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Cantata BWV 165
O heilges Geist und Wasserbad
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of June 18, 2000

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 18, 2000):
Background

This is the week of cantata BWV 165, according to Jane Newble's suggestion. After the festive BWV 172, we are back with a small-scale cantata. It has parts for all four soloists, but no chorus. The instrumentation is also humble - only strings, fagot (or bassoon) and continuo. This is a relatively short cantata, with total playing time of around 12 to 13 minutes. That fact left me enough time to re-listen to this unfamiliar cantata over and over again, until I have leant to love it. I wonder why this cantata does not appear in the book 'Bach Cantatas requiring limited resources' by William J. Bullock. It could be easily performed in OVPP approach, without disturbing anybody.

The Recordings

Like BWV 172, which was discussed in this group last week, BWV 165 was also recorded by all five groups of the complete cycles - Rilling, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Koopman, Suzuki, and Leusink. But, AFAIK, it was not recorded by anybody else, not even individual movements of it. See: Cantata BWV 165 - Recordings.

(1) Helmuth Rilling (1975+1976)
(2) Gustav Leonhardt (1987)
(3) Ton Koopman (1995)
(4) Masaaki Suzuki (1996)
(5) Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)

Review of the Recordings

Since this cantata is relatively short, I was able to listen to every recording of it several times. Of course, I firstly listened to every recording in its entirety. But in the last round, inspired by an idea borrowed from Kirk McElhearn, I listened to all the recordings of each movement, one after the other. The feeling was very strange and inconvenient. I felt like I am doing a crime, by cutting each recording into individual pieces. Anyway, it was a fascinating and enlightening experience. But for my conscience' sake, I listened one very last time to every recording of BWV 165 in its entirety, from beginning to end. I wrote some more notes, and I am ready now to share my impressions from this cantata with the group.

As a reference I shall use again the lovely book by Alec Robertson.

Mvt. 1 Aria
'O heilges Geist und Wasserbad, das Gottes Reich uns einverleibet'
('O Holy Ghost and water bath, that God's kingdom in us incarnates')
Soprano, 2 violins, viola, fagot, cello with Continuo
"Sanford Terry tries to conceal the therapeutic nature of the title of this cantata by translating it, 'O holy font washeth white', but he has been overtaken by detergent advertising! The words of the aria were presumably inspired by the Gospel narrative of Christ's words to Nicodemus, 'Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God'. Bach begins the aria with a four-part fugal exposition as if illustrating the complexity of Christ's words. The writing of our names in the Book of Life is illustrated, typically, by an extended phrase on 'life'."

It is such a pleasure to open the comparison with the sublime voice of Arleen Augér (with Rilling) (1). Her singing here is transferring enjoyment rather than sadness. She has uniform timbre in all the registers and full control of all her devices. She is giving meaning and expression to every word and every syllable is getting the right color. The opening of this aria with Leonhardt (2) is jumpy and raising expectations. The boy has a very nice if unstable voice, and he lacks a lot in expressive ability. But the major problem in his singing is the incompatibility with the accompaniment. It sounds as if they are disturbing each other instead of supporting and completing each other. Strangely for this recording, but the fugal lines are very clear and easy to follow. The opening of Koopman's rendering (3) is light, fast and transparent, a little bit too fast to my taste. Stam's expression is bland and her voice becomes unpleasant in the high register (BTW, is she a relative of the famous Dutch football player from Manchester United?). The accompaniment is too far in the background and consequently the fugal lines are not clear enough. Aki Yanagisawa, the Soprano in Suzuki's recording (4), sounds as a part of the whole event. Her voice is bright and clear. The vocal line has an equal part to the instrumental lines. The focus of the singing is on integration and continuity rather than on expression, and I like it that way. Everything is very well balanced and clear. I have the feeling that this is the way Bach wanted this aria to sound. From the opening instrumental notes I know that it is going to be one of the best performances of Leusink's team (5). And went Holton enters, her voice is pure and her singing has instrumental quality. I am sure that Leusink dedicated much less rehearsal time than did Suzuki. However, judging by the results, you could never guess it. Everything I said about the Suzuki's recording applies also to Leusink. There is a little bit more joy of life here. In the close comparison, Suzuki's rendering sounds somewhat cold, when it is heard back to back with Leusink's performance.

Mvt. 2 Recitative
'Die sundige Geburt verdammter Adams-Erben gebieret Gottes Zorn'
('The sinful birth of Adam's condemned heirs arouses God's anger')
Bass, Continuo
After some vivid declamation about original sin, there comes a tender little one-bar Arioso at the words, 'How blessed is a Christian'.

