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Cantata BWV 57
Selig ist der Mann
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of December 3, 1999 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (December 3, 1999):

There have not been too many transactions since this list dedicated to JSB's cantatas had been launched. I decided to try and contribute something in hope that it will encourage other members of the group to do the same.

Aria for Soprano

As every Cantata Lover knows, every cantata contains at least one memorable piece. For my comparison I chose the Aria for Soprano "Ich wünschte mir den Tod" from cantata BWV 57. I compared all the performances I have (at the moment) in my own library.

Before getting into detailed comparison, I would like to quote freely from the Robertson book.

"BWV 57 is a solo cantata composed in Leipzig in 1725. It is difficult to explain why this cantata is so devoid of the joy proper to the season. This apart, it is in itself a beautiful work.

Mvt. 3 Aria
Ich wünschte mir den Tod wenn du, mein Jesu, mich nicht liebest
("I should wish for me death if Thou, my Jesus, me not lovedst")
Soprano, 2 Violins. Viola, Organ, Continuo.

The mourning speech, long and full of pathos, has, I think, what can be legitimately be called a 'tear motif' woven into the instrumental part, characterized by the two-note quaver groups combined with an imploring second theme.
The voice enters with a melody of its own which recalls the 'Agnus Dei’ in the B Minor Mass (BWV 232). At 'Ja, wenn du mich annoch betrübtest' (Yea! If thou me yet grieved') the continuo bass has the 'tear motif' in the accompaniment to the imploring prayer which ends, 'So had I more than Hell's Misery'."

End quote from Robertson.

Review of the Recordings

[8] Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Peter Jelosits (boy soprano) (1976; Aria for Soprano: 6:01)
The movement is played very slowly. So slow that it really kills the flow of the music. Sometimes we tend to think that slowly is sad. But too slow is actually dead. The Boy Soprano has a pleasant voice in the lower register and very ugly one in the upper one, where he is actually screaming. The main problem is that the boy is unable to transfer the deep sorrow in this movement. He is not helped very much by the fragmented accompaniment, which does not flow.

[11] Philippe Herreweghe with Vasiljka Jezovšek (soprano) (1995; Aria for Soprano: 5:34)
Sounds, how would I say, ordinary. The Soprano has no special character. The accompaniment is the strong part of this performance - Very light and gentle.

[6] Jean-Marie Auberson with Maria Stader (soprano) (1964; Recitative and aria for Soprano: 7:57)
Old fashioned performance. Very romantic. Some would say, too romantic. The accompaniment is a little bit heavy and lacks some sensitivity. But Maria Stader is very emotional and she knows how to transfer deep feelings and sorrow. To my ears, she does not feel comfortable in the Bach environment, but no doubt she is doing her best.

[9] Helmuth Rilling with Arleen Augér (soprano) (1981-1982; Aria for Soprano: 6:59)
This is the best performance of them all. Augér is one of the great assets of the Rilling Cantata Series. She has very beautiful and penetrating voice in all registers. She uses vibrato very economically and in the right places. With her one has the feeling the she gives the right emotional weight to every syllable. I was deeply moved by her performance. The accompaniment is very precise and has a lot of taste too.

[13] Pieter Jan Leusink with Ruth Holton (soprano) (1999; Aria for Soprano: 6:07)
Holton has a very angelic voice, of the Emma Kirkby type (BTW, has Kirkby recorded this piece?). Less expressive end less moving than that of Augér. Her transfer of feeling is very gentle and underneath. She adds some ornamentations that I do not recall hearing in other singers of that piece. I have got the impression that the conductor to avoid too much feeling in her singing guided her. Like, let the music speaks for itself. I enjoyed the accompaniment too.

