Cantata BWV 38Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of November 4, 2001
Aryeh Oron wrote (November 7, 2001)
So wonderful music! So short time to listen!
I have been listening to the four recordings of Cantata BWV 38 several times, without any preparation. Only after couple of days of listening, I got to read what the scholars have to say about it. As in many previous cases, I found W. Murray Young as the most illuminating writer (for me). I had a kind of internal dialogue with his writings, comparing them with my own conclusions. Hereinafter are Young commentary and my personal remarks.
“This chorale cantata for the 21st Sunday after Trinity has its libretto based on Luther’s hymn of this title, which was sung at Luther’s funeral - Psalm 130, De Profundis, in his German Translation.
The unknown librettist refers to the Gospel, John 4: 47-54 - Jesus heals a nobleman’s son – in the fourth number but quotes the first and the fifth stanzas of Luther’s hymn for the opening chorus and for the finale chorale. All the intervening stanzas are paraphrased.
Mvt. 1 Chorus
Bach sets this melody in the style of a Pachelbel motet, which would be familiar to his Lutheran congregation. Without any instrumental prelude, the basses begin to sing a fugue accompanied by the full orchestra. The other voices follow in turn to begin each of the following lines in canon. The rhythm of solemnity portrays a serious mood, appropriate for the supplication in the text. The chorale fantasia, with its direct appeal for God’s help in times of distress, sets the emotional stage for all subsequent numbers.
Mvt. 2 Recitative for Alto
The violoncello and organ continuo support for explanation that comfort and forgiveness can only come from the Saviour’s mercy. Satan’s deceit and cunning afflict the whole life of a man. Our prayers will bring spiritual joys only if we believe in the wonderful works of Jesus.
Mvt. 3 Aria for tenor
The two oboes accompany this aria, the only one in the cantata. It is thought that Bach borrowed its melody from another unknown aria, because its declamation does not always conform with the tune.
Mvt. 4 Recitative with Chorale for Soprano
The chorale melody is played ‘a battuta’ (in tempo) by the violoncello and the organ of the continuo during her declamation. This is the sole instance in any recitative where Bach uses this method. She laments that her belief is so weak that she feels it is built on damp ground. How can she not know her Helper, who rescues her from the misery even though her faith is weak? She says that she must trust His almighty hand and that the truth He speaks.
Mvt. 5 Terzett (Trio) for Soprano, Alto, Bass
The only earlier trio in any cantata occurred in BWV 150, but Bach will use it again in BWV 122 and BWV 116 during his last period of cantata composition. As in the previous recitatives, this number is accompanied only by the continuo’s violoncello and organ, thus leaving the voices paramount in their singing. Its melody has a fine joy-motif which, with the canon singing of the trio, produces a miniature motet.
Mvt. 6 Chorale
The fifth stanza of Luther’s chorale is here performed tutti, with the rhythm of solemnity as in the opening chorus, but ending in a note of confidence in the Lord’s redeeming power.”
Few personal remarks
a. Most of the reviewers, Young included, critisize the aria for tenor for its faulty declamation. In the hands of a good tenor singer it seems that the music reflects the spirit of words and it can become a fascinating experience.
b. Only a week ago the issue of trios in Bach’s vocal works was discussed in the BRML, and here we have, as it was invited especially for us, a trio of the highest order. Could this trio be sung by a small choir? I believe that it is legitimate to try such approach. After all with choral parts sung OVPP we get interesting results. Why not trying the opposite direction?
c. This cantata is built so well, and the general mood and atmosphere are kept through all its movements, that I became aware that it contains only one real aria only after reading Young’s commentary.
d. A much more famous cantata, BWV 131 ‘Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir’, is based on the same Psalm 130, and the general mood and message of both cantatas are very similar. I wonder why this connection was not mentioned by any of the scholars.
Review of the Recordings
The details of the recordings can be found at: Cantata BWV 38 - Recordings.
