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Cantata BWV 174
Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of July 20, 2003

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 23, 2003):
BWV 174 - magnificent love

This cantata has the most magnificent, extraordinary opening movement one could dream of. Christoph Wolff observed that, since the Leipzig audiences had been deprived of their own opera house, they had to resort to the Royal Opera at Dresden to satisfy their cultural needs. Bach also went there regularly with his eldest son and must have said more than once, “Friedemann, shan’t we go again to hear the lovely Dresden ditties?” Although spoken injest, Bach had every right to say so. His secular show pieces in honour of the electoral-royal family, 9 drammi per musica, five secular cantatas and one serenade between 1727 and 1742, were by no means inferior to real opera. His compositions show at every step full mastery of the dramatic genre and the proper pacing of the dialogues. Each separate movement was infinitely more elaborate than those ordinarily found in opera scores, yet no less moving, meaningful or effective. Bach’s genius of musical imagery and technical sophistication, together with his being the leading performing artist as well, warranted great performances, which were more than just substitutes for the no longer extant Leipzig opera. By converting them into sacred cantatas, Bach made these works accessible to a larger audience.

Already from the beginning of his Leipzig period, Bach, as Director of the Collegium Musicum, could draw from a large pool of musicians, which had a beneficial and stabilizing effect on the performing ensemble he needed for St. Thomas’s and St. Nicholas’s and to some extent helped offset the city council’s unwillingness to provide more and better-paid personnel. One of the first manifestations of Bach’s newly-won “command” over the city’s best musicians occurred on the second day of Pentecost in 1729, shortly after he had become Collegium Director. At this performance, he opened the cantata BWV 174 with a festive sinfonia (Mvt. 1) that was a lavishly expanded version of the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto, with a large ensemble of 2 horns, 3 oboes, 3 solo violins, 3 solo violas, 3 solo cellos, ripieno strings, and continuo including bassoon and violone, the likes of which had not been heard before. “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister”, but here Bach proved himself a master of masters.

The first aria, for alto (Mvt. 2), has a lovely accompaniment by two oboes, who are at times developing their own themes, sometimes underlining or playing on top of the human voice, sometimes imitating or weaving around it, then alternating it in a lively duet. In contents, the aria is based on the gospel reading, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

After this long aria, there follows an interesting recitative for tenor (Mvt. 3), supported by the entire string section besides the BC, again stressing the fact that God, by sending his son as a ransom for our trespasses, has given us access to heaven, so that the destructive powers of hell are trembling for God’s love.

In the second aria, a wonderful piece for bass solo (Mvt. 4), the violins and violas are combined to form an unisono obbligato voice. The message is that we just have to seize the salvation Jesus offers us. In return we should remain faithful and loyal to him until the end of our earthly days.

The final chorale (Mvt. 5) is a testimony of our love for Jesus, a confession of faith and a plea for support in order to remain faithful for ever! One recognizes the melody of the concluding chorale of SJP (BWV 245) “Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein”.

How wonderful the message, how splendid the music!

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 23, 2003):
BWV 174 – Introduction

The chosen work for this week’s discussion (July 20, 2003) is the Solo Cantata BWV 174 for Whit Monday [2nd Day of Pentecost] ‘Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte’ (I love God most high with all my heart). Since Picander’s libretto had only four movements, Bach must have felt the need to enlarge it by adding a Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) as a prelude. He chose the 1st movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, composed while he was in Köthen, and re-scored it for a large orchestra, whose instrumentation is listed in the header of the page of recordings of this cantata. The Gospel is John 3: 16-21 - God’s love for the world – which Picander turns to a Christian’s love for God.

Recordings
The details of the recordings of the cantata can be found at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV174.htm

This cantata has only 4 complete recordings, the first of which, by Kurt Redel (late 1960’s?) [1], has never been issues in CD form. The other three are the usual participants - Helmuth Rilling (1984) [2], Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1987) [3], and Pieter Jan Leusink (2000) [5]. Apparently, we are compensated by 4 recordings of the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1), but this is actually not a big deal, because if you want, you can listen to countless recordings of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, on which it is based.