Schöne (with Rilling) (1) is so authoritative and frightening, that you do not dare thinking of refusing to do what he is asking you to do. Van Egmond's (with Leonhardt) (2) voice has more softness and his expression has the kind of compassion, which cause you want doing what he is asking from you. Mertens (with Koopman) (3) approach is very similar to that of van Egmond. So is Schreckenberger (with Suzuki) (4), who has a mellow and rich voice, but he is less convincing in his interpretation than his predecessors are. Ramselaar (with Leusink) (5) is somewhere in the middle between Schöne and Mertens, authoritative, yet compassionate and gracious. For me he achieves the best results of all five, even though that all of them are Bach Bass singers of a very high caliber.

Mvt. 3 Aria
'Jesu, der aus grosser Liebe in der Taufe mir verschriebe Leben, Heil und Seligkeit'
('Jesus, who from great love in the baptism to me prescribed life, salvation and blessedness')
Alto, Continuo
This flowing aria in 12/8 time is an illustration of the famous words of St. Paul, 'O felix culpa'. Bach underlines the great gift to sinful man by repeating, in slightly decorated form, the opening clause.

Rogers' voice (with Rilling) (1) is typical to the kind of female altos from the past that I do not like - lightweight, unstable, too much vibrato and too less expression. So few of the female altos from the past, who sang Bach's music, were really good. They could be counted on one hand - Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Maureen Forester and maybe one or two others. Rogers itself fails to hold the listener attention, even in this relatively short aria. This impression even strengthens when we hear Esswood singing (with Leonhardt) (2). His singing is so simple, expressive and unpretentious, that he succeeds in transferring the gratitude and hope, this aria is calling for. The match between him and the continuo is so perfect, that you do not feel a need for any instrumental part in this aria. Elisabeth von Magnus (with Koopm) (3) has everything Rogers does have not. To the convincing interpretation of Esswood, she is adding sensitiveness, which is very touching. When I heard Suzuki's rendering of this aria (4), I thought that I am missing something, because I had expected it to sound differently. Then I realized that it is not Mera who is singing the alto part, but somebody else. Tachikawa has lighter voice than Esswood has, but his sensitiveness is similar to that of von Magnus, and he is indeed very good. He has gentleness, innocence, consistency and naturalness. Now comes the turn of Leusink (5). I know that some of the members of this group dislike Buwalda' voice and approach. I feel that he is a little bit inexperienced, but has a great potential. Sometimes he succeeds and sometime fails, but he is always trying to do his best and never sings merely. I believe that if you listen to him with open ears, without prejudice, you can enjoy his singing from time to time. When he is good, he can deliver moments of exceptional if unconventional beauty. Here he has one of his best moments. Yes, not on the same level as Scholl is, but who can match Scholl at this stage of his singing career? In any case, Scholl is not in the race here. The worse part of this rendering is the organ continuo, whose playing is too prominent. At the end, Tachikawa is my preferred singer of this aria.

Mvt. 4 Recitative
'Ich habe ja, mein Seelenbrautigam da du mich neu geboren, dir ewig treu zu sein geschworen, hoch heil, Gottes Lamm'
('I have indeed, my soul's bridegroom, when Thou me newly created, sworn to Thee to be everlastingly faithful, hail, God's holy Lamb')
Bass, 2 violins, viola, fagot, Continuo
A long and impressive accompanied recitative. There is a fine adagio outburst at 'Hail, God's holy Lamb' and a sinister phrase for the old serpent, which - as Christ reminded Nicodemus - Moses lifted up in the wilderness, with a poignant reference to the lifting up of Christ on the Cross.

See Mvt.2 above.

Mvt. 5 Aria
'Jesu, meine Todes Tod, lass in meinem Leben und meiner letzten Not'
('Jesu, my death's death, let in my life and in my last need')
Tenor, 2 violins (unison), Continuo
The violins' part consists of groups of semiquavers, and it may be as one commentator has suggested, that Bach took a hint from the ensuing phrase 'salvation snakelet' in writing an accompaniment which could be said to writhe snake-wise.

Equiluz is enjoying singing his part (with Rilling) (1). You do not feel any fear of death in his singing. The movements of the snake are vigorous and forceful. This is a very big snake. The same Equiluz appears again in Leonhardt's recording (2). This time he adds slight sadness to his singing, and his interpretation became deeper. I do not know if it comes from him or from the conductor. After all he was about 12 years older when he did the recording with Leonhardt, and it is very likely that thoughts about his age, were crawling and permeating into his mind. Anyhow, I find his interpretation here much more convincing and touching. The playing of the violins here has more tenderness and it suits the situation. If it is a snake, than his movements are smaller and gentler, and he can be used for therapeutic purposes. Agnew's interpretation (with Koopman) (3) is so sad, even sadder than the second recording of Equiluz. The violins' playing is too light. The snake in their playing is only hinted, as if he is hiding somewhere. Suzuki's interpretation (4) goes directly into the heart of this aria. The singing of Sakurada has the right amount of fear, sadness and calmness. The snake's movements are very visual, as if he is twisting around the legs of the prayer, and he in return is encouraged by his existence. A surprisingly similar approach is coming from Leusink (5), although van der Meel singing is putting less focus on the sadder side of this aria.

