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Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

Cantata BWV 136
Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz
Discussions - Part 1

Suzuki - Vol. 11

Ryan Michero wrote (December 17, 1999):
[5] Here is my review for Vol. 11 of Suzuki's complete cantata series, and it's a big one! Enjoy!

Volume 11
Suzuki is still working his way through Bach's first cycle of Leipzig cantatas. Many of these pieces are not well-known and were written under extreme time constraints. Hence, Bach's inspiration is not uniformly high--it is merely astoundingly high! In spite of some awkwardness in these pieces here and there, Bach still managed to craft some fine, unified works with many exceptional movements. There are some great moments in the cantatas on Suzuki's Vol. 11, and all four are lovely, fascinating works if not "favorites." Additionally, I think some cantata recording devotees will be surprised by some of Suzuki's revelations in this volume. It goes without saying that Suzuki's exceptionally high standards are maintained here, and for fans like me this volume is self-recommending. On to the individual cantatas:

BWV 136 - "Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz"
This is a fine cantata overall, given a convincing performance by Suzuki and the BCJ. The opening chorus, which Bach parodied in the A-major Missa, comes over well, with a lively tempo, fresh and virtuosic choral singing, and a ravishing orchestral sound. I must make special mention of the excellent horn playing of Toshio Shimada (whose contributions are a highlight of this volume) and the joyous harpsichord continuo playing of Masaaki Suzuki himself. In a note on performance, Suzuki explains why he employs harpsichord in three of the cantatas on this disc, based on evidence in the surviving parts. I think it works very well, never too obtrusive, and adding to the immediacy of the expression (it helps that Suzuki is a first rate continuo player). After a dramatically sung tenor recitative by Makoto Sakurada, there is an aria for alto with oboe d'amore obbligato played by excellent Koopman regular Marcel Ponseele. Suzuki's countertenor on this volume, Kai Wessel, has also contributed to Koopman's cantata recordings. Personally, I find his singing of this aria a bit disappointing, with tension and expression uncharacteristically low for Suzuki's series (Harnoncourt's version with Esswood is better here--see below). After a bass recitative excellently sung by Peter Kooy, whose singing is a source of constant pleasure, there comes a duet for tenor and bass with string accompaniment. The string ritornello of the duet sounds wonderful, sharply articulated, with the rhythm irresistibly swung by Suzuki--very Bachian. The voices of Sakurada and Kooy, singing in canon, blend beautifully here. This is one of those times where it is hard for me imagining a movement being better performed. The final chorale, in five-part harmony with a violin line soaring through the voices, sounds gorgeous.

Comparisons - Harnoncourt, Koopman
[3] Harnoncourt's version is very satisfying. There is some scrappy horn playing in his opening chorus, which is overall less taut and polished than competing versions. However, the teaming of Paul Esswood and oboist Jurg Schaeftlein in the alto aria is more effective and dramatic than in Suzuki's version. The tenor/bass duet is fine, even if the soloists don't blend as well as Suzuki's, and the final chorale is lovely. It's a good alternative to Suzuki's recording.

[4] Koopman's opening chorus is marginally clearer and more exciting than Suzuki's. The duet between Gerd Türk and Klaus Mertens is also fine, but Suzuki's version has the edge overall.

Piotr Jaworski wrote (December 17, 1999):
[5] [To Ryan Michero] Ryan! You'll go straight to Heaven! Terrific job done! I'll have to suffer probably two more days before I get my copy of this volume. Many thanks.


Discussions in the Week of August 13, 2000

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 13, 2000):

This is the week of cantata BWV 136 according to Ryan Michero's suggestion. I have to admit that although it is hard for me to accept it, that this is not a very inspired cantata in musical terms. The main cause for the lack of inspiration seems to be the text, which was written for educational purposes. There is very little in the text to inspire anybody to write high level music, even if his name is Johann Sebastian Bach. The best part of this cantata is the opening chorus.

The Opening Chorus - Whittaker's Viewpoint

For some background about this cantata and its opening Chorus, I shall quote from W. Gillies Whittaker's book 'The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach - Sacred and Secular':

