Cantata BWV 83Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of February 4, 2001
Aryeh Oron wrote (February 4, 2001):
This is the week of Cantata BWV 83 according to Andrew Oliver's suggestion. Bach may have set the first three movements (aria, recitative & aria) on the format of allegro, adagio & allegro of the Italian concerto, and if this is the case, it is most probable that Bach based this cantata on a lost concerto for violin. By doing so he used the same formula, which served him in Cantata BWV 35, already discussed in our group couple of months ago. That cantata was one my least favourites among the cantatas which have been discussed in our group so far. And Cantata BWV 35 was composed two years after the cantata of this week. Before comparing the various recordings of BWV 83, I have had the hope that Bach did with this material better than he did with similar material in BWV 35. Let us examine the results. I shall compare the first three movements, which form a complete unity, assuming that they are indeed based on the lost concerto. The remaining movements are ordinary secco recitative and the usual chorale. As a background I shall use this time the description of Alec Robertson taken from his book - 'The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach'.
Mvt. 1. Aria (for Alto)
(text as above)
2 Corno, 2 Oboes, Violin Solo, 2 Violins, Continuo
"It does not need much perception to assign the violin solo and its accompaniment in this movement to a lost violin concerto - its speech betrays it, and nowhere more so than during the middle section where the figuration at one point is that of alternate open and stopped strings. The movement could be played without the voice part and make perfect musical sense. Bach, needless to say, has fitted in the voice part with great skill. There are the expected runs on 'joyful', four of them, and in the middle section 'How joyfully will be at the last hour the resting-place, the grave, prepared'. 'Resting-place' is given characteristic groups of quavers, but here the violin figuration noted above does not at all fit the sentiment of the words."
Mvt. 2. Intonation and Recitative (for Bass)
2 Violins & Viola unison, Continuo
'Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren wie du gesaget hast'
('Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word')
It is the first plainsong psalm tone that Bach styles 'Intonazione' in this movement, and uses for two verses of the Nunc Dimittis. Ritornellos divide up the two halves of these verses. The theme of these, a rising scale in 6/8 time, conveys the idea of journeying and is treated in canon. The interpolated recitatives are, as always, in common time, and Bach also separates them with phrases of the ritornello. The words of the first recitative begin 'What to us as to men terrible appears, is for us an entrance into life'; then, after three bars of the ritornello, 'It is death (that is) an end of this time and suffering, a pledge that to us the Lord has given as sign that He means sincerely and us after completed struggling into peace will bring'. The recitative continues after another three bars of the ritornello 'And because the Saviour now the eyes comfort, the heart's refreshment is, what wonder that a heart the death-fear forgets. It can joyfully the declaration make.' The drop in pitch for the plainsong tone at the last verse may be taken as reflecting the peace and resignation of the 'joyful declaration' of the recitative. The librettist is not here portraying Simeon but the individual soul taking his words to heart. The beautiful 'dying' close should be noted.
Mvt. 3. Aria (for Tenor)
'Eile, Herz, voll Freudigkeit vor den Gnadenstuhl zu trete.'
('Hasten, heart, full of joyfulness before the mercy-scat to step')
Violin solo, 2 Violins, Viola, Continuo
This lovely aria may be taken as an adaptation of the last movement of the lost violin concerto. Triplet figures abound in both violin solo and solo part, with long runs in the latter on the 'step' each time the word is repeated."
Review of the Recordings
During last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of BWV 83 of the 5 available. See: Cantata BWV 83 - Recordings (1) to (4).
(1) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1963, or 1978?)
Harnoncourt had recorded this cantata in the late 1960's, before he started his co-operation with Leonhardt in recording the complete Bach Cantatas cycle for Telefunken (later Teldec). I do not have the original LP (which included also Cantatas BWV 50 & BWV 197), but I suspect that this is actually the same recording, although the liner notes to the Teldec album from the complete cycle do not mention it. The vocal soloists are identical. So are the Choir and the orchestra. If this is the case, it means that this cantata is the earliest recorded in the H&L cycle.
Aria for Alto: Usually the alto part in the Bach Cantatas is given either to contralto (female voice) or to counter-tenor (male voice). Here is one of the cases where this part was given to boy alto. Günther Ramin also did it once in a while in his recordings from Leipzig during the early 1950's, but since then it has become a relatively rare phenomenon. Is it because it is so difficult to find a good alto voice among the boys in the choir? I wonder. Anyway, The anonymous boy alto here proves himself to be an excellent choice for the difficult task. Firstly, the timbre of his voice blends beautifully with the sound of violin. Both the singer and the player avoid using vibrato and it works. Secondly, it seems that the technical challenges of this aria do not put any obstacles in his way. Thirdly, the emotional challenges of this aria are not very high, and consequently he passes successfully also this aspect of his part. And above all, he has a kind of fresh purity, which I found irresistible.