Mvt. 6 Chorale
'Sein wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl dient wider allen Unfall, der heilge Geist in Glauben lehrt uns darauf vertrauen'
('His word, His baptism, His communion, serves against all misfortune, the Holy Ghost in faith teaches us thereon to trust')
SATB, 2 violins, viola, fagot, all with voices, Continuo
The 5th verse of Ludwig Helmbold's 'Nun lasst uns Gott dem Herren' (1575) set to N. Selnecker's melody (1587).

Strong if somewhat unclear singing comes from Rilling's choir (1). Leonhardt's choir singing (2) is homogeneous and calm. The singing of Koopman's choir (3) is transparent, light and warm. Suzuki's choir (4) singing is very similar to that of Koopman, but a little bit cooler. Leusink's choir (5) is very similar to Leonhardt. Its singing is less polished but fresher.

Conclusion

I was very satisfied with all the 5 recordings of this cantata. The differences between them are minor and any reservations, which might be concluded from my review, are only in relation to the other recordings. They should not stand in the way of getting to know this cantata better, through whatever recording that you can put your hands on. If a very good writer like W. Murray young writes about BWV 165 in his book: "Bach's skill as a composer managed to animate this dull poem, but it is nevertheless not one of his outstanding works", my winning answer will be that most likely he has not listened enough. But you can.

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

Marie Jensen wrote (June 19, 2000):
I agree with Simon, when he gives the rate 3 (lowest category) to BWV 165 in his Rating Index.

It is obviously Bach, but it is not one of his best works. The arias are not really exciting. Only strings and a fagotto as instrumentation. Though there is a dancing "Todes Tod" tune, it does not reach the level of "Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod" (BWV 82) Yet, I'm glad Aryeh reminded me that the snake (serpent) actually can be heard in this aria. So I listened to it again with much more joy, so perhaps I would raise the rating to 3+. Normally the serpent is a symbol of the Devil back from Adam and Eve, and so it appears in the cantata. But Jesus is also called a healing serpent. The serpent as a positive healing symbol - first reminded me of Hinduism or nature religions. By a strange coincidence I saw a photo to day in a paper of a Christian priest from Gabon trying to heal AIDS patients putting an Aesculap pole in their mouths. (Not a word about whether he succeeded)

I checked it out with John 3.14:
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up".
And Numbers 21:8-9:
"And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."

Here is the "serpent poetry" from BWV 165, the Ambrose translation:

The ancient serpent's sting,
Whose sinful bane corrupts my soul and body;
Help that I, faithful ever, choose thee,
O blood-red serpent's form,
Now on the cross exalted,
Which ev'ry pain doth still
And me restore when all my strength hath vanished

And later:

Jesus, death of mine own death,
Let this through my lifetime
And in my last hour's need
'For mine eyes to hover:
Thou my healing serpent art
For the sinful poison.
Jesus, heal my soul and spirit,
Let me life discover!

Now I better understand the serpent story. The Online Bible: http://onlinebible.simplenet.com/ has been recommended to me (thank you Jane!) and it has become a very useful link for me in discussions in our group. For those who only have a hard copy in their own language or no Bible at all I can highly recommend it, because it can be downloaded and has fine search options.

Mainstream Christianity, which Bach's Orthodox Lutheran Church belongs to, has like mainstream Church to day not much in common with the first congregation in the days of Paulus. In BWV 44 there was this persecution scenario and here it deals with receiving The Holy Spirit when one is baptized, certainly not baptism of babies.

Bach himself was baptized a few days after his birth like the librettist Franck and everybody else in those days, because many babies died from diseases and had to be protected from the devil. Thus a Whit Holy Spirit experience during the baptism could not be personal for anybody in the congregation. But the members believed that the value of the baptism was the same and they had as teenagers confirmed their belief. So creating text and music from a personal baptism experience? No! Another thing was the pietistic movement with its personal and deep emotional relation with Jesus, Jesus as a personal savior giving the Holy Spirit to the sinner after true deep repenting and spiritual cleansing. Cantata poetry is often Pietistic (the death longing, the world hatred, sin, perdition, hell, bride and groom symbols etc.) It is not enough just to have faith accepting certain Lutheran dogmas. You got to have a personal answer from Jesus or you are lost. Bach balances so to say between orthodox Lutheranism and Pietism.

But back to the cantata; here in Koopman's (3) and Leusink's (5) versions:
I would never buy a CD just because of BWV 165, so I will not write very much. Aryeh has as usual done so fine.