[7] Helmut Winschermann with Elly Ameling (soprano) (1970; Aria for Soprano: 4:41)
I kept that one to the end, because I remembered very favourably Ameling, who was the first one that I heard in this cantata more than 15 years ago. Hearing her now I was a little bit disappointed. The piece is played very fast. In this case (opposite to the 1st one) so fast up to eliminating very much of the sorrow of this piece. The voice still sounds beautiful, but the accompaniment is too rich.

To summarize, Augér/Rilling [9] is my first choice for this beautiful piece of music. I would like to hear other opinions.

Jane Newble wrote (December 3, 1999):
Thank you Aryeh, for that comparison. I only have Winschermann [7] and Herreweghe [11], and I do like Ameling very much. What you say about Rilling [9] makes me definitely want to get that.

Dyfan Lewis wrote (December 4, 1999):
Dear Aryeh! Thanks for your great contribution. I believe you also reminded us about the Herreweghe program on Arte and the fantastic Leipzig music program about the fall of the Wall and the commemorative concert. Keep coming!

HRS wrote (December 5, 1999):
Dear Aryeh, Your analysis is correct. And I must say, it’s for the most cantatas the same (old) story...!

Marie Jensen wrote (December 5, 1999):
Yes, BWV 57 is a wonderful cantata, though I must admit I still only have it as an old tape-recorded version with Harnoncourt [8]. I agree with you: The boy Soprano is not good enough. The use of boy sopranos is one of the major reasons that I try to avoid Harnoncourt versions.

BWV 57 is one of the "dialogue" cantatas between the human soul and Jesus. The soul is the Soprano, Jesus is the Bass and the symbol of their unification is bride and groom. Other perhaps more clear examples are BWV 32 and especially BWV 49. I find it more natural, that a woman sings the bride. But that is a modern kind of view. BWV 57 is for the 2nd Day of Christmas, which has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, but is dedicated to the first Christian martyr Stefanus who was stoned to dead, and the cantata describes love to Jesus and the longing to die for him, so that the soul and Jesus can be eternally united. If we compare with the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) made as 6 separate cantatas for the Christmas and New Year holidays not a word of Stefanus is mentioned. Did Bach from time to time get a permission to skip Stefanus? Does somebody know, please tell...

Wim Huisjes wrote (December 5, 1999):
I think there's a simple explanation: the death of Stefanus (the story can be found in The Acts 7:54 and on) has no place in the Protestant liturgical calendar. If that were true (Alfred Dürr seems to back me up here), Bach would have had no obligation to write a cantata to commemorate this event.

Interesting in the cantata is that the first martyr in the Old Testament (Abel) and the New Testament are mentioned. For a biblical reference: Matthew 23:35 and 10:16. The cantata and in particular the soprano aria deals with death and life (in salvation), the contrasts beautifully portrayed in the two contrasting themes in the Soprano Aria.

As for the recordings mentioned: I agree largely with the stated opinion on the Rilling/Augér recording [9]: probably the best, though I find it (with 7 minutes) a bit slow. Winschermann/Ameling [7] is hard to discard. The tempo is about the same as Herreweghe (it is on HMF) [11] aanother very well recorded one on Hungaroton: Pál Námeth with Maria Zádori (s) [10], also hard to discard. The boy soprano in the Harnoncourt performance [8] clearly is not up to his job. And Pieter Jan Leusink in the Kruidvat cycle [13] (the quality of these cantata recordings the best kept secret from Brilliant Classics till they came out): surprisingly good. But that has probably been discussed already... Recording companies do make things difficult these days, there's just too much...

Marie Jensen wrote (December 6, 1999):
[To Wim Huisjes] Wim, Thank you very much for your kind explanation. I wrote my mail having the Danish Lutheran church liturgical calendar in mind, where the 2nd Day of Christmas still is dedicated to St. Stefanus. But I know that Christmas traditions are very different around the world. I have heard that in England only 1st Day of Christmas is celebrated. Perhaps the Danish people took St. Stefanus to their heart to get an extra day off...And to night you Dutch celebrate Santa Claus! Hope he brings a lot of Bach CD's! Well Bach composed about Abel, Stefanus and Christ.... And no one have ever done better!