Intonation & recitative for Bass: Max van Egmond gives a lot of warmth and confidence to his rendering of this complicated movement. However, I find his approach too uniform, and many nuances are not getting the right treatment. During the listening to him I thought to myself wondering what a singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would have done with this declamatory movement. Unfortunately, AFAIK DFD has not recorded this cantata.
Aria for Tenor: Kurt Equiluz sounds as if knows exactly what he wants to do with his part. The give-and-take play between the voice and the violin is also beautifully treated. So why was I not convinced by the way Equiluz is trying to convey joy? Is it because the accompaniment of this aria in this recording is a little bit heavy-handed?
(2) Helmuth Rilling (1979)
Aria for Alto: The colourful instrumental opening of this recording expresses uninhibited joy, but the strong and expressive voice of Helen Watts dominates this aria. She is ruling the events and in her rendering this aria sounds as if it was originally composed for voice and not as an adaptation of a lost violin concerto with the voice part dubbed in. But I have to admit that while I was hearing her very convincing performance, I could not erase the memories of Harnoncourt's boy alto from my mind.
Intonation & recitative for Bass: Although Heldwein's voice is more lyrical than that of van Egmond (with Harnoncourt), I find their approaches very similar (it means, not enough interesting). I also find that the accompaniment here too rich and dense. The delicacy and transparency of Harnoncourt's accompaniment suits this unusual movement much better.
Aria for tenor: Adalbert Kraus is a virtuoso. I mean that he has complete technical command of his means. He is not forced to limit his interpretation to the boundaries of his talent. He gives you the feeling that he has the capacities to do whatever his mind and soul are telling him to do. But he has also a lot of taste and he uses his powers to take almost always the right artidecisions. In his aria here he has to compete with the lightness and speed of the violin, and he succeeds in convincing you that if anybody has a problem, then this is the violinist and not the singer. He stops, he runs, he decorates, he passes easily the coloratura parts, always keeping you in tension.
(3) Ton Koopman (1998)
Aria for Alto: Elisabeth von Magnus' beautiful voice suits the delicate and tender approach of Koopman, and her voice interweaves charmingly into the instrumental texture. I am not sure that this is the right approach for this aria, because I found myself wishing that more force and drive was put into it to keep the lively nature of the music.
Intonation & recitative for Bass: Klaus Martens has everything I missed in the rendering of this movement by the two previous bass singers - variety, care for details and a kind of nonchalance, which I found as fitting this unusual movement very well. The accompaniment playing is so humble, that all our focus is turned to the declamation / singing of the bass, as it should be.
Aria for Tenor: Jörg Dürmüller's singing is light, flowing and effortlessness, but lacking some power and evident joy.
(4) John Eliot Gardiner (2000)
Aria for Alto: Gardiner gives the opening aria all the drive I missed in Koopman's. In his hands it almost sounds as a piece by Händel. He is also clever enough to put Robin Tyson in the front line, and consequently the results remind me Watts / Rilling rendering of this aria. Tyson's has a unique, forceful and flexible voice, but he also knows when and how to be delicate and even sensitive. A very convincing performance.
Intonation & recitative for Bass: After Mertens, Harvey sounds almost one-dimensional. He does not vary his approach enough to hold the attention of the listener. I also found his voice the least pleasant of all four.
Aria for Tenor: Agnew sounds here as an improved version of Dürmüller. Is it as if he had listened carefully to Dürmüller's recording, investigated its weaknesses and learnt what should be improved. He has more force when needed and overt joy in the right places.
(5) Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)
I do not have this recording yet. It is included in Bach Edition Vol.18 from Brilliant Classics (Cantatas - Vol. 9).
Aria for Alto: Anonymous boy / Harnoncourt (1) and Tyson / Gardiner (4).
Intonation & recitative for Bass: Martens / Koopman (3).
Aria for Tenor: Adalbert Kraus / Rilling (2).
One last word about the cantata itself. I found it more satisfactory than Cantata BWV 35, but I still have to admit that it should not be counted among the high peaks of the oeuvre of the cantatas. This impression has been strengthened, when I heard the opening notes of Cantata BWV 82 in the CD of Gardiner, which followed the last notes of Cantata BWV 83.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Jane Newble wrote (February 6, 2001):
(5) I'm just about to listen to it. The tenor is Marcel Beekman, which will be interesting.
Andrew Oliver wrote (February 9, 2001):
Well, I do not know whether Bach based this cantata on a (lost) concerto, but the first three movements certainly give that impression.