I don't find Koopman's opening too fast. It reminds me of water babbling.

The long bass recitativo: Ramselaar (Leusink) is great here. It looses strength and dies in the end as the text say. Perhaps Mertens voice is too kind for this movement.

The serpent aria: Leusink's version has more speed and snaky flow. Koopman's viper is a little tired.

Both versions are worth listening to. Koopman's instruments have as always a richer sound than Leusink's. Could we let Koopman take the first half and Leusink the second?

But far more exciting cantatas are ahead. ....

Ehud Shiloni wrote (June 20, 2000):
My brief, personal comments, based on Aryeh's:

< This is the week of BWV 165, according to Jane Newble suggestion. After the festive BWV 172, we are back with a small-scale cantata. It has parts for all four soloists, but no chorus. The instrumentation is also humble - only strings, fagot (or bassoon) and continuo. >
As Marie said, this chamber cantata was rated a lowly "3" by Simon, therefore the starting point is of quite modest expectations. Let's see what happens.

(4) Masaaki Suzuki/Bach Collegium Japan, Soprano - Aki Yanagisawa, Alto - Akira Tachikawa, Tenor - Makoto Sakurada, Bass - Stephen Schreckenberger

This is the only version I've listened to. I will try to find the time to listen to the Koopman version (3) later in the week, but I don't expect new discoveries after reading Aryeh's comments.

Mvt. 1 Aria
'O heilges Geist und Wasserbad, das Gottes Reich uns einverleibet'
< Aki Yanagisawa, the Soprano in Suzuki's recording, sounds as a part of the whole event. Her voice is bright and clear. The vocal line has an equal part to the instrumental lines. The focus of the singing is on integration and continuity rather than on expression, and I like it that way. Everything is very well balanced and clear. I have the feeling that this is the way Bach wanted this aria to sound >
I agree with Aryeh's description. As far as the impact of the music of this aria, I have to say that it struck me as rather unexciting, although not unpleasant.

Mvt. 2 Recitative
'Die sundige Geburt verdammter Adams-Erben gebieret Gottes Zorn'
< Schreckenberger (with Suzuki), who has a mellow and rich voice, but he is less convincing in his interpretation than his predecessors are >
The recitative isn't very special either. I subscribe to the characterization of the singer, whom I had the chance to hear twice in live concerts: Last year as the aria singer in the SJP concert with Suzuki, and this past Sunday in a performance of BWV 140 & BWV 147 with the Israel Camerata in Tel Aviv. I found Schreckenberger to be quite good, one of the especially emotional choral melodies.

< CONCLUSION - I was very satisfied with all the 5 recordings of this cantata. The differences between them are minor and any reservations, which might be concluded from my review, are only in relation to the other recordings. They should not stand in the way of getting to know this cantata better, through whatever recording that you can put your hands on. If a very good writer like W. Murray Young writes about BWV 165 in his book: "Bach's skill as a composer managed to animate this dull poem, but it is nevertheless not one of his outstanding works", my winning answer will be that most likely he has not listened enough. But you can. >
And my conclusion is that Murray was right, and BWV 165 is "not one of his outstanding works". Still, a low "3" rating is unjustly harsh, and the quality of the Alto aria and the second Bass recitative deserve a one-notch upgrade, perhaps to a "3+" as Marie proposed, or even a "3++"...

Jane Newble wrote (June 20, 2000):
The only two versions I have of this work are (again) Leusink (5) and Koopman (3).

I have not read anything about it; I'll do that afterwards. I had never really listened to it before, so I started with Leusink, and was totally spellbound from the start. What a wonderful, gentle and loving cantata this is. It speaks of security and happiness, also of comparing self to a holy God and finding a total incompatibility.

As so often, I love the instruments Leusink uses. There is something genuinely old and antique about them.

The soprano aria is lovely with Ruth Holton soaring to the high notes without any problem. I found that quite different with Caroline Stam in Koopman, but when I listened again I noticed the vast difference in timing. Koopman takes it nearly a whole minute faster. Seems a bit hard on the poor soprano who has trouble, obviously, keeping up with it.

In the bass recitative I noticed that the "verdammter Adamserben" comes from the heart with Ramselaar, whereas Mertens skips over it lightly as if he did not really want to sing it anyway.

I was wondering what Marie thought of Buwalda here, as he seems more 'on note' than usual. I often prefer female altos to countertenors, because there seems to be more depth in their voice. But here I liked both.

The next recitative reminded me again of how much I like the Bach recitatives. There is the beautiful violin, and the "Hochheiliges Gotteslam" is sung carefully and hesitantly as if it is almost wrong to sing it before the confession of sin that follows. At the same time it seems to give courage because of the new birth that has already been described.

And of course at the end Mertens is wonderful in the way he sings: "when alle Kraft vergehet", as if he really has lost all power to sing.

