singer. Only great singer, as he is, can give every movement the right treatment. Along his aria we hear plea, comfort, distress, and joy. The recitative for bass calls for virtuosic singer, who can cope with the complex linesand sings against the athletic instrumental lines. Fischer-Dieskau has all the resources to do it better than anybody else does.

(3) Rilling - Kraus improves in the aria, yet he is not as varied as Schreier and misses some of the moods along his complex aria. He is not helped by the accompaniment, which is too prominent to my taste. Huttenlocher is awkward and bland in the aria for bass.

(4) Leonhardt - Here I was somewhat disappointed by Altena, because his singing is less varied than either Schreier or Kraus and as a consequence less interesting. Max van Egmond is a warm and expressive singer, but definitely not the master of the nuance that Fischer-Dieskau is.

[6] Leusink - Schoch is simply not interesting. Also the blending between his singing and the accompaniment leaves something to be desired. Ramselaar reminds me the rendition of Egmond with Leonhardt, but it seems that he does not get the essence of the aria for bass. The main problem here is that there is no tension between the accompaniment and the singer, and I think that the former should be blamed.

Aria for tenor ranking - Schreier (2), Kraus (3), Höfflin (1), Altena (4), Schoch [6].
Aria for bass ranking - Fischer-Dieskau (2), Stämpfli (1), Egmond (4), Ramselaar [6], Huttenlocher (3).

The Choral movements

“While the last movement as usual is a simple four-part chorale, the opening movement broadens out into large chorale fantasie. As an exception Bach gives the bass section of the choir the Cantus Firmus in which the lines are divided in the usual way and broken up by the orchestra. The actual choral melody first appears in the string section while being played contrapunctually by the oboes in the instrumental prelude; and later, as the chorus enters, it is treated in a similar method resulting in a great instrumental-vocal antiphonal chorus. Structurally speaking, the first chorale line becomes the main theme, and almost without interruption, sings out in the vocal and instrumental counterpoint and stamps itself upon the interludes. In an imitative and canonic style, the fifth line of the chorale ‘Ach Herr, wollst mir vergeben’ (Oh, Lord, willt thou forgive my sin) creates an independent, complex section. Of all the beginning movements of Bach’s choral cantatas, this one ought to be considered the most concentrated thematically and the most complex in thought.”

(1) Gönnenwein - Everything sounds so right in this rendition. The calmness of the instrumental introduction, the delicacy in the entry of the choir, the relation between the choir and the orchestra, and the beauty in which they are interlacing. This is an exemplary rendition. The most important thing is that all the despair for mercy and forgiveness comes to you so naturally, so unforcefully.

(2) Richter - The grandeur in Richter’s approach captures all the glory and the splendour of the opening chorus. Although he uses relatively big forces all the minor details and the complex fugal lines can be clearly heard.

(3) Rilling - The multiple colours of Rilling’s opening chorus are so glamorous, that I found myself somewhat disappointed by some unusual turbidity of the choir. Regarding the internal pulse, this rendition lacks also tension and the mood of despair is not fully captured.

(4) Leonhardt - The fragmented instrumental introduction takes all the attention in Leonhardt’s rendition and prevents us from devotion to the experience. The choral singing is nor very well focused and sounds disintegrated. I do not see the big picture here. The accompaniment he is getting from Leonhardt is a big improvement in comparison to the opening chorus.

[6] Leusink - I was charmed by the gentleness of the instrumental introduction, and enjoyed the clarity in the singing of the choir. This rendition sounds lightweight in comparison to Richter, yet it is convincing in its calm way. It is not forcing itself on the listener, but let you come to the music by yourself.

Opening Chorus ranking - Gönnenwein (1), Richter (2), Leusink, Rilling (3), Leonhardt (4)


No recording excels from every aspect, but Gönnenwein and Richter are the best of them.

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 4, 2001):
This time I would like to try a different approach, since Aryeh found an excellent source to quote from. At first, I thought I would simply quote the article contained in the Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Boyd] book. For the first time, in all these weeks that I have consulted this source and found the commentaries to be average or above average, I was truly impressed with how well this article contained almost all the important points that I had culled from various sources. I would give the writer of this article an A+, but guess what? There is no author indicated. Could this be Boyd himself? If you have the book, it is worth reading through this article from beginning to end.

Let me try to begin with the recordings first this time and fill in interesting details only as necessary for a listener who is approaching this music for the first time and wants to know what to listen for.

I have only the following recordings: Richter (2), Rilling (3), Leonhardt (4), and Leusink [6].