"The tender prayer 'Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me, and knows my thoughts' Psalm cxxxix. 23, is not akin to the confident chorus which opens 'Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz'. Another text must have been the first cause of this number. Nor is the music particularly interesting in this guise; there are fine moments, without doubt, it is difficult to imagine Bach without them, but in spite of the splendid and animated counterpoint it fails to grip. A horn delivers the principal tune at the beginning, an oboe d'amore are added to strings. Rushing semiquaver scales, sometimes answering each other by contrary motion, and florid passages for the corno, oboe and violin I conclude the introduction. A partial delivery by the sopranos, constituting the formal fugue subject, is clenched by a repetition of the close of the introduction, and then the regular composition unfolds itself. An extra entry for sopranos, doubled by corno and woodwind, is followed by six bars of an uninvolved episode. With the horn repeating a C# in quavers, and violin I extending its semiquaver runs, comes a cunningly planned four-part stretto in the relative minor, the voices entering at increasing distances, 1 beat, 2 and 4 beats. A conclusion of the choral section and an episode taken from the introduction proceed to two sequential presentations of the subject in the basses, the other voices accompanying in the new manner. There is a fresh stretto with the voices entering from below, 2 beats, 2 and 4 beats. Five bars of episode, during which the corno mounts an arpeggio to high A, leads to two from the sequential entries in the bass, the second accompanied as before. The finest portion comes after this, three homophonic shouts of 'prüfe dich'. The final vocal entry is for the sopranos, and then violin I dashes down nearly two octaves. One cannot help being moved at times by the stirring polyphony and attracted by the superb craftsmanship even though inspiration sometimes lags."

Personal Viewpoint

a. I always like the cases in which the text for a certain movement of a cantata is based on the Biblical text, especially Psalms. As a Jewish, it is much easier for me to identify with the Biblical text than with a Christian text. I can look at the Christian text, search it, read the relevant chapters in the New Testament, translate the German text into Hebrew, and so on, until I feel that I understand it enough to see the connection between the text and the music that Bach wrote for it. But when the German text is based on the Old Testament, I do not have to do any translation, because I can read the original Hebrew text. In most of the cases it is very poetic, and I can read it freely without any connection to its Christian adaptation.

b. Reading the Biblical text carefully, and we shall realize that there is deep thought behind the apparently naive statement. The human heart is usually more exposed than the human thought. When you are looking at a human being (his body language, facial expression, timbre of voice, etc.), it is easier to see his (or her) feelings than to try to realize what he (or she) is actually thinking. Unlike Whittaker, I feel that the illustration that Bach chose to express this revelation is that in the second half of the opening chorus he uses deeper voices (basses) and more penetrating musical means thanhe does in the first half. The first part is softer, where the second part is bolder. The first part is simpler, where the second part is more complex and varied. Of course, this interpretation of mine depends on the way that the various conductors chose to perform this movement. In the review of the recordings of this Chorus, I shall check if their view of this movement was similar to mine.

Opening Chorus - Text in Hebrew, German, and English

Hebrew original text (quoted from the Bible)

Hebrew original text (transcribed into Latin letters)
Hakreni El veda levavi behaneni veda sar'apai

German text of the cantata
Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; prüfe mich und erfahre, wie ichs meine!

English translation (by Richard Stokes)
Search me, O God, and knows my thoughts!

Review of the Recordings

Like BWV 186, the cantata which has been discussed in this group last week, BWV 136 was also recorded only within the frame of the five complete recorded cycles of Bach cantatas. AFAIK, it has not been recorded so far by anybody else, neither in complete form, nor any individual movements from it. However, there is a nice surprise, to which I shall refer after reviewing the various recording of the cantata. I shall limit my review only the opening Chorus, which is the best part of this cantata. See: Cantata BWV 136 Recordings.

[2] Helmuth Rilling (1978; Opening Chorus: 3:54)
There is a lot of bright, boldness and happiness in this rendering. I would like to have it with more softness, which Rilling has proved many times that he knows how to deliver. Anyhow, the choir singing is warm and enthusiastic and they give a lot of liveliness to this movement. I could not find any differences in the way Rilling performed the first and the second parts.

[3] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1983; Opening Chorus: 5:00)
Harnoncourt starts much slower than Rilling. And his rendering has more tenderness and sensitivity. The differences in the dynamics in the second part are bigger than in the first one. The choir singing becomes bolder and deeper. I find this rendering much more convincing than Rilling's. It seems to be that a deeper thought was given to this performance. Indeed, Rilling's recording has more enthusiasm, but somehow it sounds more superficial in the comparison.

[4] Ton Koopman (1997; Opening Chorus: 3:54)
Koopman's rendering lasts exactly the same time (up to the second) as Rilling does. But this is their only common factor. This recording has similarities to that of Harnoncourt, although it is much faster. The playing and the singing of the choir are transparent and gentle. This is a very convincing performance regarding the differences between the two parts.

[5] Masaaki Suzuki (1998; Opening Chorus: 3:44)
This recording combines the characteristics of both Rilling and Koopman. From Rilling it takes the boldness and the enthusiasm. From Koopman it takes the transparency and the gentleness. If it sounds contradictory, this is because Suzuki is using the relevant means where they are needed. For my taste this is the most convincing of all the recordings of this movement. This rendering makes the case for more listenings to this cantata.