The following is a quotation from Oxford Composer Companions J. S. Bach:
"The cantata's basic tone of cheerful confidence is established in the opening movement... in which the alto soloist's ecstatic melismas on the 'joyful' words 'erfreute' and 'freudig' compete for attention with a virtuoso solo violin part and accompanying forces consisting of two oboes, two horns, strings and continuo. Noteworthy in the B section of the aria is the solo violin's bariolage with which Bach sounds the death-knell at 'letzten Stunde' ('last hour'). In the second movement the bass intones three verses of the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-31) to a version of the medieval psalm tone no.8, while strings and continuo weave around it a filigree of two-part counterpoint, mostly in strict canon - almost as if the ancient melody had gathered cobwebs. The first verse is separated from the other two by a section of recitative twice interrupted by reminders of the canon... The movement is quite unlike anything else in Bach's music.
Violin virtuosity returns in the succeeding tenor aria, in da capo form, and once again the singer is called upon to match it with protracted melismas... The text is based on Hebrews 4: 16, and after a brief alto recitative, the cantata ends ... with Martin Luther's paraphrase of the same verse... which, as usual, Bach set in a plain four-part harmonization with instrumental doubling.
As I have said before, I heartily recommend this book, although it is usually expensive.
(1) I have only Harnoncourt's recording of BWV 83, and I must agree with Aryeh that the boy alto gives a very good performance in the opening aria. The one reservation I have is that he sometimes loses tempo, causing the instruments to slow down in order to match his pace. Nevertheless, I like it. The next movement may be unique in its construction, but it doesn't really appeal to me. It seems a bit too pedestrian. I don't know how the timing of this movement compares with the other recordings, but I noticed from Aryeh's report that Harnoncourt's total performance time is the slowest. Also, just occasionally, Max van Egmond seems to be slightly out of synchronization with the instruments. Equiluz gives a fine performance in the tenor aria, and I like the way the voice and solo violin act as dancing partners in this happy, bubbly torrent of notes. In contrast, the closing chorale is quite sombre.
This is not one of my top favourite cantatas overall, but the first and third movements are very pleasing.
Jane Newble wrote (February 10, 2001):
The two versions I have of this cantata are Koopman (3) and Leusink (5). Has anyone else listened to Leusink?
The Koopman comes across as more lighthearted, more joyful, but the Leusink is very beautiful in its own way, I think. The opening aria is a full minute slower than Koopman, and hearing it straight after Koopman is not a good idea.
All by itself it gives the impression of a quiet, inward joy, expressed by an almost slow Baroque dance.
Although I don't have as many problems with Sytse Buwalda as some others, I felt he was not quite up to this in some ways. But when I listened to Koopman's alto Elisabeth von Magnus, I realized there almost seems to be a competition going on between the voice and the instruments.
The bass recitative is amazing. There are echoes of older German church music, and I like the slow singing against the busy chattering of the instruments, almost as if he is giving his testimony of an inner conviction against lots of other voices.
The tenor aria is very similar in both recordings. They are almost the same speed, and both voices dance over the notes.
I cannot really decide which recording I prefer, but as I have both, I don't have to!
Harry J. Steinman wrote (February 10, 2001):
I've been listening all week to this delightful cantata and there's a few things about it that I'd like to comment on; I'd like to share my reactions.
First of all, I was very surprised, starteled even, when I first played the Koopman version (3) (the only one that I have). The first notes of the opening aria, those brassy, exultant, confident horns really took me by surprise. Whoa! It says, "Sit up and listen to ME!". I really enjoy the aria, and especially enjoy the way that the horns start to give way to the violins. If this cantata contains music from a lost violin concerto, then I would certainly wish we could find it again...
I like the siin the soprano aria, but I'm especially drawn to the accompaniment. I wish that in the aria, the horns were a little less prominent, or perhaps that the violins were recorded a bit more prominently. I believe that they are more interesting than the repeated horn figures.
As to the recitative and aria, I find the accompaniment very interesting, they way that the continuo accompanies the Bass when he is singing the recitative, and they way the strings take over when the Bass is singing the aria. One way or another, for me, the accompaniment is smooth and eases the listener into the thematic material of this movement, which is significantly different than the opening aria. And once again, I lament the awful job of translation that is done in Koopman's recording. Sigh.
I really love the way the voice and violins have kind of a call-and-response in the tenor aria...the violins almost imitating the vocal line.
I'm not too wild about the final chorus. Did Bach take and existing religious song and adapt that to the cantata? Reason I wonder about that, in addition to everything else JSB did that was so wonderful, he wrote Damn Good Tunes...and I find that this final chorus leaves me flat. Oh well, that's what the 'program' button on the CD player is for.
I think that this is one cantata whose arias I shall recognize whenever I hear them again.