Mvt. 1

First of all, my impressions of the recordings.
I truly miss not having heard the Gönnenwein version (1) which Aryeh described so aptly. I assume that Gönnenwein has a legato treatment of the running eighth notes in the accompanying figure that goes with the chorale melody which is similar to that of Richter's (2). With his large orchestral and vocal forces, Richter somehow manages to achieve sadness and despair without too much heaviness. At times I think I can hear the trombone playing along with the basses. What I do not enjoy is Richter's insistence on using the organ with 4', 2' stops, and who knows how many mixtures that squeal along duplicating all the vocal parts. I assume he does this because he is afraid the voices in the choir will go flat. Otherwise this mvt. under Richter shows the appropriate dignity that I would expect for a sacred work.

(3) Rilling has almost the same slow tempo and plays everything legato as well. Here the trombone can be clearly heard (not that I want to hear it that much.) The problem with Rilling is that there is some muddiness in the parts other than the bass. This is caused by vibrato which really takes its toll when the sopranos should be singing a clean melodic line. The general impression throughout this mvt. is of heaviness which does fit the text part of the time, whereas the choral expression of the word, "Zorn" ("anger") is excellent, but when the choir sings "ewig leben" ("to live eternally") it is
simply not ethereal enough for me. There is anger and heaviness throughout.

(4) Leonhardt comes up with a ridiculous interpretation that demonstrates disregard for the text and the composer's intentions as well. Sure, he might say, "Look at the NBA score! Do you see any legato markings there?" The answeis no, of course (but not any staccato markings either.) But then there is a phrase marking in one of the instrumental parts of the original score in Bach's own handwriting that indicates a pattern for tying the notes. [let's assume Leonhardt's treatment of one measure of eighth notes is all staccato and looks like this: 'dot dot dot dot dot dot' and Richter's like this: 'dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah', then Bach's was "dah-dah-dah´-ah-dah´-ah" , the latter being two pairs of tied notes (probably legato notes followed by two pairs of tied notes with a slight accent on the first note of each pair. BUT, because there were not enough examples of this sort in the score, the editors decided not to extrapolate from this single instance to place this pattern throughout the mvt (which they then would have indicated with tiny dots rather than solid line markings, because Bach had not placed them there.)] Under Leonhardt's direction the entire mvt. falls apart with all of the incessant 'poking' of each note. This madness extends even to the cantus firmus! Listen to the chorale melody in the bass. There is an extra push and a dying away (drop in volume) for each note. This is Harnoncourt to the nth degree. The result is that the whole conception sounds irreverent, almost comical. If this were a cantata about 'breaking bread for the hungry,' this interpretation might make more sense, but not here. Listen to the uncontrolled oboes in one spot where they should be reaching for heaven. It is impossible to sense the ethereal nature of that section when antics of this sort are allowed by the conductor (or perhaps the oboists simply could not play it properly.) Leusink is a relief after hearing the Leonhardt version.

[6] What a tender sound Leusink achieves with gentle accompaniment and also with a mainly legato treatment. The range of emotion is not as great as Richter's, for here we stay mainly on the ethereal plane throughout. However, my heavenly experience of this music is completely destroyed when the sopranos jump from a C# to a high A (uncontrolled falsettists) and a single tenor voice with vibrato is much too noticeable and stands out from the others.

Now for some additional thoughts on this mvt. mainly from other sources.

Before I read up on this cantata, particularly this mvt., and heard these recordings for the first few times, I tried (just as you, as a listener should,) to anticipate what some of the commentary may be before I read it. I also enjoy seeing who comes up with what information that can increase my understanding of the work. As Aryeh has already stated, even if we had access to everything that has been written about this cantata, there is always more to be found, so great is the depth of a composition by Bach.