[6] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000; Opening Chorus: 4:12)
This is a light and enthusiastic performance. It lacks depth and consistency of approach. It sounds casual, and it seems that not a lot of thought was given in the preparation of the recording. The playing and the singing are clear but not clean. It is listenable, but it does not grab you in the throat like Suzuki's does.

Recordings of Mass in A Major BWV 234

Bach adapted the music of the first chorus of cantata BWV 136 as the 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' of the short Mass in A Major BWV 234. About this adaptation wrote Whittaker that it: "does less violence than in the case of other rearrangements of these odd pasticci. As a matter of fact it sounds very much finer in the Latin version than in the German, and one is less conscious of its occasional defects".

Before reviewing the recording of this movement, I have to admit that I do not agree with Whittaker. I like the arrangement of the cantata much more.

Helmuth Rilling (1967; Cum Sancto Spiritu: 3:33)
The singing here is large-scale and smooth. It is very different from Rilling's recording of the opening Chorus of the cantata.

Martin Flämig (1972; Cum Sancto Spiritu: 3:23)
The singing here is also large-scale, but it is more jumpy and varied, and these qualities are more to my taste.

Michel Corboz (1974; Cum Sancto Spiritu: 4:25)
My first thought when I listened to this was 'it is too slow'. My second thought after listening to it again remained the same. Sometimes renderings of Bach's music may be convincing even if they are very slow. But it can convince only if it has this mysterious quality, which we can call internal rhythm. In Jazz music it is called 'swing'. This 'swing' is totally missing here.

Richard Hickox (1977; Cum Sancto Spiritu: 3:55)
I have this recording only on LP, and I was not able to listen to it.

Philippe Herreweghe (1990; Cum Sancto Spiritu: 3:21)
This performance starts also slowly, but it is gaining immediate momentum. The singing sounds to my ears like OVPP (or, at least, very small choir). It has clarity, transparency and liveliness. IMHO, this is the best recording of this movement.


Among the recordings of the opening Chorus of BWV 136, Suzuki [5] is my first choice and Leusink [6] my last one. Among the recordings of Cum Sancto Spiritu from BWV 234 my favourite is Herreweghe and the less convincing is Corboz.

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

Marie Jensen wrote (August 14, 2000):
Es kömmt ein Tag,
So das Verborgne richtet,
Vor dem die Heuchelei erzittern mag.
Denn seines Eifers Grimm vernichtet,
Was Heuchelei und List erdichtet.

Reading the words before listening to the music, one might think: Now comes a "Dies Irae" movement, a dramatic forte fortissimo one with Judgement Day trumpets, drums and a big choir.

And that is exactly, what does not happen in Bach's Cantata BWV 136 "Erforsche mich Gott und erfahre mein Herz".

Instead comes a rather calm alto aria with oboe d'amore, which I love very much especially in the Suzuki version (soloist Kai Wessel) [5]. I also have the Koopman version [4]. The two versions are not very different except this aria, where there are differences in tempo and mood. 8th Sunday after Trinity the Gospel deals with "the false prophets" (Matthew 7: 15-21) The Suzuki version manages to describe the hard present and the longing for future justice at the same time, perhaps the thoughts of one of the true prophets, who typical not has luck in worldly matters. First we hear the present as heavy labor routine filled with resignation and patience. The oboe has a double role. It stamps like the bass the labor rhythm, but suddenly it goes double, makes us raise our heads a bit, perhaps look out on distant horizons and dream about the future while listening to the altos promises, which lets in a light from far away. The allegro b-piece tells about the zeal of destroying hypocrisy and falseness on Judgement Day, dramatic but in a small scale with very few instruments. The oboe is quiet.

Koopman's version (soloist Bogna Bartosz) [4] does not express the present/future contrast as well as Suzukis. It is happily hoping but forgets the hard present. The b-piece is too slow to allude "Eifers".

Oh, these false prophets... Who they are, will always be discussed by many Christian sects often believ, they are the only ones walking on the right narrow path. Intolerance is so near. And yet prophet or not, we all have our dark sides and secrets waiting to be revealed.

"The fifth Evangelist" (JSB) feels safe on his path, just quietly waiting... This movement shows a lot about his deep faith.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (August 15, 2000):
Sorry long time, no write. Sometimes I have the music; sometimes I don't; Sometimes I have the time; sometimes... But I read all, every week, and I usually end up listening intently to about every other week's cantata. Thanks, all.