(1) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1974)
The earlier – the better? Looking at previous cantata discussions I have come to conclusion, that in most of the cases, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt earlier cantata recordings in their joint cycle for Teldec (previously Telefunken) are to be preferred to their latter recordings. Since this cantata cycle was recorded chronologically according to the BWV number, it means that cantatas with the lower BWV number get the better treatment. Cantata BWV 38 is no exception. The singing of the choir in the opening chorus has more flow than we have learnt to expect from Harnoncourt. Certainly it is far of being dogmatic. The entry of each voice is sharp like a razor, and each vocal line can be easily followed. This rendition has a kind of meditative quality. Nevertheless, it lacks something in the emotional content. Equiluz has very few rivals when the task is to perform an aria with declamatory nature, as the aria for tenor of this cantata. He brings out much more variety, emotion, and sensitivity that this aria seems to offer. With him this aria becomes a spiritual experience. And the charming oboes are reflecting what is happening within his soul. The trio is almost perfect. The voices of Esswood and van der Meer match well with each other. The anonymous boy soprano has a pleasant voice (in the trio) but his singing sounds alien to the others. Therefore this rendition of the trio is getting somewhat out of focus and is a little bit unbalanced.
(2) Karl Richter (1977-1978)
The grand scale approach presented by Karl Richter seems to work against the nature of the opening chorus. Of course, Richter has an excellent choir, but although they are doing their best, there is more clarity in the vocal lines of the three other renditions. This should be a sorrowful plea, which comes deep from the painful heart of the human soul. In Richter hands, it is respectable and dignified, but not utterly emotional. The aria for tenor is performed relatively fast (6:04, against 7:51 (Harnoncourt/Equiluz), 7:17 (Rilling/Harder), 7:46 (Leusink/Meel)) and the result is that is sounds as a different work altogether. Instead of declamation of suffering and comfort, we hear cheerful plainsong. It is a wonder that both Schreier and the oboes do not lose control in this velocity. The joy expressed in the aria continues into this unique movement. The balance between the three voices is not well set. The contralto is somewhat more prominent than the other voices. The accompanying organ is heavy and unclear.
 Helmuth Rilling (1980)
After Richter the opening chorus in Rilling’s rendition sounds so human, so vulnerable, so touching. The entry of the basses is so soft and delicate. The sorrow and the pain are intensifying with the entry of each voice, up to a level of overflowing. The glass of tears is inflated up to being unbearable. Lutz-Michael Harder has tougher and more robust voice than either Adalbert Kraus or (the usual tenor singers in Rilling’s cantata cycl). The dramatic quality oh his approach adds a dimension of internal tension to his aria. When needed, he can also be soft and the variety of the means he uses makes this rendition of the aria something to which you want to listen over and over again. Some writers think that this aria is too long, but I believe that the source for such conclusion is the bare notes. As Leonard Bernstein once said, there is much more in Bach’s music than the notes tell us. A good performer, such as Harder, can cause us to be fascinated by an aria, which apparently seems to be too long. The match between the voices of the soprano (Arleen Augér), the alto (Helen Watts) and the bass (Philippe Huttenlocher) is magical and their singing together is moving. This is intelligent rendition, because they manage to do it without trying to overshadow each other. They listen to each other; their entries are precise. The playing of the organ is delicate and sensitive. The warm singing of the choir in the simple concluding chorale finish a very satisfying and uplifting rendition of the whole cantata.
 Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)
Leusink’s choir is definitely smaller than that of Rilling, and the tender approach he takes for the opening chorus is arresting with its delicacy and simplicity. Their singing is clear and clean, and each voice can be clearly heard. Knut Schoch cannot hold one’s attention in the same way that Equiluz and Harder do. But although his singing is not as interesting as theirs, he still manages to keep the melodiousness and simplicity of the aria for tenor. The Terzett is sung nicely by Holton, Buwalda and Ramselaar, and their voices blend beautifully, although it is on lower level emotionally than Rilling’s rendition is.
My personal ratings: Rilling (3), Leusink , Harnoncourt (1), Richter (2).