First idea on mvt. 1: What's different here compared to the others we have heard recently? It is the lack of true bass line in the instrumental interludes; the so-called primacy of the bass line in Bach has vanished. Where is it, if you can find it? In the violas and the lower violins! This does not happen that much with Bach, in my experience. [The example I admire very much is the "Suscepit Israel" section of BWV 243 (Magnificat.)] So as I read through all my sources chronologically, I began to despair until I got to Eric Chafe in his very expensive book entitled, "Tonal Allegory in J.S.Bach" (1991). Chafe uses a term that I only vaguely remembered, and certainly did not understand: "Bassetchen" or "Bassetgen" in German, "petit basse" in French, and "bassetto" in Italian (translate into English as "little bass".) In a footnote Chafe explains the term as one "used by theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries to designate basso continuo accompaniment in a register other than the bass, as well as a bass line that substituted for the basso continuo in the upper register." Then, and this is why I find footnotes so interesting, he cites further examples of which he indicates there is "only a very small number" : BWV 11/10 (which means the 10th mvt. of BWV 11); BWV 46/5; BWV 234/3 etc. etc. What?!! What do you mean with 'etc. etc.'? I've been gypped! I pay a handsome sum of money for this book, and Chafe wants to shortchange me, as if there wasn't enough room in his book with frequent large, empty spaces that could be filled with information that I am looking for! Chafe makes up for some of this negligence with an insight that I believe you will find interesting: "Bach uses the bassettchen texture for a variety of purposes in the church music; in Cantata 135, for example, it stood for the opposition of God's wrathful and loving natures through juxtaposition of the low and the high bass parts." He goes on to give interesting examples from the passions and oratorios as well as some of the cantatas he began listing in his footnote. Now we have another way to begin to understand this mvt. The legato, rather slowly moving instrumental accompaniment that anticipates and prepares for the entrance of the voices by intoning in advance the portion of the hymn melody that will follow, has a definite ethereal effect because it lacks the typical, have-your-feet-firmly-on-the-ground Bachian bass that we are accustomed to hearing. When the bass voice enters reinforced not only by the basso continuo, but also by the trombone, you are firmly grounded as the depth and the volume (solemnity is increased as well) draw your attention downwards. Gerhardt Schumacher (1983) noted: "By putting the cantus firmus in the bass, it adds to the burdensome and heavy character of the piece." Aryeh quoted Werner Neumann, who refers to the 'instrumental-vocal antiphony," but that does not give you as much depth of understanding as knowing what each group in the antiphony stands for. Notice also in the instrumental interludes how the patterns that Bach established seem to be moving downward, until you reach one section on the words, "Daß ich mag ewig leben" ("so that I may have eternal life") at which point these patterns begin moving upwards. A wonderful touch to reinforce the text at this point. I have found no source that makes reference to this, but then there is always more to be discovered, even in this mvt. Schweitzer (1905) zeros in on the repetition of the first line of the chorale in the instrumental section."It is, as if the words, "Ach Herr mich armen Sünder" were being repeated over and over again" (as in English: "Woe is me, woe is me, woe is me!") Another point made by some commentators is that there is ever-increasing intensity built into the composition as it starts with a simple beginning, reaches greater expression through chromaticism and other compositional techniques until it reaches its climax on the final line of the chorale by expanding from 4-part harmony to 6-parts. There is also variety in the manner in which the accompanying vocal parts (SAT) are treated, sometimes motet-like, at other times contrapuntally with fugal entrances.

Also remember the following regarding this important chorale melody: as the congregation was/is listening to the chorale melody with these words being sung, they also have word associations and feelings that issue from two other hymns that use the same melody: "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" and "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden." Schweitzer mentions the latter chorale in connection with this cantata. Working with all these associations that reside in a listener accustomed to singing (and having completely memorized) this chorale melody with different texts, Bach was able to extend his power to elicit emotional responses from the listener and create different reference points. It is as if Bach were pulling out some extra stops on the organ to create yet another sound (word-sound association) for the listener to hear. I marvel everytime, when I hear this chorale melody in the Christmas Oratorio. Of course the words chosen there do fit the holiday season, but at the same time I can not help but think, by association, of Holy Week and Friday. I believe that Bach intentionally made use of these associations. It is as if Bach were achieving a powerful simultaneity that goes beyond the linear thinking prevalent in Western society: first this, then that; cause and effect. For Bach, the mind grasps musical and verbal complexity all at once. It makes me think of a statement by Mozart in a letter, in which he explains his composing process: [this is from my memory - I do not have the source before me] "When I compose a movement of a symphony, it presents itself suddendly to my mind, so that my greatest effort is expended in trying to write it down quickly before I forget it." Goethe likewise indicated that, when a poem presented itself in its complete form while he was walking, he would have to write it down quickly or make an effort to remember it, so that it could be written down as soon as he got home. Ah, genius!

Listen for the pictoral, symbolic word images :

"Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder" : downward moving motifs;

"Straf nicht in deinem Zorn." : listen for Rilling's 'anger;' there is less with Richter;

"Ach Herr, wollst mir vergeben." fugal entrances before bass enters; Neumann calls this a 'complex' section

"mein Sünd und gnädig sein." more chromaticism than before;

"daß ich mag ewig leben." the stretching upward continues in the instrumental interlude that follows; this is the high point of the entire composition.

"Entfliehn der Höllenpein." could easily become an anticlimax, but Bach increases the actual part writing from 4 to 6 so as to achieve a thicker, fuller texture at the end, when the voices settle back into a lower range.

Marie Jensen wrote (July 4, 2001):
It must be hard being a cantata the same Sunday as BWV 21 "Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss". But "Ach Herr mich armer Sünder " (BWV 135) is - this third Sunday after Trinity..