Simon Crouch wrote (December 14, 1999):
My (Protestant) lectionaries indicate that the 2nd Day of Christmas can be celebrated either way (as 2 Christmas or as St Stephen) - Thus BWV 57 does follow the story of the martyr and the Christmas Oratorio follows the text for 2 Christmas. Dürr says (pardon my terrible German translation and please correct me if I've read it wrong!):
"Under the Bach cantatas for 2 Christmas this is actually a St. Stephen's day cantata, because it refers directly to the price of Martyrdom and uses no reference to the celebration of the birth of Christ at all."

Wim Huisjes wrote (December 15, 1999):
The destination of BWV 57 is clearly stated by Dürr. The question however was whether Bach would have been obliged to write a cantata for Stefanus day. The Reformation developed along different lines in various areas of Europe. I understand from Marie's message that the Danish Lutheran calendar knows a Stefanus day. In The Netherlands, the Reformation (following the teaching of Calvin, more so than Luther) was much more radical and violent than the Lutheran one (at the time the country was part of the Spanish kingdom and a.o. badly suffering from the Spanish Inquisition). All saints were demoted (Bach's SMP (BWV 244) has been and is always referred to as just MP) and in the Dutch Protestant calendar there is not a single day dedicated to any saint. So for me the question remains: did the Lutheran calendar in northern Germany in Bach's time have an "official" Stefanus day which (probably) would have OBLIGED Bach to write a cantata for the occasion? If so, why would Stefanus (AFAIK) be the only exception? A likely explanation might be that it was an unofficial, more or less one-time affair. Dürr writes about what he calls a "Stephanus-Kantate" (quotes included), leaving out the word "Saint". BWV 40 and BWV 121 were also written for second Christmas day and these two cantatas are clearly meant to celebrate Christmas.

Simon Crouch wrote (December 16, 1999):
Wim, My apologies, I completely missed the point of your question – my only excuse is dementia caused by too much unpacking. I need to check some library references to answer this one, but I'm fairly sure that the answer is no, he would not have been obliged to do so. Of course it would have made sense if the pastor had chosen the alternative gospel and epistle for that day (but Bach didn't always follow the set readings as models for his cantatas). What I need to check is how likely it is that the pastor would have done this - my limited understanding of the situation is that practice varied enormously even within individual towns in that area. Research into Leipzig area liturgy is still an active subject and shows that some practice seemed to be surprisingly close to Catholic tradition.

Vincenzo Vennarini wrote (December 6, 1999):
I must confess I did not reach BWV 57 yet! (I'm following an order based to the scores availability...). I am very curious: I can't wait to listen to it this night at home. I will report ASAP about it! (But I have only Harnoncourt version....) [8]. It is such a pleasant sensation to have a treasure full of discoveries ready to be done… that never ends!!! Even when I will finish the "first" listening to the whole cantatas set, each new one will be a re-discover. More than once I neglected the importance of an aria of a choir, to discover it after three or four listening!!!! Once more, thank you Mr. Bach!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 7, 1999):
[11] I bought the Herreweghe box of the Most Beautiful Cantatas today. I only had heard his Masses, Passions, and the Easter Oratorio before. I am listening to the very first one now, and I must say it is a shame that he is not planning to record them all. He seems to have the best feeling for these works of any versions I have yet heard (haven't heard Koopman [15] though...). There is a certain balance in both the voices and the instruments... And, considering the discussion on the Cantatas List on BWV 57 and the soprano, it is such a pleasure to hear the voices (Here, Scholl) that are not little boys.

I have the complete Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Cantatas, but I see now that I need to get more different versions. Rats, just when I thought I had enough Bach CD's.... Kudos to HM for releasing these cantatas in low-priced box sets!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 7, 1999):
Just got around to listening to this. I only have the Harnoncourt version [8], and I agree that the soprano lacks depth. So, which complete set should I get to add to my Leonhardt/Harnoncourt? Rilling [9] (cheap), Koopman [15] (more expensive, for now)... What is the current best bet?