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Thomas Braatz wrote (November 8, 2001):
See: Cantata BWV 38 – Provenance
Commentaries: [Voigt, Schweitzer, Smend Dürr] / The Esoteric Bach (Gematria) / The Libretto / The Music
See: Cantata BWV 38 – Commentary
This week I listened to all four of the existing recordings of this cantata: Harnoncourt (1974) (1); Richter (1978) (2); Rilling (1980) (3); and Leusink (2000) .
Mvt. 1: Here Harnoncourt presents his primarily non-legato approach to choral singing. For instance, on the word "Not" in the first line of the chorale, he reduces by half the indicated note value. The result is that this recording has many more detached notes than any other recording, a typical Harnoncourt innovation that impressed listeners because it sounded different. A comparable situation today is happening in the HIP versions of a number of newer string orchestras that play so aggressively that all you can hear at times is scratching and the wooden bow hitting the string without a definable musical note to be heard. One group copies another to see who, in the end, can reach the ultimate fast tempo with percussive sounds that a certain audience may like. The fact is that music making of this type was already being decried during Bach's lifetime, just as non-legato singing, particularly of sacred music, was never part of a mainstream choral tradition.
The general impression conveyed by this recording is one that lacks strength and conviction. One might think, that by 'poking' the notes, a greater strength might be attained, but here the opposite effect is achieved. The balance between the voices is slightly off due to the weak performance by the tenors. An interesting sound (which I question as being authentic) is that of the higher trombones [trombone 1 plays colla parte with the sopranos and trombone 2 with the altos]. These instruments sound extremely reedy, more like a soprano saxophone, or better yet a cross between a Jew's harp and a kazoo. Now someone try to tell me that trombones used to sound like that in Bach's time! I noticed in the accompanying booklet that none of these were original instruments. Just another one of those cases like those with trumpets, slide trumpets and horns, where not a single instrument has come down to us intact?
Mvt. 2: Esswood begins out of tune (flat, as usual). The bc has many foreshortened note values, one of Harnoncourt's mistaken notions about how Bach's recitatives are supposed to be played. Mvt. 3: Equiluz gives us another of his superior performances. He is truly a magician in conveying the message of the text with an intimacy the touches the heart of the listener, while at the same time letting the beauty of the musical line take the shape that Bach intended. Unfortunately the instrumental ensemble tries to make his task as difficult as possible: the plodding bassoon sounds about as clumsy as a bassoon at its worst can sound, and the oboes refuse to even attempt to play 'piano' each time the voice enters (as indicated in the score by Bach). Another Harnoncourt 'twist' is to introduce a ritardando over several measure on the word, "Scheiden," at the end of the middle section. Here Harnoncourt is completely anachronistic (non-HIP) in the application of such an unmarked ritardando. Mvt. 4 The soprano soloist's voice does not always obey his command in this recitative. Mvt. 5 In the terzetto the two upper voices have intonation problems - they are not always in tune with each other. Mvt. 6 The final chorale is sung in a style that might best be described as charming or gentle. This is utterly inappropriate for this text and this chorale. Yet, it is unusual that the choir sings with a relatively legato style (unusual for Harnoncourt).