And for me there is no doubt BWV 21 is much better. It is one of Bach’s best cantatas long and with a wonderful plot going from deep despare to the highest joy. BWV 135 is not bad. I would call it average, and when it is Bach average means good.

The cantata deals with repentance and forgiveness and goes down into sorrow but not up into exstatic joy. It has its own kind of weather.

The opening chorus begs for mercy, but as it often happens, Bach’s music is forgiveness itself, so the sorrow does not become desperate ( I talk about the Leusink version [6]). It is like the hand of Jesus caressing the sinners hair, the same moment as the he begs for mercy. Again the wellknown bitter-sweet Bach-sorrow. If desperacy should be expressed in music by a contemporary composer, rhytm and tonality had to be left behind. Slow pace and minor would not be enough. With Bach by the hand I never get swallowed by the black holes**.

The weather: in movement 5:

Weicht, all ihr Uebeltaeter,
Mein Jesus troestet mich!
Er laesst nach Traenen und nach Weinen
Die Freudensonne wieder scheinen;
Das Truebsalswetter aendert sich,
Die Feinde muessen ploetzlich fallen
Und ihre Pfeile rueckwaerts prallen.

it is mentioned. The violins are busy, both enemy arrows and sun rays in one, only taking a small break when "Mein Jesus tröstet mich", symbolising peace. The battle is still going on through the aria never reaching triumphing glory, even if there is no doubt: Jesus wins. "Weicht!" (fall back) says the bass in my case Ramselaar (Leusink). It is really as he falls back, saying the word in stead of singing it. Well done!

** If you want to freeze in deepest despair, choose Ligetis Requiem!

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 5, 2001):
Mvt. 2: Secco Recitative for tenor

This recitative is filled with symbolic figures, or as Schweitzer would have it, musical picture images: 1) "und schwach" ("and weak") the voice descends to the low point of its range; 2) "die schnellen Fluten gleich" ("like fast torrents") a sudden burst of 32nd notes; "von Wangen abwärts rollen" ("to roll down your cheeks') reinforced with downward movement; "von Schrecken angst und bange" ("very fearful out of terror") sudden jumps with a rest inserted before continuing the word; and for the eyes only, there is a "Kreuz" ("cross" ="sharp") A# in the basso continuo when the word, "Kreuz" ("cross") is sung [see the section on the Esoteric Bach on Aryeh's site for further explanation of this device.] Voigt (1918) finds the words of the recitative to be very unpleasant: "It is very difficult to find a tolerable way of presenting it [the recitative]." He gives a watered-down version of the text to replace the existing one.

(2) Richter's Schreier has the version to try to top. It has just the right amount of expression without becoming too operatic. Bach writes it into the score, and Schreier makes it really come to life.

(3) Rilling's Kraus is almost always my least favorite pick for any Bach recitative. He becomes a different (unpleasant) person when he is asked to forget his style of singing arias, and to do a recitative instead. Somehow he always feels a need to overproduce (become very operatic) when faced with a recitative text. The need to attack a note with great force, causes him to lose control of his vibrato. A perfect, and typical example is in the very first word, "Ach," which always sends shudders down my spine because it is too loud and voice has too much vibrato when he tries to emphasize a word.

(4) Leonhardt's van Altena is a voice you need to become accustomed to. If you like this type of voice, then you will hear a better than average performance of this recitative here. He has some problems in settling upon the correct pronunciation of a short German 'i.' He uses a long pronunciation on the words, "mich," "ich," "zugericht," "Angesicht," and "ist," but otherwise he sings it correctly.

[6] Leusink'a Schoch has a voice that is not very loud, and for that reason the organ should have been softer. He did have a much better initial "Ach" than Kraus, but otherwise his voice lacks the inflection needed for better expression.

Mvt. 3: Tenor Aria

Schweitzer contends that this aria was most likely a parody of a secular aria because he senses that the declamation of the words does not fit the music. He even goes so far as to suggest dropping the aria in performance, because the music had been borrowed! Voigt states: "there is a sentence in the 1st aria (this mvt.) which is unbelievabale and can not be understood: 'In death everything is quiet, there one can not think of you.' " Voigt makes the situation worse by suggesting the following: 'In death everything is quiet, your [Christ's?] help does not reach there.' Now he has completely distorted and destroyed the belief so strongly stated in many Lutheran hymns: Christ will be there at that very moment of death, waiting to guide you if you ask for his help. I read the original statement to mean: Now is the time to ponder these things, while you are still alive, because, at the moment of death, your physical thought processes will stop and the brain will no longer function so as to help you think of Christ. The spiritual preparation must take place now, so that you can recognize Christ at and after the moment of death.