Through the page of the Music Examples from this cantata: Cantata BWV 174 - Music Examples
you can listen to the complete recording by Harnoncourt [3] (at David Zale Website).

Additional Information
In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
The original German text and various translations, three of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), and Hebrew (Aryeh Oron). Francis Browne translated also Martin Schalling’s chorale ‘Herzlich lieb hab' ich dich, o Herr’ that concludes this cantata.
Links to the Score in Vocal & Piano version and BGA Edition.
Links to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide), Brian Robins (AMG), Jeff Eldridge (Seattle Chamber Singers Website), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).

I wonder why this cantata is relatively neglected and am curious to hear it. I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion. Only 21 cantatas (sacred and secular), including this one, remained to be discussed in the BCML!

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 25, 2003):
BWV 174 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 174 – Provenance

Neil Halliday wrote (July 26, 2003):
After listening to the Harnoncourt recording [3] over the internet:

Mvt. 1.
It's great to hear this old favourite again (ie, the 1st movement of the 3rd Brandenburg), arranged here by Bach, with the addition of horns and oboes.

Harnoncourt adopts a pleasantly relaxed tempo (timing: 6:11), endowing the music with a sunny, happy and bucolic disposition. I would like to hear other recordings. (I look forward to hearing Rilling's recording [2], the complete set of which I am committed to purchasing, for a modern instrument versio.)

Mvt. 2. (timing: 8:19)
This is one of Bach's beautiful "long" arias. It features a melody which is presented canonically by the oboes, and then is taken up by the alto. The form of the writing for the oboes reminds me of the 'Canon at the ninth', in the 27th variation of the Golbergs.

Harnoncourt's recording is entirely satisfying, which is to say, I can return to it again and again. The tempo is right, and the soloistsincluding alto Christian Immler, are exemplary.

Mvt. 3.
The string accompaniment fades somewhat, during the sounding of each chord (the 'messa voce' effect) during the course of this recitative, a characteristic not to my taste.

Mvt. 4.
My immediate reaction to the first hearing of the bass aria is that it is too fast in this recording. The music seems to call for a more expansive (slower) rendition. This one is light and airy. (Backing this impression up - the semiquavers whizz by with a speed one normaly associates with demi-semi's.) Bass Robert Holl has a rich, well-controlled and pleasant voice, which could easily handle a slower tempo.

Mvt. 5.
I have been too spoilt by Rilling's magnificent chorale renditions, to include this light, fleeting performance on my list of "permanents".

Jane Newble wrote (July 26, 2003):
What a delightful cantata this is!

A lovely musical response to the "For God so loved the world" is the emphasis on loving God with all one's mind and heart. I only have Leusink [5], so I can't compare.

The Sinfonia (Mvt. 1), as a Brandenburg movement in a new dress, is overwhelming. I keep wanting to listen to it again, as I feel I have missed something - there is so much going on here! Winschermann makes it even more dramatic and fascinating.

Putting something incredible like this at the beginning makes heavy demands on the rest of the cantata, but as soon as the alto aria (Mvt. 2) begins, I feel carried away by this rapturous and intimate response of the soul to the love of God. Both voice and instruments keep on singing, and it is one of those arias that Bach didn't seem to want to end. It is a good illustration of the last line - the eternal well of goodness.

The tenor (Mvt. 3) sings with utter conviction of God's love and the certainty that it is stronger than hell itself.

The dance-like bass aria (Mvt. 4) keeps repeating the invitation to grasp salvation with both hands, in falling and rising notes, emphasised at the end by the continuo.

I always like chorales at the end (Mvt. 5) and this is no exception.

This cantata was really worth discovering.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (July 27, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
< Through the page of the Music Examples from this cantata:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV174-Mus.htm
you can listen to the complete recording by Harnoncourt [3] (at David Zale Website). >
Aryeh also thought to upload three other renditions of the bass aria (Mvt. 4). The string accompaniment is not outstanding melodically (and probably suffered in the conversion to files), so my critical comparison below mostly concerns the voices.

