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Cantata BWV 98
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan [I]
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of October 20, 2002

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 22, 2002):
BWV 98 - Introduction

The subject of this week’s discussion (October 20, 2002), according to Thomas Shepherd’s suggested list (the first one in his list), is the Chorale Cantata BWV 98 ‘Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan’ (What God does, that is done well). This is the first of three Chorale Cantatas of the same title, based on the hymn of Samuel Rodrigast (1649-1708). This cantata is for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, while the later ones, BWV 99 (discussed in the BCML not a long while ago) and BWV 100 (has yet to be discussed), are for the 15th. It differs from them in that it has no final chorale. This has been noted by the omission of the Fine S.D.G., which Bach customarily adds at the end of a cantata. Perhaps he has intended to add a chorale stanza after the final movement, a bass aria, but never did. All three cantatas begin with the first verse of Rodigast’s hymn. For BWV 98 this is the only choral movement.

The libretto, by an unknown author, is closely related to the Gospel reading for this Sunday, John 4: 46-54 - Christ heals the nobleman’s son in the Galilee, resulting in the father’s belief. Each of the soloists expresses confidence in God’s power to console him when in distress.

Recordings

The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found at the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 98 - Recordings

The earliest recording of this cantata was done by Fritz Werner [1] back in 1963. Alas, it has never been issued in CD form. Other three recordings come from the usual forces (Leonhardt [2], Rilling [3], and Leusink [5]). The picture is completed by a studio recording by John Eliot Gardiner [4]. It was done before his cantata pilgrimage took over in 2000. It means that when the recordings, which were done during the Pilgrimage, will see eventually the light of the day, we shall have another recording from Gardiner. We have still, of course, the expected recordings by Koopman [7] and Suzuki ahead of us.
You can listen to Leonhardt’s recording [2] through David Zale Website. http://www.mymp3sonline.net/Bach/

Additional Information

In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to:
The original German text (at Walter F. Bischof Website); English translations by Francis Browne and Z. Philip Ambrose; French translation by Walter F. Bischof; Hebrew translation by Aryeh Oron;
Score (Vocal & Piano version);
Commentary: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide) and from All Classical Guide; in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes.

Ob the whole this cantata is simple and serene, yet also vigorous. The beautiful soprano aria with obbligato part for the oboe (Mvt. 3) is something to cherish. It recalls the many great pages of this type so typical of Bach’s genius.

I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.

Aryeh Oron wrote (October 26, 2002):
BWV 98 - Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan

The Recordings

Last week I have been listening to the following recordings of Cantata BWV 98:

[1] Fritz Werner (1963)
[2] Gustav Leonhardt (1979)
[3] Helmuth Rilling (1982-1983)
[4] John Eliot Gardiner (1998)
[5] Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)

Background & Review

Only odd movements (Mvts. 1, 3 & 5) are reviewed.

The background below is taken from Alec Robertson’s book: ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972).

Mvt. 1 Chorus
Oboe I col Soprano, Oboe II coll'Alto, Taille col Tenore, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
(What God does, that is done well)

The only words repeated are those of the opening line in which the sopranos have the melody in the original rhythm. The movement is in the form of extended chorale with the first violins alone given a melodic part of any consequence.

Timings: Werner [1] (4:55); Leonhardt [2] (4:25); Rilling [3] (3:53); Gardiner [4] (3:56); Leusink [5] (4:31)