Ulrich Leisinger in an article in the Wolff/Koopman "The World of the Bach Cantatas," the quality of which I have justifiably disparaged on numerous occasions here, comments on the difficulty Bach faced in writing music for these aria texts because they lacked "Affektueuses", (that which allows affect in the listener to be stimulated by the music.) The 1st aria (mvt. 3) is a typical example of "Umdichtung" (the recasting, adaptation of verse), probably done by one of the main pastors in Leipzig. According to Mattheson (Vollkommener Kapellmeister) an aria should take a short idea or conceit and express this with a grandiose to elicit feeling in the listener. A text such as this one eliminates any possibility for composition, since all the feelings evoked are implied (Misery of the soul connected with fear), but not stated as a theme. Bach did not know what else he could do but fall back upon the use of musical picture images: "Sonst versink ich in den Tod" is repeated three times, the movement each time is downwards and in the first two times a jump of a seventh expands the word, "Not," emphatically. In the middle of the aria, the word, "Stille," is also sung three times, and by means of the rests in between and the musical echo-effect, the emptiness of death is expressed. No wonder that Reichardt [I have found no reference in the book to explain this name] chose this aria to point out Bach's alleged weakness in rendering a musical version of the text, but cleverly enough the same critic was unable to suggest any better way of accomplishing this."

Richard Schumacher (1983) provides the following interpretation of this mvt.: "The two oboes represent Man in relation to the Divine." Is there anybody out there (list members or otherwise) who is able to shed more light on this notion? I fail to see the connection. Dürr (1971): "The obbligato oboes play a dance-like melody." The musical pictures that he points out are:

1) Versinken in den Tod; downward movement;
2) die Stille im Tod; the sudden silence and echo-effect;
3) das Erfreuen des Angesichts; wonderful melismas; Liebster; after the ritornello; a
special embellishment. The words, "so erfreu mein Angesicht," is an embellished version of the final, concluding line of the chorale.

Richter's Schreier (2) has the best performance of this group by far. The music flows more and his expression is very effective. Rilling's Kraus (3) has to contend with a heavy bass and the fastest tempo in my group of recordings. At times it sounds rushed, but as usual he sparkles when he sings the melismas, because this is his forte. But a beautifully sung melisma does not an aria make. The next two period instrument recordings are a semitone lower than the previous ones. Leonhardt's van Altena (4) still has his problem pronouncing German properly. With a musical ear, a singer should be able to pick up the proper, standard pronunciation of German quickly, but he still insists on making short i's into long ones: "versink" with a terrible special emphasis on the mispronounced vowel, and the worst offender here is "Stille" where he destroys any special effect that the pauses would have, by changing through pronunciation the word, "Stille" ("stillness" or "silence") into "Stiele" ("stems" or "handles"). Van Altena does not have much of a voice. This is quite noticeable when he goes into his high register. The orchestral accompaniment is much too heavy and does not allow van Altena, with his small voice, much room for expression since he has to produce more volume to overcome the instruments, Leusink's Schoch [6] has even less voice than van Altena, so the gentle accompaniment that Leusink provides, still covers the voice at times. Expression is lacking, and when he reaches for notes in the high range, his voice takes on a dead quality, probably from straining too much. Generally, his voice has a lifeless quality and the impression I get from him is "Hey, I'm hitting the notes, isn't that good enough?"

Mvt. 4: Alto Recitative

The beginning of the recitative on the words, "Ich bin von Seufzen müde," is a transformation of the 1st line of the chorale, thus providing a musical link to the chorale melody. The remainder of the recitative is secco. Voigt once again suggests making considerable changes to the text of this recitative, as he attempts to make the text usable for performance. [I won't bother you with all the details.]

With Richter's Reynolds (2) and Rilling's Watts (3) you have two similar performances done in an operatic style, but nevertheless effective. Leonhardt's Jacobs (4) and Leusink's Buwalda [6] represent the so-called HIP style in its worst incarnation. Here the overblown operatic dramatics including the vibrato make it appear as if one tuned into the second hour of a bad performance of a Handel opera and heard a recitative. Buwalda has a good beginning on the first phrase, but then also disintegrates to this lower level of performance.

Mvt. 5: Bass Aria

Voigt wants us to take out the word, "evil-doers," and replace it with "worrisome people." It is almost as though Voigt subscribed to some older form of political correctness. Dürr sees this aria as being loaded with tremendous enthusiasm as it contains rolling passages and wide interval jumps. When the bass sings, "mein Jesus tröstet mich," this is taken from the end of the repeated section of the chorale, thus forming yet another unifying link with the whole cantata. Listen for the contrast between "weinen"/"Tränen" and "Freuden"/"scheinen" as these are words that Bach latches onto in order to present interesting, stimulating details. "Rückwärts prallen" is also very effective here.