Mvt. 1 As if the trombones, strings, and oboes doubling the vocal parts was not enough, Richter insists on having his organ heard above the voices of the choir. This choir seems very secure in the notes it is singing, that I can not understand why Richter would have to do this. Vanity, perhaps? This is a very powerful performance which the music and text certainly demand. In this performance you can almost feel how Bach puts his fingers on the pulse of the early Reformation. At times the word, "Schreien" (shout or scream) is taken too literally, for you can hear the tenors, in particular, almost shouting the words as they sing with a somewhat coarse voice. The basses sound slightly muffled at times. Mvt. 2 Schmidt has a full operatic voice, but sings clearly with good expression. Mvt. 3: Richter takes this mvt. at the fastest tempo of all the recordings and it seems to work well with the emphasis now on the word "Trostwort" ("word of comfort, consolation") which should evoke a positive attitude among the listeners. Schreier gives a performance equal to that of Equiluz but very different in style and expression. Schreier is more direct, whereas Equiluz makes an intimate appeal to the listener. Both approaches work well when accomplished
with such finesse by these great singers. Mvt. 4: Mathis is terrible. This is truly a disgrace. She is much to operatic and what is worse, she no longer is able to completely control her voice. Mvt. 5: Mathis destroys the terzetto as well. She does not even bother to listen to the other voices. For the same motifs in this very polyphonic mvt. both female voices sing different phrasingthan the bass. There is no agreement on how similar phrases are to be sung. Each soloist becomes a prima donna, not really caring about what the other voices are singing.. Mvt. 6: The final chorale is sung with conviction. This is the best version of the chorale in all the recordings made of this cantata. (Rilling comes in as a close second choice.)
Mvt. 1: Rilling has very good balance between all the voices. Every individual part is delineated, even the strings can be clearly heard. As usual there are a few operatic voices in the choir that detract from the solid sound that such a choir should have. This is particularly disturbing in the cantus firmus, where the chorale melody must have a clear, unwavering sound. Mvt. 2: Watts is a bit too operatic in her version of this recitative. Mvt. 3: Harder's voice takes some getting used to. It has a strange nasal quality and sometimes, on the high notes, he has to strain his voice. Rilling has a good tempo, although it is not as fast as Richter's. The bc is rather heavy with both bassoon and string bass playing mainly legato (compare this with Richter's version which tends to be more staccato). Mvt. 4: Augér is trying too hard for expression and strains on the notes in the higher range. Very disturbing is the bassoon vibrato on what should be the steady, clear notes of the cantus firmus in the bc. Mvt. 5: This entire mvt. sounds belabored, as if a great effort is being expended simply to present all the correct notes. The chains alluded to in the text never seem to fall although this is what the text promises us. This is what the listener experiences in this much too operatic performance. Mvt. 6: A good, standard performance of the chorale by the Rilling choir.
Mvt. The general impression here is one of singing without any great interest in the music. There is hesitation without any of the necessary strength of conviction needed to convey the text properly. There are weak entrances and the cantus firmus in general is too weak even with trombone 1, oboes 1 and 2, and violin 1 playing the same notes! As usual certain individual voices suddenly rise above the choir sound. The Buwalda-type voices in the altos distract considerably from having any sort of unified choral sound. Perhaps it is Buwalda himself who is trying to lead the altos? The yodelers also make occasional appearances to round out this rather uninteresting performance. Mvt. 2: Buwalda is flat at the beginning, but then recovers. He even becomes rather good toward the end when he sings without any vibrato, but by then the volume in his half-voice is reduced to such a degree that it is on the verge of disappearing. Listen to his funny expression on the 1st syllable of "Sündengreuel." Such vocal antics are completely out of place here in a Bach recitative. Mvt. 3: Knut Schoch [Aryeh claims Nico van der Meel sang this aria - actually the fact that these voices are almost indistinguishable and leave no distinct impression on the listener does not speak well for the type of voices that we hear in this series] with his half-voice exhibits a 'dead' quality in his voice that fails to move or engage the listener. Even the oboes are not up to their usual better standard. Instead of "Trost" ("comfort, consolation"), the feeling the listener comes away with is one of being "trostlos" ("hopeless"). Mvt. 4: Holton, with her tiny voice, does some strange things
here: on the 'trau' of "Vertrauen" she 'drags' off the top note to the lower one. Portamento in Bach? Is Holton aspiring to become an operatic singer? Mainly, she softly 'taps' all the notes very cautiously. After a while this technique becomes tiresome for the listener who expects just a little more from the singer. Mvt. 5: Here the polyphony can be heard properly. It is not covered up by prima donnas trying to outdo each other. Unfortunately, Buwalda's voice does not blend well with the others. His voice sounds like a thin reed that sticks out because of its unusual quality. It simply does not belong here with the other voices. Mvt. 6: This chorale version is much too fast for such a serious text. Leusink has no true sense of appropriateness here. The yodelers are also present. The last few words sung die out without any strength, a quality that unfortunately is true for the entire performance of this cantata. "Ok, we did this one, which cantata are we recording tomorrow?"