Just a quick comment or two about BWV 136 and I offer a friendly disagreement with Aryeh's reaction that the cantata is uninspired... I've only listened to the cantata a few times, and I only have Koopman's recording [4], but I'm pretty taken with the opening chorus; it's lively, interesting, captivating. And I was very much taken with the tenor/bass duet, "Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz"

Maybe the cantata is no BWV 4 or BWV 21, but it's generally got a pretty darn good beat, very interesting interplay between voices and instruments and among the instruments themselves. If somebody played it for me and I didn't own it, I think I'd go out of my way to buy it. Personal choice, I guess.

Following Aryeh's example, I also went and listened to the Cum Sancto Spiritu, from the A Major Lutheran Mass, BWV 234, and I'm so very glad I did. I happened to have the Purcell Quartet recordings of the Lutheran Masses, the so-called 'Short Masses'. (This wonderful set of recordings is on two separate CD's on Chandos' Chaconne label, #s 0642 and 0653 for Vol.1 and 2, respectively. Note that the second volume also includes one of the Trio Sonatas, BWV 529). I have to say that I've been listening a lot lately to these recordings and I recommend them, particularly if you're a OVPP (one voice per part) fan (Galina, are you out there?) The voices belong to Robin Blaze, Mark Padmore, Peter Harvey and Susan Gritton on Vol. 1 and to Padmore and Harvey and Michael Chance and Nancy Argenta on Vol. 2. Can you beat that? Anyway, I think I enjoy the Purcell "Cum Sancto Spiritu" version better than the Koopman, "Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz" Coro.

(While I'm on the subject of the Purcell masses, and forgive me from straying from a strict discussion of the cantata of the week, but if one were to accept my recommendation and acquire the Purcell masses, I'd love to recommend that you compare Purcell's version of the F Major mass, BWV 233 with that of Paul McCreesh on his "Epiphany Mass" CD (Archiv 457 631-2) I love the McCreesh work, and I think that a full chorus sounds more 'taut' and more powerful than the OVPP approach, but the singing just sounds better for Purcell's OVPP approach. I keep listening to the two of them and I just can't decide!)

Well, sorry to go on a tangent...

Anyway, I'm glad I listened to BWV 136 and thanks Aryeh and Marie and everybody.

Andrew Oliver wrote (August 16, 2000):
As Aryeh said, it is difficult to accept that any of Bach's cantatas might be uninspired, but I have to admit that the first time I listened to this one, it didn't really appeal to me - it seemed somehow to be typical Bach, but without that extra factor which grabs the attention. However, I know from experience that there are always things of interest in any of Bach's compositions, but sometimes we have to delve more deeply to find them, and therefore, I decided that I was asking the wrong question. It is not "Why don't I find this interesting?" but "What are the things in this cantata which Bach wants us to notice?" The answer is "The more we listen, the more there is to hear".

The first thing that stands out is the threefold cry of "Prüfe mich". This phrase has occurred earlier in the chorus, but here the homophonic entries are contrasted with the sea of fugal polyphony, which surrounds them. Here, I think, is part of the answer to Whittaker's question, which Aryeh quoted, as to why Bach should use a bright and confident chorus to illustrate a tender prayer. This cantata deals with just two classes of people. The hypocrites referred to later can say "Prüfe mich" as a sort of challenge to Almighty God, because they consider that they have made themselves righteous, and therefore think they have nothing to hide. The Christians (with whom Bach identifies himself) can say these words from the end of Psalm 139 as a sort of prayer which is not so much a plea as a confident acceptance of the words which occur at the beginning of the Psalm - "O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me: thou knowest my down-sitting, and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed: and spiest out all my ways." (Coverdale's Bible, 1535)

The next point I note is the Presto, which we find in the alto aria. Marie has already dealt competently with this, so I won't go over it again.

After listening to my single recording (the Harnoncourt one [3]) several times, I have to agree with Harry: I like the duet for tenor and bass. Bach uses a lot of word-painting here. The repeated triplets show how we are spotted and spattered with sins; the descending scales in the violins illustrate Adam's Fall, and just listen to what happens at the word "Strom". This duet and the following chorale are the response to the request with which the cantata begins.

If it still doesn't appeal to you, listen again.

Roy Reed wrote (August 16, 2000):
Hello Cantatants: BWV136 Bit of an odd one, this. Probably in large part because quite a bit of it is made up of parts from wherever. Stuff from the freezer. I have 3 readings, my usual friends: Rilling [2], Suzuki [5] and Koopman [4]. All good performances. Push comes to shove, I prefer the Koopman, although I like many things in the other readings: The three singers with Rilling. Watts is wonderful, and what a great sound Equiluz and Tüller make in the duet. Suzuki [5] has the disadvantage of Kai Wessel, who is no competition for the oboe...and I just can't handle the sound. I guess he is a great artist, but offends my ears. Sort of dull, flat sounding tone with low voltage.