Richter's Fischer-Dieskau (2) gives a commanding performance with a tendency to overdo it sometimes, particularly on the words, "rückwärts prallen." Richter brings out the edgy character of this piece and makes it very forceful. He does not pay much attention to the piano markings in the score, however. Rilling's performance (3) is very similar with the same tempo and an even louder bass. Huttenlocher seems to hold himself back in the face of all of this. Perhaps he was attempting to achieve more variety by doing this. This rendition is not as good as Fischer-Dieskau's. The HIP performance by Leonhardt's van Egmond (4) and Leusink's Ramselaar [6] leave something to be desired. First of all, the tempi are slower, making these performances less energetic and more lyrical. This in itself is oxymoronic. Everything in the words and the music cries out for a more robust, energetic performance, but what we get is less tension and a more gentle quality. Van Egmond sings all the notes lyrically without much expression. Ramselaar's small voice is not very strong, and with the even gentler accompaniment that Leusink provides (he has the orchestra play piano all the time and disregards the forte markings that Bach indicated), it almost sounds as if his voice would be covered by the instruments at times. There is not much expression in his voice.

Mvt. 6: Chorale

Richter's version (2) uses a trumpet instead of a cornetto and his fermati are too long as usual, but the singing reflects a solid conviction, which I think is appropriate here. Rilling (3) also uses a trumpet and this time, because the voice range remains primarily low, the sopranos do not spoil the singing of the chorale. The characteristic of this rendition is one of firm belief. Leonhardt (4) indulges in breaking up the legato flow in the music by pushing and emphasizing certain notes thereby causing the end of a note value to undergo a diminuendo or even premature pause (by subtracting from the intended note value.) I wonder if Harnoncourt was the first conductor since Bach's time to come up with the notion, that this is exactly how, or very close to the way the Bach would have performed it himself? If so, then he must be very proud of this HIP accomplishment. [Sorry about the sarcasm, but after hearing this type of chorale singing week after week for over 4 years now, I believe I can say that this method of singing chorales is seriously flawed. It is a matter not simply to be glossed over, but ratstrongly criticized, particularly because Harnoncourt/Leonhardt with a span of 20 years in making these recordings had ample opportunity to modify (in a few instances he did) the mistaken direction he had embarked upon. As a comfort, we still have Koopman and Suzuki to set the record straight on the proper singing of a chorale.] Leusink's version [6] was reasonably good, despite the usual clipping of the fermati. This was due to the low ranges in the soprano part.

A final comment by Alfred Dürr regarding BWV 135:
"This is a cantata that will grow on you, not because it lacks the brilliant concertato effect of many other cantatas, but because its beauty lies in how it develops intensively what is contained in the text."

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 5, 2001):
BWV 135 - Diminuemdi during notes in chorales (and elsewhere)

Thomas Braatz wrote:
[4] Leonhardt indulges in breaking up the legato flow in the music by pushing and emphasizing certain notes thereby causing the end of a note value to undergo a diminuendo or even premature pause (by subtracting from the intended note value.) I wonder if Harnoncourt was the first conductor since Bach's time to come up with the notion, that this is exactly how, or very close to the way the Bach would have performed it himself? If so, then he must be very proud of this HIP accomplishment. [Sorry about the sarcasm, but after hearing this type of chorale singing week after week for over 4 years now, I believe I can say that this method of singing chorales is seriously flawed. It is a matter not simply to be glossed over, but rather strongly criticized, particularly because Harnoncourt/Leonhardt with a span of 20 years in making these recordings had ample opportunity to modify (in a few instances he did) the mistaken direction he had embarked upon. As a comfort, we still have Koopman and Suzuki to set the record straight on the proper singing of a chorale.] >
I think the diminuendi on each note of the chorales are OK as they come from a basic principle of tone. Harnoncourt and Leonhardt are (in my opinion) sometimes too extreme or emphatic in the degree to which they do it, but that's an issue of tastes and preferences. One excellent outcome is that this practice clarifies textures and voice-leading (as on a harpsichord): the music sounds like four simultaneous lines, each being expressive, rather than a block of undifferentiated sound. And H and L perform this way with conviction, which is of course also crucial.