Ramselaar's [5] singing gives no impression of strong faith, as his voice starts dying out on the half notes in "gläubt getreu".

Holl's [3] attempt to impart genuine expression to this aria (as Ramselaar did not) is thwarted by Harnoncourt's very fast tempo.

With a more comfortable tempo than the last recording, Schöne [2] clearly and powerfully enunciates the terse commands. His attempt to introduce trills on the eighth-note melismas does not turn out as well.

The unknown Herbert Brauer also has a powerful voice, but an uneven one. Notes above the staff are sung louder than ones in the middle. Brauer pronounces "gläubt getreu" without the umlaut.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Thanks, Alex, for pointing out the existence of these four examples of the bass aria (Mvt. 4) (of BWV 174), at the Bach-Cantatas web-site.

Bingo, this aria suddenly makes sense to me, at the slower tempos shown by all the conductors here (in comparison to Harnoncourt [3]), with the violin accompaniment proving to be very interesting, and the whole aria a joy to listen to.

Rilling's recording [2] is the finest of the four. Apart from Schöne's pleasing voice, I notice some very interesting 'imitation', going on between the violins and strong bc line in this version.

Leusink's [5] accompaniment is inappropriately 'light' for this aria; and Brauer, with Redel [1], displays too much 'wide' vibrato for my taste. (This later recording also suffers from the lack of bass freqencies characteristic of old (LP) recordings).

Philippe Bareille wrote (July 28, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] I agree with Neil comments but I like very much the final choral as well. The alto is first rate (it is always a pleasure to hear a good boy alto). The Concentus Musicus [3] had made considerable progress since their first cantata recordings in the early 70's. I really wish Harnoncourt re-embarked on another round of Bach cantatas recordings.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 29, 2003):
BWV 174 - bass aria (Mvt. 4)

Alex Riedlmayer wrote:
< Ramselaar's singing gives no impression of strong faith, as his voice starts dying out on the half notes in "gläubt getreu". >
[5] [Leusink]
So, "I didn't like it" becomes a theological failure on the part of the singer?! Listening to it myself, I hear a fine, convincing performance, with no such caveat. It's beautiful, graceful, nicely structured, confidently delivered, and has gorgeous rounded tones from everybody involved. There is effective contrast of character in the middle section, too. All around this is a good example of gestural performance, and a strong presentation of the text. Bravo to Leusink, Ramselaar, & co.

I could also imagine it working well at a slightly faster tempo, but the performance as it stands sounds VERY good to me.

More comments are below, after discussion of the other recordings.

< Holl's attempt to impart genuine expression to this aria (as Ramselaar did not) is thwarted by Harnoncourt's very fast tempo. >
[3] [Harnoncourt]
I have no comment about this recording as I can't hear that file. But I'm curious: how can "genuine expression" be distinguished from "apparent expression" or "no impression of strong faith"? How do we know anything about Ramselaar's or Holl's personal faith?

< With a more comfortable tempo than the last recording, Schöne clearly and powerfully enunciates the terse commands. His attempt to introduce trills on the eighth-note melismas does not turn out as well. >
[2] [Rilling]
Agreed on the vocal portion. I find the instrumental parts here mildly annoying. The main problem is the continuo team. The harpsichordist plays loads of graffiti in the right hand, and it evidently has very little to do with the expression of the bass line's rhythm. It distracts rather than integrating the texture; it gives the impression that the other parts are so boring and featureless that things must be livened up with the introduction of a new melodic part. (That happens to be a perceptive commentary about the ho-hum instrumental bass line in this performance, while the violin part is reasonably well shaped....) The cellists sound the same all the way through, just playing a generic page full of medium-short notes with no awarof meaning, key centers, or of the aria's broader ABA form. And in the equalization of the notes, the projected meter sounds like 4/4 rather than cut-C.