[1] The instrumental ritornello, which opens the chorus with Werner, is measured and serious. The singing of the choir is spirited, if not exactly clean. This is the slowest of all five, yet one which you can call respected.
[2] The opening chorus under Leonhardt’s hand is more flowing than we have learnt to expect from him and Harnoncourt. But the approach as a whole has a kind of dryness, which seems to avoid any meaningful expression. And Bach without certain amount of feelings, is only part of the picture. If one has only this recording at his (or her disposal) he must let his imagination completing the rest.
[3] The opening ritornello of Rilling set the mood for the rest of the opening chorus: vivid and joyful, with drive and motion. One can hardly find here the sombreness we have experienced with Werner. But according to the text (and the music) this is a valid approach.
[4] Gardiner’s opening ritornello is the best of all five regarding the clean playing of the orchestra. The choir is not far behind. Everything in this rendition is smooth and momentous. Yet, something is missing. Is it a meaningful expression? It sounds as good orchestra and choir performing a piece with which they are not too much involved.
[5] There is a kind bitter-sweetness in the playing of the instruments in the opening ritornello of Leusink, which is very much to my liking. This is not the first time that the choir’s singing shows clearly that he could have been benefited from more preparation. The sopranos seems more to screaming the vocal line than singing it.

Personal preference: Werner [1], Rilling [3], Gardiner [4], Leonhardt [2], Leusink [5]

Mvt. 3 Aria for Soprano
Oboe solo, Continuo
Hört, ihr Augen, auf zu weinen!
(Cease, you eyes, to weep!)

In spite of the confidence in God proclaimed at the end of the preceding expressive recitative (for tenor), this aria is bedewed with tears, depicted in Bach’s familiar two-note groups, but a more cheerful note comes into the vocal part in the middle of the sections at the words ‘Gott, der Vater, lebet noch, / Von den Seinen’ (God the Father still lives, / of those who are his people). Here the vocal line is enlivened by some triplets phrases but the oboe brings in the ‘tear-motif’ towards the end of the section and so leads to the da capo.

Timings: Werner [1] (3:55); Leonhardt [2] (3:44); Rilling [3] (3:51); Gardiner [4] (3:18); Leusink [5] (3:50)

[1] Agnes Giebel (with Werner) is always an interesting singer to listen to. She almost always finds in the aria she is given to sing depths, of which other soprano singers are usually not aware. Here her voice is somewhat behind its prime. The stability is not always there, but the expression is second to none. She has excellent oboe player as her companion, and the dialogue between the singer and the player reflects two faces of the same soul. The accompaniment is tasteful. This is the kind of rendition, which touches the deepest human feelings. It seems that she wants to be cheerful, but she cannot.
[2] The boy soprano presented by Leonhardt does not have much to offer, either in expression or in technical terms. He is simply not equipped to do justice with the aria for soprano. The good playing of the oboist cannot hold the aria all alone.
[3] Arleen Augér (with Rilling) never fails to move. She has sense to get at the heart of each aria, and conveying its message to you in the most convincing way. Helped by a fine oboist, you ‘see’ the weeping and the trial to get read of the heavy burden. She is even better that Giebel, and I cannot think of higher praise.
Of the two English sopranos, I prefer in this aria Holton (with Leusink) [5] to Fuge (with Gardiner) [4]. The former sounds fresher and more involved. The approach of the later is more workmanlike, On top of it we have Gardiner’s breakneck tempo [4], which does not leave his singer too much room for meaningful expression.

Personal preference: Augér/Rilling [3], Giebel/Werner [1], [gap] Holton/Leusink [5], Fuge/Gardiner [4], [gap] Lengert/Leonhardt [2]

Mvt. 5 Aria for Bass
Violino I/II all' unisono, Continuo
Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht
(I do not leave my Jesus)

Terry first suggested that Bach clearly had in mind, in this aria, Andreas Hammerschmidt’s melody (1658) with the above title, but he makes use only of its first phrase and this is well concealed in the florid vocal line. The violins have a delightful lilting part in which the opening phrase is constantly repeated and indeed is the truly joyous element.

