Aryeh Oron wrote (July 11, 2000):
This is the week of cantata BWV 21 according to Ryan Michero's suggestion. Although this is probably the longest cantata (2 parts, 11 movements, usually more than 40 minutes of music), this is also one of the most beautiful of them all and the personal favorite of many. I shall save this time the space for general background about BWV 21 and advice you to read its descriptions as were written by two experts in the following Web sites:
Jan Koster's Cantatas Project: http://odur.let.rug.nl/Linguistics/diversen/bach/cantatas/comment/21.html
Simon Crouch's Listener's Guide to the Cantatas of J.S. Bach: http://www.classical.net/~music/comp.lst/works/bachjs/cantatas/021.html
The first is more detailed and gives a short analysis of each movement. The second is more personal and less formal.
For those of you, who are interested in more readings, there are lots of writings about BWV 21 in the usual sources (Robertson, Young, Spitta, Schweitzer, Whittaker, Wolff, etc.). No one, who writes about the choral music of Bach, can or want to escape from this cantata. The most detailed source I am aware of is the new book by Eric Chaffe - 'Analyzing Bach Cantatas'. Chaffe dedicated a full chapter to BWV 21, including commentary on the individual movements.
a. Although BWV 21 is from almost every possible aspect on the same level as BWV 4 or BWV 82 are, it has never been close to my heart as they have been. I cannot explain why. I believe that something like that happen to most people. I mean that you feel closer to some musical works than to others and the level of the music and the excellence of the performance cannot supply a full explanation for this phenomenon. In the TV series ‘Ally McBeal’ they mention quite often ‘The Song’. They say ‘this is my song’, or ‘the song that does it to me’. I remember something similar was also mentioned in one of the chapters of the legendary TV series ‘Seinfeld’. So, I thought that BWV 21 was not ‘my song’, until this week came, I dedicated a lot of time listening to it in various recordings, and I fell in love with this cantata. From now on it will also be ‘my song’, as many of other Bach cantatas are. Actually all the cantatas we have discussed in this group so far (BWV 21 is number 32 in the line) became 'my songs'.
b. Arleen Augér is the soprano singer in both Rilling's second recording and Rotzsch only one . I do not want to repeat myself in praising her singing, voice and interpretation. You can read my views in my reviews of cantatas in the previous weekly discussions. See, for example, the review of her recording of BWV 172 with Rotzsch. But this morning (July 9, 2000) I had the rare opportunity of not only hearing her, but also seeing her. In a program that was broadcasted by the German 3sat channel, she sang Lieder by Alban Berg and Richard Strauss in a recital, which was recorded in August 1988. Before this program there was a narration of songs by Hermann Hesse, by a very good German actor. It caused me to think that a good Bach singer (actually not only of Bach), must know to declaim without music the lyrics of the aria or the recitative he (or she) is intending to sing, to understand how to give the right expression to each phrase, word or syllable. Arleen Augér appearance in this recital was convincing as her singing. She had beauty, gentleness, grace, nobility, intelligence and glamour. To her interpretations of Berg and Strauss she brought the same qualities that characterize her Bach singing. Through her interpretation I could feel that the strong connection between the words and the music in the works of these two composers, show that they had learnt a lesson or two from their great predecessor.
Review of complete Recordings
We have a very distinguished roster of conductors in the 10 recordings of BWV 21 that I have (I know of at least 3 more, but I do not have them, yet). 2 conductors - Rilling and Suzuki - recorded it twice. 2 of Suzuki's singers - Türk & Kooy - participated in both of his recordings. 2 soprano singers - Augér and Schlick - also recorded it twice, and with different conductors. 6 of the recordings are 'Traditional' and 4 are 'modern'. The recordings vary in length - from about 36 minutes to about 44 minutes. The list of soloists is almost frightening. Look, for example, on the names of the tenor singers - Jelden, Haefliger, Equiluz, Kraus, Schreier, Mey, Türk, and some less familiar names. On top of it there are the recordings of individual moments from BWV 21, the most popular of them are the Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) and the aria for soprano (Mvt. 3). An exciting experience is awaiting us. Shall we find a clear winner, or will every recording have its ups and downs? This is a challenging cantata for the performers. There are virtuosic parts and quiet parts. This cantata touches very deep emotions, and a performer has to dig deep into his soul and be brave enough to expose them out, if he or she wants to convince that he (or she) has done his (or her) job right. It is less challenging for the listeners, because all we have to do is open up our ears and listen. Yet, a round of about 7 hours of listening to 10 recordings of the same piece of music is not an easy task. And if we want to penetrate under the surface, we have to do this round more than once. I feel like a marathon runner before the starting of a race. Let's begin.