For the 1st and last mvts.: Either Richter (2) or Rilling (3) with Richter having a very slight edge, but not by much.
Mvt. 2 : probably Schmidt (Richter) (2)
Mvt. 3: Schreier (2) and Equiluz (1) both sing this aria excellently. They both disprove the bad opinion that some of the commentators have had of this aria. With Equiluz try to tune-out the unrestrained, clumsy instrumentalists as much as you can.
Mvt. 4: Augér (3) and Holton , but with great reservations concerning both.
Mvt. 5: None, but if you want to concentrate on the polyphonic structure of this mvt. without getting very excited about the musical content and expression, perhaps the Leusink  might be best.
Dick Wursten wrote (November 8, 2001):
Some questions and remarks after reading some comments and listening to the cantate.
1. Aryeh Oron writes: < Only a week ago the issue of trios in Bach's vocal works was discussed in the BRML, and here we have, as it was invited especially for us, a trio of the highest order. Could this trio be sung by a small choir? I believe that it is legitimate to try such approach. After all with choral parts sung OVPP we get interesting results. Why not trying the opposite direction? >
I am not familiar with the abbrevitations used above. Can you clarify them to me ? BRML en OVPP. I personally have good experiences with singing with very small choirs, almost solistic (2 per voice), sometimes even replacing a human voice with an instrument.
2. I am jealous: you all seem to have more than one complete edition to listen to. I only have some Herreweghes and all the Leusinks. I must say I don't agree with Aryeh in his appreciation of the opening choir of Leusink . This choir (and this director) knows nothing of polyfonic singing. Never are his musical lines horizontal, always extremely vertical and conducted alla battuto (if that is a correct expression). So I agree with the opinion of Thomas Braatz: yodelers and the forced altos !
3. The cantate itself pleased me. Simple and expressive. The beautiful Luther-chorale (one of Luther and Walters first co-productions, 1524. Notice the beautiful text-expression in the (Phrygic) melody in the first line on the words Aus tiefer Not...). Even in the very flat performance of Leusink  I can enjoy the things Bach did. Esp. mvt 5 I liked very much. Leusink is always the best when the instrumentalists and the soloist can do their thing...
Time to get to work again.
Aryeh Oron wrote (November 8, 2001):
[To Dick Wursten] Welcome aboard!
Dick Wursten wrote:
< [snip] I am not familiar with the abbrevitations used above. Can you clarify them to me ? BRML en OVPP. >
Explanations for terms and abbreviations used in the various discussions appear inthe following page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Term/index.htm
BRML = Bach Recordings Mailing List
OVPP = One Voice Per Part
[snip] 2. I am jealous: you all seem to have more than one complete edition to
listen to. I only have some Herreweghes and all the Leusinks. I must say I don't agree with Aryeh in his appreciation of the opening choir of Leusink . This choir (and this director) knows nothing of polyfonic singing. Never are his musical lines horizontal, always extremely vertical and conducted alla battuto (if that is a correct expression). So I agree with the opinion of Thomas Braatz: yodelers and the forced altos ! >
I would not like to argue about personal taste. But what do you mean by 'knows nothing of polyfonic singing'. How comes that I hear each vocal line clearly in Leusink's rendition , and that the voices blend so nicely? The recording of the opening chorus under Leusink's hands is not as dramatic and as moving as Rilling's rendition  is, yet it has a subdued charm and calmness. The basses start so quitely, as if to illustate how deep and helpless they are. What do I miss? I agree that the middle voices (altos and tenors) in this recording are somewhat stronger than the sopranos and the basses. But, IMO, this approach contributes to the clarity. I know that even Herreweghe has used this method quite often in his recordings of Bach's vocal works.