Samuel Frederick wrote (December 7, 1999):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Go for the Suzuki volumes!

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 7, 1999):
[To Samuel Frederick] Is this to be complete? What price ranges are they in?

Wim Huisjes wrote (December 7, 1999):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Depends of course on your priorities: if you want it HIP, get on with Koopman (or Suzuki, IF he plans to finish the cycle in x years; at the rate he's going you need a lot of patience). Hänssler gives you excellent value for money though. Erato and BIS are priced the same over here (full price). Personally I got started with the Koopman set and plan to finish it. With each volume he's getting even better. And I don't need more than four (Kruidvat included).

Samuel Frederick wrote (December 7, 1999):
I think Ryan's reply was much more convincing than my laconic 5-word suggestion. He's right, these recordings are very special, and you ought to at least try listening to a volume or two. Each volume is a single disc. In the US they go for around $19, which is far from cheap, but you may find them for a better deal on-line. Either way, they are well worth the investment. I began with the Teldec set Harnoncourt/Leonhardt), but was quickly overwhelmed by so much music, and also, even more quickly, put off by the boy soprano and alto. With Suzuki's series, as Ryan said, you can digest each cantata (in chronological order!) for months before the next CD is released. I'm a bit behind (I only have up to volume 7), but will soon catch up and find myself discovering a new Bach masterpiece about three times a year until the year 2018! I'm delighted with that.

Matthew Westphal wrote (December 7, 1999):
(To KirMcElhearn) I would recommend the Suzuki as well - it seems to be the most consistently good of the series now underway. Yes, it to be complete (unless BIS, the label in question, changes its mind), but Suzuki is in no hurry to get through all of the cantatas by the end of 2000 as Koopman and Erato are. Kirk, I'm not sure what the price point for BIS is in France, but in the US their CDs go for $15-$18 each (depending on the retail outlet).

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 8, 1999):
I will wait until the Koopman is finished, I am sure there will be a good price on the complete set then.

Ehud Shiloni wrote (December 14, 1999):
(To Aryeh Oron) Thanks, Aryeh, for a thorough and enlightening discussion. Judging by your comparison of six (!) different versions, I'd say you must have an awesome collection!

[11] Herreweghe's version is the only one I have. I thought Jezovšek sounds quite neat, but I have to somewhat agree with your definition of "ordinary" - there is no "wow" factor in her singing. I was personally more impressed with Peter Kooy's singing in both the opening Arioso and in the Aria "Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen". The liner notes call this aria "Confident", and this is exactly the word I'd use to describe Kooy's performance here. Straying a bit afield, I will add that this Bass aria reminded me of another one - "Himmel, reisse, Welt, erbebe" from the 1725 version of the SJP (BWV 245) - which has a somewhat similar agitated nature [Kooy sings this aria on BCJ/Suzuki version - very impressive IMO]. I have no ability at all at any musical analysis, and perhaps one of List members can comment on any similarity (?) between the two, other than the fact that both were composed in 1725.

[9] Rilling/Augér: With such a strong vote, this one goes on my shopping list. A question to all members: What is the best source for buying INDIVIDUAL CD's of Rilling Cantatas, with full liner notes in ENGLISH? Much obliged for a solution to this elusive quest.


Helmut Winschermann's BWV 57 "Selig ist der Mann"

John Pike wrote (February 28, 2007):
In December 2005, when BBC Radio 3 broadcast their "Bach Christmas", they chose Helmut Winschermann's recording of this cantata [7]. I remember my wife and I being deeply moved as we listened to it one morning, getting dressed for work. Sadly, it seems to be unavailable now, and I have had it on Amazon pre-order since Dec 2005. Does anyone know how I could get a copy of that recording legally?


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 57: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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