 Fritz Werner (Early 1960’s)
On the first round I thought to myself that this was not a good beginning for the cycle of recordings of BWV 21. I thought that this rendering was played too slowly and that it sounded tired. On the second round it has been improved. Now it sounded calm and deep. Indeed, the choir is too big, the singers have some vibrato and the playing of the orchestra is somewhat old-fashioned. But in a very strange way it was refreshing hearing this approach after the relatively fast and chamber in nature modern interpretations (Herreweghe, Koopman & Suzuki). It is relaxed, serious and (in the first part) profoundly sad. The vibrato in Selig's voice makes her interpretation even more convincing. Jelden is a classic Evangelist type tenor singer. He transfers so splendidly the various moods of his recitative and his beautiful voice is an added bonus. In the ensuing aria he is almost weeping. Wenk is a convincing Jesus - authoritative, sensitive, calming, and compassionate. And for such relatively big choir, every voice and line can be clearly heard and they transfer successfully the hope and the confidence in the Lord.
 Karl Richter (1969)
Richter takes the large scale, almost symphonic approach. Actually this approach characterizes his renderings in general. I am sure that he believed in his way and for some cantatas it produced wonders. However in BWV 21 some modesty and intimacy are more suitable. The first two movements are dramatic rather than sad. But then the movements for vocal soloists arrive and we are compensated. How can we give up this recording, when it includes great Bach singers, such as Mathis, Haefliger, and Fischer-Dieskau? Mathis sings her aria beautifully, but she does not penetrate as deep as her predecessor does. One can marvel at her singing, but not at her interpretation. We are used to take Fischer-Dieskau for granted, because his praises have been sung endless times, that we tend to forget what a convincing Jesus can he be. Good as Fischer-Dieskau is the main reason to hear this recording is Haefliger. The accompaniment he is gefrom Richter in the recitative and aria for Tenor is too big to be sensitive, yet he is succeeding to convey the distress, the despair and the sorrow of his condition, and he is doing that with a splendid voice. The chemistry and the mutual understanding between Mathis and Fischer-Dieskau in the two duet movements produce touching results. She is better here than in her solo aria. Maybe she was inspired by the presence of her partner. Haefliger, who was so convincing in conveying the deep sorrow and pain of his first aria (Mvt. 3), deliver successfully the transformation to rejoice and comfort in his second aria (Mvt. 10). The focus is on the word 'transformation', because he gives the feeling the he is encouraging himself.
 Helmuth Rilling (1970; 1st recording)
Immediately, at opening notes of the Sinfonia (Mvt. 1), you can feel that the chamber quality, which was so missing from Richter's recording of BWV 21, is evident here. Consequently, the deep sorrow expressed by the playing of the oboe against the strings is much deeper and more touching. The same is true for the first chorus Mvt. 2). The dejected mood is enhanced by certain softness in the singing of the choir. I am sure that Mattheson had not been so disturbed, if he would had heard this choir singing 3 (+1) times the word 'ich'. The Soprano has light and gentle voice, but also too prominent vibrato. Melzer has classic timbre of Bach Tenor. His interpretation in the recitative and first aria is pleasant, but a little bit exaggerated and superficial. More restraint would be in place here. Burns is also very convincing in the role of the soul, worried and frightened. Her Jesus, Reich, is authoritative, but does not have the right amount of compassion to be convincing that she can rely on him. The too strong accompaniment in the recitative also spoils the delicate balance. The two duet movements, which in some of the other recordings are the centerpiece of the cantata, are here the least successful. The last chorus movement (Mvt. 11) is performed here by both the vocal soloists and the choir. In this recording it shows the weakness of the soloists, because their voices do not blend well together.
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1973)
The opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) is painted with very old and beautiful colors. The first choral movement (No.2) is played very fast with razor-sharp singing of the choir, which I do not find very convincing. This is not the way to convey despair and sorrow. The boy Soprano has an interesting voice, however he avoids of expressing any feeling. It convince me that this movement should be sung by a mature woman and not by a boy. All the feelings and the drama so missing from the previous movements are expressed by the Tenor Kurt Equiluz in his recitative and aria (Mvts. 3 & 4). The sadness in the violin playing in the aria plays an equal part to the tenor singing. The boy soprano is better in the role of the soul in the two duet movements (Mvts. 7 & 8), where the heavy task is divided between him and the very good Wyatt in the role of consoling Jesus. Equiluz is good again in his second aria (Mvt. 10), where his interpretation is surprisingly similar to that of Haefliger (with Richter). The most interesting and impressive parts of this recording are the chorus movements (Mvts. 6, 9 & 11), where Harnoncourt chooses to divide the vocal parts between the solo voices and the choir. He weaves all the components (solo voices, choir, various solo instruments, and continuo) into a rich and convincing whole.