The tenor aria is so lovely. I prefer van der Meel here to Paul Agnew. And I noticed how simple this aria is, with only a few instruments. This "Heilschlanglein" aria reminds me of Moses in the desert lifting up the snake to heal anyone who had been bitten by snakes and who looked at it.

The chorale comes again back to that security.

Overall I prefer Leusink, but it would not matter if I only had Koopman, apart from the first aria, which I think is too fast. This cantata leaves me wanting to hear it again and again.

EhudShiloni wrote (June 21, 2000):
My brief, personal comments, based on Aryeh's:

< This is the week of BWV 165, according to Jane Newble suggestion. After the festive BWV 172, we are back with a small-scale cantata. It has parts for all four soloists, but no chorus. The instrumentation is also humble - only strings, fagot (or bassoon) and continuo. >
As Marie said, this chamber cantata was rated a lowly "3" by Simon, therefore the starting point is of quite modest expectations. Let's see what happens.

(4) Masaaki Suzuki/Bach Collegium Japan, Soprano - Aki Yanagisawa, Alto - Akira Tachikawa, Tenor - Makoto Sakurada, Bass - Stephen Schreckenberger

This is the only version I've listened to. I will try to find the time to listen to the Koopman version (3) later in the week, but I don't expect new discoveries after reading Aryeh's comments.

Mvt. 1 Aria
'O heilges Geist und Wasserbad, das Gottes Reich uns einverleibet'
< Aki Yanagisawa, the Soprano in Suzuki's recording, sounds as a part of the whole event. Her voice is bright and clear. The vocal line has an equal part to the instrumental lines. The focus of the singing is on integration and continuity rather than on expression, and I like it that way. Everything is very well balanced and clear. I have the feeling that this is the way Bach wanted this aria to be sound >
I agree with Aryeh's description. As far as the impact of the music of this aria, I have to say that it struck me as rather unexciting, although not unpleasant.

Mvt. 2 Recitative
'Die sundige Geburt verdammter Adams-Erben gebieret Gottes Zorn'
< Schreckenberger (with Suzuki), who has a mellow and rich voice, but he is less convincing in his interpretation than his predecessors are >
The recitative isn't very special either. I subscribe to the characterization of the singer, whom I had the chance to hear twice in live concerts: Last year as the aria singer in the SJP concert with Suzuki, and this past Sunday in a performance of BWV 140 & BWV 147 with the Israel Camerata in Tel Aviv. I found Schreckenberger to be quite good, but definitely not up to the formidable class of the authoritative singing of Mertens and Kooy.

Mvt. 3. Aria
'Jesu, der aus grosser Liebe in der Taufe mir verschriebe Leben, Heil und Seligkeit'
< Tachikawa has a lighter voice than Esswood has, but his sensitiveness is similar to that of von Magnus, and he is indeed very good. He has gentleness, innocence, consistency and naturalness. At the end, Tachikawa is my preferred singer of this aria. >
OK - now the music is moving one notch higher! Is it my personal attraction to Minor keys in general? I am definitely not enough of a musician to even start guessing, but I know that this aria touched me more than the previous sections. Simon's rating is now being questioned! Tachikawa is another singer whom I've heard live last year with Suzuki. His voice was not really "big" enough to be impressive on stage, but his singing is sensitive and musical, just as Aryeh noted, and these qualities shine on CD recordings.

Mvt. 4. Recitative
'Ich habe ja, mein Seelenbrautigam da du mich neu geboren, dir ewig treu zu sein geschworen, hoch heil, Gottes Lamm'
< A long and impressive accompanied recitative. >
Impressive, indeed! The "3" rating really begins to fade away...

Mvt. 5. Aria
'Jesu, meine Todes Tod, lass in meinem Leben und meiner letzten.'
< Suzuki's interpretation goes directly into the heart of this aria. The singing of Sakurada has the right amount of fear, sadness and calmness. The snake's movements are very visual, as if he is twisting around the legs of the prayer, and he in return is encouraged by his existence >
Snake? Well, perhaps, but the impact of the music is overall quite dull, and it sounds like a "template" composition by any run-of-the-mill Baroque composer...["3" rating now "fading-back-in"...]

Mvt. 6. Chorale
'Sein wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl dient wider allen Unfall, der heilge Geist in Glauben lehrt uns darauf vertrauen'
< Suzuki's choir singing is very similar to that of Koopman, but a little bit cooler. >
And, if I dare say, this is not one of the especially emotional choral melodies.