< The unknown Herbert Brauer also has a powerful voice, but an uneven one. Notes above the staff are sung louder than ones in the middle. Brauer pronounces "gläubt getreu" without the umlaut. >
[1] [Redel]
Plus the interpretation as a whole is earthbound and sedate, with an aimless and one-dimensional presentation of the instrumental bass line. The aria seems to take a lot longer than it does in real time. That's not an advantage.

And (both here with Redel and in the Rilling recording) the violin section plays loudly on the second note of each two-note slurred figure, equalizing the emphasis of the notes...but this is normal in an equipollent approach to this music: the musical figures smoothed out. Rilling shapes it more effectively than Redel does, especially with dynamic contrast...a nod toward the gestural ideas he has picked up somewhere. Redel's violins compound this problem (er, equipollent interpretive choice) by playing with prominent vibrato on those second notes of the pairs...elevating these weak notes of the meter to be far too interesting in themselves. Because there are no really weak notes, there are no really strong notes either, and not much to keep the listener's attention engaged or moving through the musical texture. When all the melodic notes are equally interesting, like this, the net result is that there is no emphasis, and therefore no figure. It's all figure, or it's all ground. Solid blocks.

In Leusink's performance, a gestural one, it is very easy for the ear to follow both the violin and bass lines simultaneously (as lines), along with the vocal line: three distinct things going on at once. Everything is immediately clear. Every line has its own shape, and its own bits of figure and ground that make it up. There is healthy variety of note lengths, articulation, and dynamics in each line. This makes it easy for a listener to be omni-attentive to the whole texture, the delightful interplay of all three parts; and an invented fourth melodic part (as in the Rilling performance, in the harpsichord) is not needed. The continuo keyboardist (organ here) does well to focus on the expressive delivery of the bass lines, his right-hand chords and improvised short melodic bits serving to ENHANCE that line rather than detract from it.

More about figure and ground:
http://daphne.palomar.edu/design/fandg.html

Overall assessment:
- Leusink [5], a very good gestural performance
- Rilling [2], a pretty decent equipollent performance
- Redel [1], a much less satisfactory equipollent performance than Rilling's.

Brad Lehman
"He wasn't a machine. In his flexibility he was very precise and it takes greater precision to be precise about a fluid shape than about a solid shape. A solid shape you can specify. You can give it the angles you want and the planes and the area. You can be very specific. It can also be very complex. But to be precise about a living, moving fluid - that requires great skill." - Yehudi Menuhin (speaking about Furtwängler)

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 29, 2003):
BWV 174 - Recordings

Last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 174:

[1] Kurt Redel (Late 1960’s?)
[2] Helmuth Rilling (1984)
[3] Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1987)
[5] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)

The 2 Arias: for Alto (Mvt. 2) & for Bass (Mvt. 4) - Background

Couple of weeks ago, in the discussion of Cantata BWV 149:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV149-D.htm
I was asked by Alex Riedlmayer to explain my choice of preferences. I answered by giving list of factors according to which I rate the performers of a Bach's aria. To my disappointment, no one responded. I do not have the time to contribute to the lively discussions about the merits of singers like Kirkby, Ameling, Augér and York, flawed/demi voices, music criticism, etc. My view of such topics can be easily concluded by reading about 190 reviews of cantata recordings, all of which can be found in the Bach Cantatas Website. I shall only summarize by saying that for me the best singer of a certain aria is the one who conveys most convincingly the textual and musical content of the piece.

In order to comprehend the message embedded in a given movement, we have to explore it by reading commentaries, reading and understanding the text, look at the score and especially by listening to various recordings without prejudice.

The background to my short review of the recordings of the two arias from this cantata is based on Robertson and Young books and something of my own.

Mvt. 2 Aria for Alto
After the grandiose bustle and the incessant activity of the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) we can rest with this aria, in 6/8 time, accompanied by two oboes. The text expresses gratitude for God’s love for man and is warmly responded to. The tune is like a pastoral melody, reminding of the aria for alto in Cantata BWV 112 with its tranquil peace.