As usual the rhetorical key to understanding the cantata is the Gospel, Matthew 7: 15-23. In the light of the text it all makes sense, sort of especially if one is a REAL Lutheran. And, even if you are, there are some intriguing wonderments to ponder over. For instance, the opening chorus. Not many texts out of the Psalms are more familiar to the faithful than this one. As I listen to the opening text I find myself waiting for the next lines. Bach sets "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts." The next to last verse of Ps. 139. But did anyone ever hear that verse without the next one: "And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." These verses are wedded to one another. Everyone knows that. It's Psalmus interruptus. And, one wants to ask, why, in the light of the Mt. 5 text, would the last verse be left out? The answer probably is a musical one. Bach had this music he could adapt, and there was just only so much of it. Enough for verse 23 but not 24. Who knows? My thesis and I am sticking with it. Even more plausible if Bach himself were the author. He might have been. There are lots of interesting things about this chorus. For instance what a bold and positive and confident welcome this is for divine scrutiny. No shrinking here; no holding back. Come right in, God, look me over! Bach is eager and happy to get to the exam. No cold feet. Let's have the test! Is this a different treatment of this text than any of the many I myself have conducted, and others I know of. You bet! Of course, when you get to the end of thcantata you have to say, in the light of the whole text, the opening chorus makes sense.

Mvt. 1 - This is a great chorus. The concerted music, the horn obbligato (I love the sound Koopman gets here), the loose cannon of a first violin part which can just go tearing around on its own when it wants (Not very audible on the Suzuki reading [5]), the bold exclamations of "prüfe mich,"

Mvt. 2 - Right off comes the wet fish in the face. Whap! The curse! Everywhere hypocritical corruption. Many images from Mt. 5 and judgment is coming. The author of the notes in Suzuki [5] refers to the singer being "accompanied by exquisitely shady harmonies." Wonderful. Great tenors. I especially like Gerd Türk with Koopman.

Mvt. 3 - Is this not the strangest "Dies Irae" ever penned? The day will come. Judgment. There will be trembling, destruction. The false prophets, those who say they will, but won't all are going to come a cropper. Well, not so as you would notice. Bach has a nice little accentuation of "kömmt". It's lovely. He does a wiggle on "erzittern." Not much trembles. Koopman takes this aria a bit faster that my other two. I think that works better. At least a little excitement. And I like Bartosz singing. What Koopman doesn't do, strangely, is get any presto into the presto. Rilling [2] does give us some excitement here. I really don't want to hazard much here Vis a Vis the rhetoric in the relation of words and music. Passing strange.

Mvt. 4 - Great Lutheran understanding here. Since even heaven is not pure how shall we "Menschen" stand before the divine judgment? Never fear, Jesus is here. You may be a sinner; even so, as a believer you are purified by the blood of Jesus. Your works good deeds may not match up to God's will for you, but in Christ you have righteousness and strength. This is pure Luther. All sin. It is the human nature. Every one is "simul justus et peccator." At the same time just and a sinner. You will fall down, but there is forgiveness in repentance and Christ can pick you up again. You are not able, but God is able and will enable you. Since this is the way it is with us and between us and God, Luther could ever say, "Sin bravely!" He did not mean that as advice to wickedness, but as recognition of the divine/human paradox. Put pretty succinctly and well in this little recitative. I like Mertens here with Koopman, but why in the world do they wimp out at the dramatic conclusion: "Gerechtigkeit und Stärke?" Seems very odd to me. I like better Equiluz with Rilling.

Mvt. 5 - Continues the thought of the recitative. And here I think that one can hear the text in the music. The opening motif 3 mss represents the confidence of salvation in Christ. This transits into a succession of descending notes in little 5 note "strikes," which represent, I think, the "treffen zwar der Sünden Flecken." I love the graphic falling expression of "Fall' in ms. 24, and of the "Stromvoll Blut" in mss. 42-44 and 49-51. It seems to me that the duet voices are a better match with Koopman and Rilling [2] than Suzuki [5].

Mvt. 6 - A paean to the saving blood of Christ. This is really a 5-part chorale, with the first violin having an obbligato 5th part. This is better heard with Koopman and Rilling than Suzuki. The harmonies of the chorales are always such a treat.

There is an essay one could get out about the suitability of this Gospel text to this standard Luther treatment. I will spare you. Suffice it to say that "works" seem to come off pretty well in this Gospel lesson.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 136: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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Last update: September 8, 2011 07:12:02