< CONCLUSION - I was very satisfied with all the 5 recordings of this cantata. The differences between them are minor and any reservations, which might be concluded from my review, are only in relation to the other recordings. They should not stand in the way of getting to know this cantata better, through whatever recording that you can put your hands on. If a very good writer like W. Murray Young writes about BWV 165 in his book: "Bach's skill as a composer managed to animate this dull poem, but it is nevertheless not one of his outstanding works", my winning answer will be that most likely he has not listened enough. But you can. >
And my conclusion is that Murray was right, and BWV 165 is "not one of his outstanding works". Still, a low "3" rating is unjustly harsh, and the quality of the Alto aria and the second Bass recitative deserve a one-notch upgrade, perhaps to a "3+" as Marie proposed, or even a "3++"...

Marie Jensen wrote (June 21, 2000):
Jane Newble wrote:
< (snip) I have not read anything about it, I'll do that afterwards (snip) I was wondering what Marie thought of Buwalda here, as he seems more 'on note' than usual. >
Probably you have read my first mail now and seen, that I have not written a word about Buwalda, because:
1) I promised to give the poor man a break.
2) He did not provoke me to break that promise.

He's however not so bad here. But our opinions of the cantata as a whole are very different. You can't get enough. I have already moved on, though I encouraged by you listened again to Buwalda.

But thank you for a fine and sensitive review. I always love that you find the text very important.

And in the next cantata BWV 75 the text in the first place will be even more important than the music. We are going to review a scolding of us cantata collectors. How this is going to end is really exciting! Hope for many participators!

Jane Newble wrote (June 21, 2000):
Well, I have now read all your comments on this cantata, and it seems that I am rather unusual in liking it straight away. That probably says more about me than about the cantata. I do agree though, that in comparison with Bach's other work it does not deserve a very high rating, but I find the bass second recitative especially makes it deserve a little bit more than *3*.

I also read what Malcolm Boyd says about it, and I'd like to quote the few words about the second bass recitative: "The instruments sometimes sustain long held chords, but at other points they play a more active role. Their most telling contribution, however, comes at the very end when, after the bass has sung 'wenn alle Kraft vergehet' (when all strength fails), the upper strings cannot find the energy to play the expected final chord, leaving only the bass instruments (without continuo harmony) to sound a quiet low G. Bach was to do something similar, to no less telling effect, at the end of 'Esurientes implevit bonis' in the Magnificat (BWV 243), where the 'hungry are sent empty away'. It is wonderful to discover these 'links' in Bach's work. BTW, I really liked Aryeh's comments about the 'salvation snakelet'.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (June 23, 2000):
Once again, the weekly discussion leads me to another wonderful cantata. I was intrigued by everyone's descriptions that made this piece sound so beguiling. I LOVE the opening, "O heilges Geist und Wasserbad" - the small, inviting instrumental accompaniment to the soprano...enjoyed the alto aria; really like the tenor aria, "Jesu, meines Todes Tod" - but a bit for the accompaniment (I swoon for cellos). And the closing chorale has nice accto go along with nice singing.

I have Koopman (3) and Leusink (5), but only listened to the K...hmmm...just looked at Aryeh's review and I think I better run downstairs to get the Leusink. Be right back.

OK...I agree that Holton's singing (the Leusink) is more appealing that Stam's (Koopman) but I like the Koopman instrumentation better.

Three? Three-plus for a rating? For a Bach cantata? I dunno. Every time I listen to one of these darn things I get fond of each one, and each one sounds like the best darned thing I've ever listened to.

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 23, 2000):
(To Harry J. Steinman) You do not have to worry. We still have almost 4 years of staying together and discussing the cantatas only. One of my colleagues at work, said to me when I told her about my weekly writings to the cantata group, "I envy you, because you know what you are going to do every Monday morning in the next four years". Thinking about it, the idea is somewhat frightening, but on the other hand it is also very exciting. As you hinted in another post (BWV 165), I know that every week I am going to discover another treasure. During the many listenings to each cantata in various recordings, I am learning to love it. From my own experience, I can say that few listening to an unfamiliar cantata, might lead to wrong conclusions, about the quality of the cantata. Regarding my personal taste, I do not like the idea of rating the cantatas themselves, because after I know a cantata rather well, I can enjoy it even when hearing it in mediocre performance. There are, of course, differences between the various recordings of each cantata, but that is the main focus of the weekly discussions.

And AFTER we finish discussing all the cantatas, and if we have any energy left, we shall still have some connected topics to discuss. Such as - our favorite cantatas, various performers (there is nice idea suggested by Ryan), etc. And we can also discuss the other vocal works, such as the small Masses (as you suggested), the Magnificat, the Motets, and even the Passions and the B minor Mass, etc. Don't worry.

Marie Jensen wrote (June 23, 2000):
Aryeh wrote to Harry Steinman:
< You do not have to worry. We still have almost 4 years of staying together and discussing the cantatas only. >
After that we perhaps will be shouting (like they some times do in the USA): FOUR MORE YEARS! And discuss all the other vocal works as Aryeh and Harry suggest.