Timings: Werner [1] (5:25); Leonhardt [2] (4:22); Rilling [3] (4:05); Gardiner [4] (3:51); Leusink [5] (4:30)

[1] Erich Wenk (with Werner) is a true bass singer with deep voice, which has always richness and flexibility. The playing of the violins is smooth and heavy, as if they embody the basis on which the prayer can base his belief, and it goes well with the approach of the singer. This is the slowest rendition of the aria. Yet, it has internal tension and compelling expression, which holds the attention of the listener.
[2] Egmond (with Leonhardt) has smaller voice than Wenk. His expression seems also to be somewhat limited in comparison. The accompaniment is lighter than Werner’s is, and it suits the overall approach: pleasant but not very convincing.
[3] Heldwein (with Rilling) has similar voice to that of Egmond, if less flexible, and even less interesting. The delightful violins keep the motion, but the singer does not have much to offer in terms of expression.
[4] Schwarz’ approach to the aria (with Gardiner) seems to by light and easy. It goes well with the approach of the conductor, but not with the emotional content of the aria. Wenk has shown us that there are more depth and possibilities to this aria than Schwarz and Gardiner reveal.
[5] Leusink gives his bass singer wider space and the performance gains. Among the three ‘light’ singers of this aria Ramselaar is the most impressive, and the most expressive. Had he have more bottom to his voice, his interpretation could have been even better. Where can one find real bass singers of the ‘old school’ in our modern time? Where have they all gone? The playing of the violins has that lilting quality, suggested by Robertson. This is the best accompaniment of all the modern version of the aria for bass.

Personal preference: Wenk/Werner [1], [big gap] Ramselaar/Leusink [5], Egmond/Leonhardt [2], Heldwein/Rilling [3], Schwarz/Gardiner [4]

Mvt. 6 Chorale
Bach did not include the chorale which could be sure would have been sung as he does not write the usual S.D.G. at the close of the aria, but it is easy to add the verse of a suitable hymn when the cantata is performed.

It seems somewhat peculiar that none of the above conductors chooses to conclude the cantata with a chorale. Hearing the cantatas as a whole it seems so obvious that a chorale must come at the end, and it is not there! The feeling we get at the end of the aria for bass is as if we were walking on a thin layer of ice, and it abruptly breaks under our feet. Or are our minds so well programmed after about 150 weeks of cantata discussions?

Conclusion

A movement to take away: The Aria for Bass with Wenk/Werner [1] and the Aria for Soprano with Augér/Rilling [3]

As always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 27, 2002):
BWV 98 - Provenance:

See: Cantata BWV 98 - Provenance

Commentaries: [Alfred Dürr, Ludwig Finscher (from the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Teldec series), Ruth Tatlow (from notes for the Gardiner recording [4]), My commentary]

See: Cantata BWV 98 - Commentary

The Recordings:

This week I listened to the following:

Leonhardt (1979) [2]; Rilling (1982-3) [3]; Gardiner [4] (1998); Leusink (1999) [5]

Rilling’s version [3] is the only non-HIP recording of this cantata (of course, Werner's [1] would also be in this category.)

Mvt. 1:

[2] Leonhardt
Leonhardt begins his HIP version with frequent, very strong accents on the 1st beat of the measure. These accents in the instrumental ritornello are carried over into the choral singing as well. The choir sings many two note phrases (tiny pauses after every two notes) thus fracturing the musical line of the chorale into many tiny pieces. This imaginary performance technique which certainly did not exist when and where this music was performed under Bach’s direction derives from Harnoncourt’s theory that since violin bows were shorter in Bach’s time, the string players could only play very short phrases. The equivalent to this would be to make a claim that the pyramid builders, using the crude tools that archaeologists have uncovered certainly were unable to set stones with great precision, a technique that we think only modern machines could apply. Luckily these structures have survived to prove otherwise, but we are not as fortunate to have preserved actual performance practices of music from an earlier period such as Bach's! This idea of short bows automatically equaling short phrases was then mistakenly applied Harnoncourt (who had little experience in and respect for existing choral traditions) to the voices as well. The major point which Harnoncourt conveniently overlooked here is that the reputable sources from Bach’s time all indicate that the instruments tried to emulate the voice and not the other way around. Unfortunately those who listen to the Teldec cantata series are forced to accept this Harnoncourt legacy, a legacy that not only flies in the face of a long-standing choral singing tradition but that of solo singing as well . Anothfactor to note is that when a note is heavily accented, the tendency is to actually shorten the full time-value of the accented note. Listen to the 1st violins in the first few measures: there is a tied quarter note that loses its full length which should be tied over to the 1st 16th note of the next figure. In mm 9 and following, the 1st violins begin to play almost every note in staccato fashion. This is not indicated in the score where Bach marked only one note out of each measure in this way. As a result the listener is treated to an even scratchier violin sound than would be necessary, a sound that purports to resemble what period instruments should have sounded like. Completely disregarding the meaning of the chorale text, Leonhardt has the instruments end the mvt. on a softer dynamic level, softer, in any case, than the louder beginning. The final words of the chorale verse, however, are: “For this reason I will allow only God to have power over me.” Leonhardt’s interpretation misses the mark entirely.