 Helmuth Rilling (Late 1976; 2nd recording)
The first two movements in Rilling's second rendering are very similar to his first recording. Actually all the performance reminds us of his previous recording. The soloists, who are much better here, make the main difference. This was the recording through which I knew this cantata. With all the unjustified reservations I had then with this cantata (see personal viewpoint above), I remembered this recording favorably. Like good wine (we are reminded of wine in movements (Mvt. 8 & Mvt. 10), it has only improved during the past 15 years. The singing of the choir in the second movement is touching, where the break between the first and the second sections (after the word 'aber'), causes your heart to stop. All the three singers excel in their performances from every possible aspect - beauty of voice, understanding of the words, interpretation, conveying of feelings, mutual listening to each other, etc. An added bonus in this recording is the playing of the instruments. Non-HIP, indeed, yet marvelous in their way. I was mesmerized by this recording. It leaves nothing to be desired, except hearing it again and again.
 Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (1981-1983)
Like Richter and Rilling (2nd recording), the main assets of Rotzsch recording are his vocal soloists Augér, Schreier, and Lorenz. To this he adds slightly quicker tempos, quicker than we are used to expect from him, and more intimate and light approach. His choir is also smaller than that of Richter, and they sing with more sensitiveness. The playing of the orchestra in the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) is lighter and less deep than both recordings of Rilling. The same approach is evident also in the beautiful singing of the choir in the second movement. The aria for soprano (Mvt. 3) is very similar to the second Rilling's recording, and not only because the singer in both is the marvelous Augér. But somehow I have the feeling, in her aria, as well in the two ensuing movements for tenor (which are sung by the sublime Schreier), that most of the emotional weight is laid on the shoulders of the solo singers, rather than on the light and airy playing of the accompaniment. This observation does not disturb me at all in the two duet movements, because the main focus is the dialogue between the solo voices and not between solo voice and instruments. And the accompaniment in these two movements should be kept humble, as it is indeed the case. The chemistry between Augér and Lorenz is hard to match. Even if you do not understand a word in German, you can easily follow the chain of events through their singing. All the choral movements (Mvts. 2, 6, 9, & 11) are sung only by the choir without involvement of the vocal soloists as both Harnoncourt and Rilling do, but I find it interesting and satisfying.
 Sigiswald Kuijken (1989)
I do not have this recording. Based on the excellent job that Kuijken did in the recording of BWV 82, BWV 49, & BWV 58 for Accent label, I have high hopes from him. His chamber and sensitive approach can produce wonders with BWV 21.
 Philippe Herreweghe (1990)
Tenderness and deep sorrow characterize the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) of Herreweghe's recording. In the first section of the second movement I got the impression that Herreweghe taught his choir only to sing together but also to fell sadness together. In the second section they sing with virtuosity, passing successfully their coloratura parts. I feel that they do not express openly their joy. As though they have still memories of the sad moments. Crook, the tenor in the third movement, has tender voice, but his expression is somewhat less deep than some of his predecessors do. He is doing interesting thing, like the moment in which he stops singing because the tears fill his throat. But he does not hold full attention along the aria. The weeping is transferred by the playing of the oboe (Ponseele). I think that all tparts in the chorale movements are sung by the choir. But Herreweghe is changing the number of voices per part from one voice to four (and more), as needed. As a result it sounds very homogeneous and natural. Harvey is an ideal Jesus - authoritative, compassionate and loving. Regarding her voice, Schlick is in her prime. She sings lightly and smoothly with a rare beauty of tone. But she is lacking in deepness, as if she is more interested in producing a clean line than in deep expression. In the two duet movements she sounds more like a woman in love than as a troubled soul. The playing of the cello in the second aria for Tenor (No.10) is gorgeous and it compensate for less convincing singing. All in all, the emphasis of this recording is on the beauty of playing rather than on the dramatic aspect. It sounds as if Herreweghe let the drama comes from within.
 Peter Marschick (1993)
I do not have this recording.
 Ton Koopman (1994)
Koopman chose to perform an early version of the cantata, where all the solo movements are sung by the soprano (Movements No.3, 4, 5, 7, 8, & 10). It becomes a kind of solo cantata and Schlick is not up to her task. Regarding her expressive abilities (or wants) she has not improved much since the recording with Herreweghe, 4 years earlier. Here all the heavy tasks are laid on her shoulders, and to my taste, she is not interesting enough. She is virtuosic rather than touching. The good parts of this recording are the orchestra and the choir. The playing of all the instruments is clean and sensitive, both in the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) and in the accompanying roles. All the lines are clearly heard in the singing of the choir, which has kind of pleasant warmth, missing from the singing of some of the other choirs, which perform this cantata. Also in the happy sections they show some enthusiasm, which is also lacking from some of the other choirs. Mertens is as good Jesus as Harvey (with Herreweghe), but he sounds to me less inspired than his usual self. The balance between him and Schlick is not good. She sounds too prominent and close, and he is a little bit far behind. Maybe it was done deliberately. I do not know. The main problem of this recording is that most of the tragic and sorrowful side concluded in the opening phrase 'Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis' is missing.