Dick Wursten wrote (November 8, 2001):
Aryeh Oron wondered:
< what do you mean by Leusink  'knows nothing of polyfonic singing'. How comes that I hear each vocal line clearly in Leusink's rendition, and that the voices blend so nicely? The recording of the opening chorus under Leusink's hands is not as dramatic and as moving as Rilling's rendition  is, yet it has a subdued charm and calmness. The basses start so quitely, as if to illustate how deep and helpless they are. What do I miss? >
THIS is what I mean:
Leusink’s choir  accentuates almost every note. This is typically Dutch (a remnant: The Dutch reformed sang the Genevan psalms (renaissance melodies !!) for centuries iso-rhytmic shouting as loud as possible on every note.) This is completely unnatural. When you pronounce a sentence properly, there is rhytm in it, it becomes a phrase. So phrasing is essential... some syllables get accentuated, others not. WHEN STRESSING EVERY NOTE AS MUCH AS THE OTHER IT BECOMES VERY BORING AND I GET VERY TIRED OF LISTENING.
In 'vertical' (but they are not vertical by Bach) harmonisations of the Lutheran chorals this way of singing (when kept legato and when they don't start shouting) is still acceptable (at least it is preferable above the expressive and manieristic, madrigalistic way of a pure estheticist like Herreweghe). In polyphonic (or imitative, fugatic etc..) coro's this way of singing kills the music.
Phrasing = horizontal, linear. You have to know where the phrase starts and where it ends to pronounce it porperly. You have to be aware of the length of a phrase (by Bach it can be considerable), you have to make - esp. in long phrases - extremely clear where the central thought is expressed and where words are more ornamental or only preparatory for the next...
Polyphonic music is boring when phrasing is bad of absent. Polypohnic music becomes extremely exciting when every voice takes it own phrase seriously and expresses it properly. A good polyphonic composor will make it happen that exactly when every voice is concentrating on his own melodic line the (singing horizontally, linear, phrasing correctly) the interaction between the melodic lines will give the music its tension and surprising 'surplus' in expressivity. (masters in polyphonic souplesse, subtle phrasing and natural singing: Huelgas ensemble)
The preface of the Clavierbüchlein: the instrumental Inventions and Sinfonias of this booklet are meant to give examples how to compose but "am allermeisten aber eine cantable Art im Spielen zu erlangen"... I stress the word 'cantable'. When Bach insisted for instruments like the clavichord, clavecin, organ, that one should try to play 'as if one is singing'. How much more this is imperative for singing itself. Never should there be any hint of mechanicality and sterility in any of Bachs pieces of music, not even in the most complicated fugue.
I hope I made myself clear... and did not offend anyone.
Harnoncourt/Leonhardt or Kurt Richter?
Alfonso Anso Rojo wrote (January 24, 2005):
Hello, it's me again (I'm the new member)
I've got all The Complete Cantatas (Das Kantatenwerk), registered and published in Teldec label, and the recordings are performed by Gustav Leonhardt (with the Leonhardt Consort) and by N. Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus Wien.
But I have also two versions of the Cantata BWV 38: the one in Das Kantatenwerk , and another one directed by Kurt Richter .
In Das Kantatenwerk, the recordings are made with original instruments, but Richter's recording is also made with original instruments and the two versions sounds quite different!
I like Leonhart and Harnoncourt, but Richter's version is not bad too. What do you think of the two versions? (Harnoncourt/Leonhardt vs. Richter)? I'm not asking which one is the best, because I think there are different, but I'd like to hear your opinion.
Bart O'Brien wrote (January 24, 2005):
Alfonso Anso Rojowrote:
< In Das Kantatenwerk, the recordings are made with original instruments, but Richter's recording is also made with original instruments and the two versions sounds quite different! >
I can't comment on the recordings you mention, but the above snip is interesting.
What does the expression 'original instruments' mean? Is an instrument either 'original' or 'not original' or are there variants?
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 38: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4