As for where it comes from, here are some big excerpts from Harnoncourt's Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech. P41-43 and 49:


When we speak of articulation, we have to begin with the individual tone. Its execution is described very vividly by Leopold Mozart, who says: "Each tone, even the most strongly attacked tone, has a small, if barely perceptible weak point before it. Otherwise it woulud not be a tone, but merely an unpleasant, incomprehensible sound. This weakness can also be heard at the end of every tone." And elsewhere: "Such notes must be strongly attacked; be sustained without emphasis and gradually die away, as the ringing of a bell...gradually dies away." He also points out that one must be careful to sustain dotted notes well. At the same time, however, he holds that the dot should be "joined to the note in a dying-away manner." This apparent contradiction is typical of the way in which a source can be incorrectly interpreted because of a slight misunderstanding. Many use Mozart's instructions to hold the tones as "proof" that even at that time one had to sustain a given note ! value sostenuto, i.e. at a uniform strength. But at that time the "bell tone" was a generally accepted, self-evident concept, and "sustaining" was a warning not to play the following tone too early. Sustaining a note at full strength (as is customary today) had to be indicated specially by the prescription tenuto or sostenuto. In such cases we have to consider what was intended by a statement and also remember that the old authors wrote not for us, after all, but for their contemporaries. The most important aspect for us is often what they did not write, because that was what was generally known, what was regarded as self-evident. There is not one treatise that we could use today in order to say: Once I have studied this, I know everything. We must therefore be very cautious about using quotations and take the entire context into consideration as much as possible. "Contradictions" are in most cases misunderstandings.

The individual note is therefore articulated (pronounced) like an individual syllable. Organists often ask how a tone that is supposed to fade away can be played on the organ. I believe that space plays an important role in this regard. Each organ is meant for a certain space and a good organ builder takes this space into account when making the instrument. Until about 30 or 40 years ago, it was thought that the organ was the instrument of sustained sound. In recent decades, however, we have recognized that an articulated "speaking" way of playing is also possible. Furthermore, good, old organs have a transient phenomenon at the beginning of each tone called "chiff," which evokes the curve of the sound of a bell. On good instruments in appropriate spaces, the best organists are able to create the impression of a bell's tone fading away and therefore of a "speaking" type of playing, depending on when and how they end a tone. It is an illusion (similar to the "hard" or "gentle" touch of a pianist), but in music, only the illusion, the impression that the listener receives, counts; the technical reality that organ tones are incapable of diminuendo, that the striking of keys cannot be hard or gentle is absolutely secondary. We observe again and again that the great musicians are by experience also acoustical artists. In every space they know immediately how to proceed, how they have to play in that space; they constantly re-establish the relationship between space and sound.

The individual tone in music after about 1800 appears to me two-dimensional in its sostenuto, while an ideal tone in earlier music had a physical, or three-dimensional effect because of its inner dynamics. The instruments also correspond to these ideals of flat or speaking, as can easily be heard if, for example, the same phrase is played on a Baroque oboe and on a modern oboe. We then immediately comprehend the idea which underlies both of these sounds.


Unfortunately, during the past 50 years [c1930-80], a dangerous trend toward "faithfulness" to the work has emerged, one of whose corollaries has been to banish all those good traditions which conveyed the correct interpretation of the score in favor of the authority of the _written_ score alone. As late as 1910, the way a dotted rhythm should be played was still known and sensed, as old recordings show (e.g., a rehearsal with Bruno Walter). Only since Gustav Mahler insisted on a very precise way of playing exactly what was written has this knowledge been gradually lost. I find it regrettable that faithfulness to the notes has replaced faithfulness to the work--that we have forgotten many things which used to be living knowledge. This knowledge must now be rediscovered through arduous effort on our part. The same holds true for articulation. Many musicians today believe that when no articulation signs are given, they have to play such groups of notes in precisely the unarticulated way in which they are written--out of loyalty to the composwer, i.e. out of "faithfulness" to the work, an approach which attempts to render the notes rather than the work. This oft-cited "faithfulness to the work" appears to me the worst enemy of an honest interpretation, because it attempts to make music out of what is written down--while ignoring the underlying meaning. Notation as such cannot convey a piece of music, but only serves as a point of reference. The only person who is faithful to the work, in the true meaning of the word, is the performer who rwhat the composer intended to convey with the notes and plays them accordingly. If the composer writes a whole note, but means a sixteenth note, the "faithful" musician is the one who plays the sixteenth note, not the one who plays the whole note.

One final word about articulation. By all means let us study the sources, try to learn everything we can about slurs and their execution. Let us try to feel exactly why the resolution of a dissonance must be played in a particular manner, why a dotted rhythm has to be played this way and not that. However, when we make music, then we must forget everything we have read. The listener should never be given the impression that we are playing something we have learned. It must have been assimilated into our very being, it must have become a part of our personality. We ourselves are no longer aware that we have learned something nor where we learned it. Perhaps we will again do something "wrong"--in literal terms. But a "mistake" which comes from conviction, from educated taste and feeling, is more convincing than any musical cogitation.