 Diego Fasolis (1994)
I do not have this recording. Based on the discussion about the Magnificat BWV 243 in the Bach Recordings List couple of weeks ago (with which BWV 21 is coupled on the same CD), I understand that many members of the list are very fond of this recording. I would like to hear their opinion, especially if they also have other recordings of BWV 21, to which this recording can be compared.
 Masaaki Suzuki (1997; 1st recording)
In the first two movements (Sinfonia (Mvt. 1) and Chorus Mvt. 2)) we hear the main characteristics of this rendering - clarity, transparency, precise and detailed. On the one hand, there are not mannerisms in this performance. On the other hand, sometimes it sounds impersonal and therefore less exciting and touching, almost neutral. When the third movement comes, we are surprised by hearing a soprano singing and not a tenor. Then we realize that we actually hearing the early version of this cantata. AFAIK, this is the only recording of this version, and our ears, which have been tuned to hear other voices singing the same parts, have difficulties to accept it. With repeated hearing we find the beauty and ease with which Bach transposed the parts to new voices, so that they sound natural and right to us. The explanation to the various versions of this cantata is detailed in the linear notes, which were written by Suzuki himself. Most of the solo tasks are performed by the Soprano Monica Frimmer (No.3, 4, 7, 8, & 10), and she is doing a splendid job. Her voice is clean and pleasant, even if lacks something in emotional involvement (maybe it is the influence of the conductor). In the two duet movements I find that there is not enough tension between the Bass and the Soprano, good as their voices are. The chorus movements are sung by the choir only, without participation of the soloists, and I find their voices clean and clear and very natural. In the recording of the alternative movements we hear Türk singing the role of the soul, which is usually given to soprano. He has a beautiful and expressive voice, but he sounds too mature to be fully convincing,
 Massaki Suzuki (1999; 2nd recording)
Two years passed since Suzuki recorded his previous and early version of this cantata. In the meantime he has gained more confidence and he allows himself (and his forces) now to be more dramatic, expressive, touching and deepening. I shall summarize my view shortly - this is the best of the modern recordings of this cantata. There is open expression of feelings. Even the instruments are weeping in the opening Sinfonia (Mvt. 1). Nonoshita voice and singing has everything one could wish for - purity, naivety, sensitivity to the words, and angelic voice. All the deficiencies of her modern competitors in this role become more evident after we listen to her. Both Türk and Kooy has improved in terms of expression, and in the terms of beauty of tone they did not have anything to improve. I wrote enough. I shall let Ryan complete the picture for you.
Recordings of Individual Movements
I wrote down all the recordings of individual movements take from BWV 21 that I am aware of. I wrote it only for the sake of completeness. After listening to 10 complete recordings of this cantata, at least twice to each one of them, I am totally convinced that this cantata should not be broken into parts. There is flow of ideas from one movement into the other; there is continuity and gradual transformation from despair to hope, from agony to relief, from distress to joy. If you listen to this cantata in its entirety, and follow also the words, the experience you get is so strong, that when its end comes, you feel satisfied. How can one take only one movement from this cantata and listen to it separately? I do not understand.
[M-2] Helmut Winschermann (1966, Sinfonia (Mvt. 1))
[M-4] Elly Ameling (1983, Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 3))
This is a problematic record. I wrote something about it in the review of BWV 75.
[M-7] Alexander String Quartet with Betsy Norden (1988; Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 3))
[M-11] Anthony Robson (1995; Sinfonia (Mvt. 1))
I do not have this record.
[M-16] Nienke & Pauline Oostenrijk (1998; Aria for Soprano (Mvt. 3))
I do not have this record.
[M-12] Robert Sadin with Kathleen Battle (1997; Aria for soprano (Mvt. 3))
I do not have this record.
It is a big problem for me to choose between the above mentioned recordings. Although they are quite different from each other in various aspects, I find that all the recordings of BWV 21 manage to bring out the sadness, the tenderness, the desolation and the loneliness. Every recording has its ups and downs (some more, some less), but each one them represents a complete world-view, contained within itself. I cannot dare thinking of splitting a certain movement from one recording and transplanting it into another. But above all two recordings shine - from the 'Old School' - Rilling's second recording and from the 'New School' - Suzuki's second. With such beautiful renderings of cantata it is easy to adopt it to be ‘your song’. For many of the Bach cantatas lovers, BWV 21 is already ‘their song’ - the diamond of the crown.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.