< (snip) Regarding my personal taste, I do not like the idea of rating the cantatas themselves, because after I know a cantata rather well, I can enjoy it even when hearing it in mediocre performance. There are, of course, differences between the various recordings of each cantata, but that is the main focus of the weekly discussions. >
You are right. Taste changes, mood changes. A tune entering your heart as love at first sight, can be gone the week after. Not that such things happen very often with JSB! The opposite, as you mention, can happen too: One has to learn to appreciate.

When I mentioned Simon's ratings in my first review of BWV 165, I'm sure it was because of lack of courage. It takes guts to criticize JSB himself! So I checked with Simon to see if I was the only listener in this world who felt that way....

Perhaps you remember the "HALL OF FAME/SHAME" discussion on the recordings list about a half-year ago? Stephen Guy started it. There were not many "SHAME" reactions. Of course not. Bach is the best composer in the world. Future, give up in advance! But perhaps Stephen was right, when he wrote, (don't remember the exact words), that Bach was a baroque composer and not a holy icon.

Bach, I shall always love you! Not that you have had many off-days in your life. Thank God, we cannot even agree of them, and even what some of us would call a cat. 3 work is second to none!

Ryan Michero wrote (June 26, 2000):
Sorry for the late response on this one, everyone. I've been ready to write something about it since last Tuesday, but I've had a really crazy week and I've been out-of-town for the last three days. Now I'm back, though, and ready to throw in my contribution...

There has been a lot of discussion about the quality of this piece, as Simon Crouch on his great cantata site gives BWV 165 a low rating of 3. Well, sorry Simon, but I can't see cantatas in ones or twos or threes. Like Bach, I have a creative job myself, and I see great creators as those who achieve the best possible results under the given situations in which they have to work. Perhaps this is why I love the cantatas so much, because they allow me to see the weekly work of a master, to see the many different situations Bach was given and how he dealt with them. Apparently, the conditions for which he composed BWV 165 were not ideal--perhaps Bach had a short amount of time in which to compose, he probably had few skilled instrumentalists at his disposal, he may have had no skilled ensemble singers for an opening chorus, the poem he set is not particularly distinguished. And yet he created a lovely little piece of music--varied, tuneful, dramatic, and still interesting to us almost 300 years after its creation. No, it does not stand among Bach's great cantatas. But it does stand among Bach's cantatas, and that's good enough for me.

(2) (Gustav Leonhardt) This recording has its good points, but overall it doesn't make a very convincing case for BWV 165. In the first movement, Leonhardt's string section sounds great, delineating the contrapuntal lines with warmth and clarity. However, the boy soprano has an unsteady voice and is stretched far past his limits, making this a somewhat painful listening experience. It's nice to hear Max van Egmond singing up to his usual high standards after hearing him sounding quite weak and a little exasperated in BWV 172. He is expressive and authoritative here. Esswood sings "Jesu, der aus grosser Liebe" beautifully, with a bit of sadness in his voice, and he is sensitively accompanied by the continuo team. Van Egmond is again impressive in the second bass recitative, even if he just misses the expressive heights of some of his colleagues here. The tenor aria, "Jesu, meines Todes Tod," is sung a bit too expressively by Kurt Equiluz, who doesn't seem to acknowledge the joyful sentiment in the text. The chorale is sung very nicely to top off a decent performance.

(3) (Ton Koopman) Koopman's recording is a hit-or-miss affair, with some movements sounding great and others missing the mark. The opening movement is played one-to-a-part, and the ensemble sounds nice if a bit weak. Caroline Stam is a colorful singer, but she has trouble with the high notes here. Elizabeth von Magnus gives a nice if not too distinguished performance of the alto aria. Thankfully, Klaus Mertens gives a wonderful performance of his two recitatives, elevating Koopman's recording quite a bit. Nobody makes the opening lines of the second recitative sound quite as lovely or the ensuing lines sound quite as desperate. The tenor aria is sensitively sung by Paul Agnew, who sounds more thankful than sad to my ears. The final chorale is sung gorgeously by Koopman's chorus, though I again wonder why Koopman thinks Bach played his early cantatas with one player per instrumental part but multiple singers per vocal part.