Personal preferences: Hamari/Rilling [2], Munch/Redel [1], Immler/Harnoncourt [3], Buwalda/Leusink [5]

After so many cantata reviews, I cannot recall a bad performance by Julia Hamari [2]. She is so well-equipped vocally; she always gives the impression that she knows what is she singing about, and her presentation is always compelling. This aria, which she sings with Rilling, is no exception. Even the occasional listener will recognize the love and the gratitude expressed by her singing. With so long aria the singer can easily lose the attention of the listener. Not so when the singer is Hamari. Munch (with Redel) [1] is an old-time singer with wide vibrato, and exaggerated expression. However, she seems to believe in what she is singing and if the listener can forgive her of not singing in more contemporary style, her rendition can please. The boy alto Immler, who sings this aria with Harnoncourt [3], has a charming voice and he copes well with the (not very high) technical demands of the aria. However, the emotional weight of the aria is above his capabilities and he has problems to hold the attention of the listener. The accompaniment is somewhat too prominent and occasionally it even covers the singer. This kind of aria is not tailored for Buwalda’s capabilities (with Leusink) [5]. With him we do not only lose interest, we lose also patience.

Mvt. 4 Aria for Bass
This beautiful aria is a splendid example of Bach’s wonderful power to achieve melodic continuity by constantly weaving a few short themes into the musical texture in such a way that their easily recognisable entrances and exits seem inevitable. Unison violin and violas lend support to the bass, whose song contains a joyful marching rhythm, symbolic of the firmness of faith as expressed by the text.

Personal preferences: Schöne/Rilling [2], Ramselaar/Leusink [5], Brauer/Redel [1], Holl/Harnoncourt [3]

The instrumental accompaniment is very important in this aria, actually in most of Bach’s arias. Rilling [2] presents clarity of lines, bright sound, loaded with energy that pushes the aria ahead. Schöne seems to convey his cin faith more convincingly than most other singers do, although Ramselaar [5] comes close. The accompaniment he gets from Leusink is lighter than Rilling’s, but its transparency allows the listener following the musical developments comfortably. Brauer (with Redel) [1] has an impressive voice, but his approach is somewhat heavy-handed. The accompaniment he gets from Redel lacks vividness, and I do not think that the recording is to be blamed. Holl (with Harnoncourt) [3] presents in this aria deep and authoritative voice, but very little in terms of personal interpretation or real involvement. The tempo chosen by Harnoncourt is too fast to my taste and Holl seems to have difficulties keeping up with this pace.

Conclusion

Movements to take away: The aria for alto (Mvt. 2) with Hamari/Rilling [2] and the aria for bass (Mvt. 4) with Schöne/Rilling [2].

Neil Halliday wrote (July 31, 2003):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
"Couple of weeks ago, in the discussion of Cantata BWV 149:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV149-D.htm
I was asked by Alex Riedlmayer to explain my choice of preferences. I answered by giving list of factors according to which I rate the performers of a Bach's aria. To my disappointment, no one responded".
I think this list of 6 points just about covers every factor one would be looking for in a vocal performance.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 31, 2003):
(continue with my previous post):

I, and possibly others, took your (Aryeh's) post to mean that you wanted a reply specifically from Alex, who had stated he had an opposite view to yours in the list of preferences for recordings of this cantata (BWV 149).

I agreed with your comments and reasoning, and so did not reply.

With the bass aria (Mvt. 4) in BWV 174, however, I disagree with Brad's view that Leusink's "gestural" performance [5] presents a clearer musical picture than Rilling's "equipollent" performance [2], because only with the Rilling did I pick up the marvellous imitation of the '4 repeated quavers followed by semi quavers figure' in the violins and bc, before looking at the score.

(BTW, Brad, your essay exploring the consequences for music criticism of two broadly differing viewpoints, namely the "equipollent" and "gestural" viewpoints, may contribute to taking the acrinomy out of some of the debate on this board, by attempting to shed some light on the positions that the various critics are coming from. I hope so.)

After listening to Leonhardt's performance of the final chorale in this week's cantata, BWV 175, I have this question:

Should a chorale be sung by a choir in this mannner, which gives (the effect of) a space between each word?

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 174: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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