Till next week I remain your friend in Bach, in Boston,
Roy Reed wrote (February 10, 2001):
I have only one reading of BWV 83: Koopman et al (3). Altogether a fine performance. My first reaction on hearing the opening aria was, "Wow! what a racket for one alto to contend with.....brass, reeds, strings. I first thought that the placement of mikes was wrong, and then realized what a performance in any of the Leipzig churches would really sound like. Probably, about like this. On the other hand, Bach may have had one hefty, reedy alto whose voice could cut through the dense orchestration, or maybe the man just got carried away with this "creation out of a creation," and just painted himself into a corner, so to speak. Anyway it is great stuff, and Elisabeth Von Magnus is a fine singer. A great rejoicing!! Of course, with tragedy and sorrow in the picture. This is all part of Bach's faithfulness to Luther's theologia crucis, to the paradox of what is intrinsically bad being instrumentally good. Koopman's forces pull it off with great flair.
My favourite in this cantata is No.2, the aria/recitative for bass. Such fabulous combinations: the liturgical intonation of the scriptural text... something which would be known by heart by everyone.... the free text (opens with the Luther paradox), and a wonderful canon as instrumental accompaniment. Oh, Bach, you just slay me! How is this for fresh and clever! I love it how JSB can come forth with something novel and musically/intellectually intriguing, which is based on something ancient and very simple. My kind of guy. The canon has theological meaning here. It is his musical way of "following/departing" with Simeon to the throne of grace. And this is the point of the next movement, the tenor aria. A hastening song...and Bach really knows how to hasten musically. My favorite is Mvt. 2 in Cantata BWV 78. Here the triplets just tumble along....headlong....leaping, running to the source of comfort and mercy. A brief alto recitative to point us in the direction of the light, and then all the people enter in through the concluding hymn to the procession toward the light of joy and delight.
The circumstances of the day in the liturgical year are interesting, I think. My score identifies is as Mariae Reinigung: the Purification of Mary. It is also known as Candlemas, because of procession with candles on that day, or as "Presentation of our Lord." In the ancient church, apparently, sometimes, as "St. Simeon's Day." The Gospel is Luke 2: 22ff. The presentation of Jesus in the temple. Mary goes to the temple in fulfillment of the Levitical requirement after childbirth. According to Lev. 12:2-6, a mother remained unclean for 40 days after the birth of a son, after which she had to come to the temple and be ritually readmitted to the faithful. The date of Feb. 2 was determined by the interval of 40 days after Dec. 25. Popular superstition has long associated this day with the weather. In medieval times, if Feb. 2 brought fair weather the winter would be long and crops bad. If Candlemas were a bad day, the winter was over and crops would be good. In America this folk tradition survives as Groundhog Day. The groundhog comes out of his burrow (forced out, poor thing) and whether or not he sees his shadow will determine the length of winter. Let's go back to candles!
Pablo Fagoaga wrote (February 11, 2001):
Well, I agree with Roy Reed's impressions about Koopman´s performance (3). Regarding the opening number, Roy, I can tell you that the intrigue about how Von Magnus would brake through the heavy, somewhat brassy "wall of sound", turns into a true and frightening mystery when it comes to listen to Harnoncourt's alto BOY (1). You know, his choice in this field is a serious bet!!!!
Not surprisingly, the boy is clearly surpassed in some passages. (I even suspect that he got some non-HIP help from the engineer, because the Concentus sounds with a volume a bit lower than what I think has to be the true sound field).
But, ALAS, he does quite a good job. It seems to me that he wisely gave up to any attempt to overcome the orchestra, but he turns his loss of volume into a remarkable control of his part.
Yes, in the standards of Harnoncout/Leonhardt's marathon, I see this boy's performance as one of the best (among the parts taken by boys, of course). To some other time I leave the juicy discussion about the super-controvertial choice: to have boys instead of female singers.
About the rest of the Cantata, I prefer Harnoncourt over Koopman. I get a more clear musical image from Harnoncourt. He gives the different lines a sharp (but non aggressive) and disctint sound. It even helps you train the ear for Barroque style!!!!
Pablo Fagoaga wrote (February 11, 2001):
Don´t get me wrong. When I pick Harnoncourt's reading (1) over Koopman's (3), you can take for granted that I'm not saying that Koopman is "cheesy", or fuzzy. Even more, in fact MANY times I prefer Koopman versions, because he sees performing issues the same way than Harnoncourt. But in cases like BWV 83, I think that Harnoncourt reaches best results when it comes to present highly defined musical lines. With Harnoncourt, it´s VERY esay to "switch" from a global perception to a "contrapunctual-focused" hearing.
Of course, I also think that in the case of Koopman, his personal style converge in the final result with the fact that he recorded in a church (undoubtly, spiritualy inspiring, but also acoustically risky!!!).
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 83: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4