(4) (Masaaki Suzuki) Suzuki's recording convinces me more than anyone else's that BWV 165 is not a work to underestimate. The strings in the opening movement have a magical quality I don't hear anywhere else--too many recordings start with a whimper, but Suzuki's strings come in strong and certain and build to a satisfying climax. Aki Yanagisawa has a clear, youngish voice and sings with innocence and beauty. She is perfect for this movement, and I hope to hear more of her as a soloist in the future. Stephan Schreckenberger, the regular bass for Cantus Colln, makes a fine contribution to this recording, singing with authority and exprthough lacking some of the warmth of Mertens. Akira Tachikawa is a fine countertenor with a very clear, ethereal voice, and he sings "Jesu, der aus grosser Liebe" beautifully. Apparently Tachikawa was slated to sing most of the alto solos in the Suzuki series before Mera came along and stole the spotlight. I hope now, when Mera isn't working with Suzuki anymore, that Tachikawa will have more chances to shine. Schreckenberger is excellent in the second recitative, and the BCJ strings under Suzuki's leadership really bring out the expressive potential in this movement. The heavenly major chords, the painful dissonances, the singing lines when the bass sings "Hochheilges Gotteslamm", and the final drifting off and leaving of a single low note--one cannot help but be reminded of the dramatic and exquisite accompanied recitatives of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion. The accompaniment of the tenor aria is appropriately snake-like, darting back and forth around the expressive and clear singing of Sakurada. And the final chorale, simple and short though it is, never fails to give me chills in this recording. Suzuki chooses to have it sung one-voice-per-part, and he has the right singers to do it--Yanagisawa, Tachikawa, and Sakurada all sing in the BCJ choir and have exceptionally clear voices, and Schreckenberger sings this way all of the time with Cantus Colln. Their voices blend marvelously, and each line of the chorale setting (the soprano turn at the end of the first line, the chromatic violins at the end of the second, the high alto turn at the end of the third line, and the intertwined high alto and tenor lines at the conclusion) moves me. An excellent recording.

(5) (Pieter Jan Leusink) Leusink's recording is also excellent though IMHO not as transcendent as Suzuki's. I love Ruth Holton's voice, and she is perfect for the opening movement. The accompaniment is nice but not as impressive as Suzuki's. Bas Ramselaar is great in the bass recitatives--he's not as sweet in tone as Mertens, but the rough edge on his voice suits the admonitory passages of the text well. Surprise! --Sytse Buwalda does a fine job with the alto aria, as the writing does not make too many technical demands on the singer. In the tenor aria Leusink's snake is a little slow, and Nico van der Meel is in lovely voice but sounds a bit bored. The final chorale is touchingly sung.

So, my conclusion about this piece: Even if BWV 165 is not a masterpiece, we are still listening to the voice of a master. There is much to discover here.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (June 28, 2000):
Several of us have written about whether or not BWV 165 deserves a low rating (a la Dr. Crouch's rating system) and it gets me thinking - I have yet to hear anything by Big Daddy that is boring or unpleasant. Did he ever write anything that was...mediocre? I have yet to scratch the cantata surface, but I have yet to hear anything that lets me down. Sure, I have my faves, like everyone. But for me (and you can call me a synchophant if you like!) it's all prime cut.

What am I missing?

Simon Crouch wrote (June 29, 2000):
Ryan Michero wrote:
< There has been a lot of discussion about the quality of this piece, as Simon Crouch on his great cantata site gives BWV 165 a low rating of 3. Well, sorry Simon, but I can't see cantatas in ones or twos or threes. Like Bach, I have a creative job myself, and I see great creators as those who achieve the best possible results under the given situations in which they have to work. >
Hi all and hello Ryan, I have to say that I largely agree with you! When I started doing these reviews five years ago, it seemed a sensible way for me to organize my own thoughts about the works - less as a means of "rating" these great works of art and more of a means of giving myself an order to return to them. At that time I only knew fifty or sixty cantatas well, and presented with the sixty-four hours or so of the complete Harnoncourt set I knew I'd go bonkers from hearing a great tune and not being able to remember where I'd heard it!

Also, five years of seriously solid listening to them all has changed my opinions - for example, what I wrote about performance technique for BWV 4, I would not write now, having been thoroughly convinced by one-per-part recordings that I've heard since.

However, I've left them in simply because I'm sure that others beginning their journey along the same enchanted path might like to have a simple guidebook from time to time. I'm sure that BWV 165 is worth a visit but it's a visit that I'd postpone in favour of other works first!

 

Question about BWV 165

Tobias Nilsson wrote (September 4, 2003):
In the alto aria "Jesu, der aus grosser Liebe" my vocal score (Breitkopf) says "und den LEBENSbund erneue" but in the booklet to the Suzuki recording it is "und den GNADENbund erneue". In the score on the Bach Cantatas web page it is "LEBENSbund" but when you click on "german text" it is "GNADENbund". I don't think this is mentioned on the web page and my german is not good enough to say what is right but is it as simple as a misprint in the Breitkopf edition?

Neil Halliday wrote (September 4, 2003):
[To Tobias Nilsson] The NBA, representing the latest scholarship, gives "Gnadenbund".

The (old) BGA, like your Breitkopf edition (which most likely followed the BGA), gives "Lebensbund'; but it would appear that "Gnadenbund" is the correct reading.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 165: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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