Incidentally, this shaping of tones is also illustrated in the treatise of string playing that is attributed to Geminiani (1687-1762). He draws pictures of tones according to volume, puts them together into phrases, and then characterizes them as "good," "better," "excellent," "horrible," etc. (in Italian). I don't have my notes with me, but I seem to remember that tones of undistinguished steady volume were "cattivo" (horrible).

There's still a long way to go: when we play in this bell-like manner, with the notes tastefully separated, listeners today often characterize it as "choppy." That's especially so on organ, but also on harpsichord and strings and winds: we play the notes separated and the degree is determined by the resonance of the room, so that it sounds "right" and gently connected at some chosen distance away. It's basic technique of letting the lines breathe and have dynamics, and using the space as a vital part of the instrument. Then somebody reviews the performance as "choppy" because they expected an undistinguished wash of sound, a muddy legato, the way an organ (or whatever) is "supposed to" sound. <sigh> No, stronger than <sigh>: <ARGHHHH!> I hate the word "choppy!"

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 5, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] [4] Thanks Brad for your very informative and enlightening posting on this query of mine.

I understand much better your tempered (no pun intended here because of your expertise in temperaments) viewpoint on this matter, one that I can understand much better than Harnoncourt's. Let me single out a few quotes from his book/article that you shared with us (all the list members).

Referring to Leopold Mozart's Treatise (the famous one on playing the violin, I assume) and pointing out the "apparent contradiction" in how these words can be justifiably interpreted should send out warning bells in addition to the fact that he only indirectly alludes to vocal sound production, but does not speak to this point directly. It is obvious to me that as an acceptable generalization we can say that most instruments attempt to emulate the human voice and its sound production as much as that instrument will allow (particularly true in the Renaissance and Baroque).

Harnoncourt's statement:
"at that time the "bell tone" was a generally accepted, self-evident concept, and "sustaining" was a warning not to play the following tone too early. Sustaining a note at full strength (as is customary today) had to be indicated specially by the prescription tenuto or sostenuto."

seems to be contradicted by a statement that follows closely:

"The most important aspect for us is often what they did not write, because that was what was generally known, what was regarded as self-evident."

Since Bach rarely (in my memory, but I would have to check through many scores to determine this for certain) indicates tenuto or sostenuto in the instrumental parts, and almost never in the vocal parts (I can not think of a single instance, off hand), is this supposed to imply that Bach almost never wanted the notes to be connected in a legato fashion? Are we assuming that a choral vocal tradition, such as existed in Bach's day, did not persist unscathed (without someone like Gustav Mahler having the effect he did upon the instrumental playing tradition) up until our time. What about certain choral traditions in England that seemed to have survived without any noticeable change? For me, Harnoncourt is a 'second-hand' person attempting to dictate an unproven choral singing tradition, 'second-hand' because, as a 'dyed-in-the-wool' instrumentalist (cellist) who is trying to define a choral/vocal singing tradition through whatever he has learned on his instrument to make it 'sing' like the human voice. But this is only an imitation of the voice, restricted by the limitations imposed on his instrument.

Because Bach did not put long phrase marks over extended phrases in the chorales, this does not seem to imply that he wanted just the opposite. By the same logic that Harnoncourt uses to explain that the markings of tenuto or sustenuto would have to be marked, and that otherwise the opposite would apply, it would follow that the few times that Bach marked a 'wiggly line' to indicate vibrato in the voice, would imply that vibrato would not be used anywhere else in his vocal works except in those few instances.

Harnoncourt states: "Contradictions" are in most cases misunderstandings." This seems to imply that Harnoncourt is the only one to know the right answer. Where does he get this knowledge? From playing his instrument, not by having participated in a worthy choral tradition.

Harnoncourt again uses the unique qualities of an instrument, the organ, to explain vocal sound production: "Furthermore, good, old organs have a transient phenomenon at the beginning of each tone called "chiff," which evokes the curve of the sound of a bell."

And finally, Harnoncourt does not practice what he preaches: "We observe again and again that the great musicians are by experience also acoustical artists. In every space they know immediately how to proceed, how they have to play in that space; they constantly re-establish the relationship between space and sound." His recordings of the cantatas sound dead, as if produced in a limited space and not in the type of environment for which they were intended. (I have seen pictures of the recording 'arena' which appears to be a small church with Roman columns on the side.) All of this should have caused Harnoncourt to avoid the foreshortening of note values, but he did not make any adjustment for this difference. These cantatas might have sounded much better, performed the same way, in a larger acoustical space.

Brad, what happens when you play a harpsichord in a rather 'dead' space? Don't you tend to lengthen the notes a bit more (play in a more legato style,) than you would in a larger room with good acoustics (some reverberation) where it is easier to indulge in artistic interpretations?


Continue on Part 2

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