[3] Rilling:
With more strings at his disposal, the Rilling orchestral sound begins to sound more like a modern string orchestra. The note values that Leonhardt terminated abruptly are now given their full value and the long series of staccato figures have become less obtrusive and sound more playfully happy with these violin figures that any violinist would enjoy playing. The bc is, as usual, a bit on the heavy side. Modern string basses that are added to the continuo group have this effect when they play an active Bach bc an octave lower than written. This is even more apparent in the Leusink series where the other instruments are recorded with a rather dull sound. Rilling, in contrast to Leonhardt, ends the mvt. with the necessary energy and strength that this mvt. demands. The choir sings with conviction and reasonable precision, but the wobbly cantus firmus in the soprano is a step down from the clarity of the boy sopranos in the Leonhardt rendition. In general, the use of too much vibrato on the part of all the singers detracts from the ‘solid’ (mainly devoid of vibrato) sound that one might expect from a truly excellent choir. The balance between the parts, however, is such that all of them can be heard as being equally strong.

[4] Gardiner:
Gardiner has adopted the instrumental playing style that Leonhardt had already used with some major differences: the accents are not quite as harsh. Everything is more delicately played. Gardiner uses a harpsichord as part of the continuo group (even Rilling did not use it in this mvt.) Gardiner has the 1st violins play the long staccato passages just as Leonhardt did. But Gardiner very effectively treats the pauses (after the 1st 2 groups of 4 measures) by dropping the tension on the quarter-note rests and not hurrying on to the next attack. He even puts in a slight ritardando to highlight the end of the musical figure (shades of the late-romantic performance style.) The choir sound is very good and an improvement over Rilling’s generally too operatic voices, voices that seem to say, “Here I am as a soloist. I am singing loud so that no notes will be missing or not clearly heard,” but what is missing here is the blending of voices to form a greater union of choral sound. Rilling’s choir begins to sound almost like it would slip into the sound created by opera choruses, while Gardiner’s choir, though not entirely free of vibrato, is much purer and clearer than Rilling’s. In any case, Gardiner’s choir sound is a vast improvement over the usually fractured choral style presented in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Teldec cantata series.

[5] Leusink:
The muffled sound of the orchestra is quite evident here. Just what kind of setup or technology was used to obtain this sound, I have no idea. It is as though the high audio range had been suppressed on purpose. This leaves the string bass player standing out in the bc with too much emphasis on the lower octave of the bc. The engineers forgot to suppress the bass as well. The 1st violins have the same accents and staccato playing as in the Leonhardt recording. The Leusink choir sound has been described here many times before: individual voices very noticeable, insecure ‘chirping’ in the male high voices, lack of volume in the low range, lack of excitement, etc. Leusink ends the mvt. softly the same way that Leonhardt does. So much for independent thinking on Leusink’s part! It is as though both Leonhardt and Leusink ‘run out of steam’ at the end of this wonderful chorale fantasia.

In order of preference: Gardiner [4], Rilling [3], Leonhardt [2], Leusink [5].

Mvt. 3:

In order of preference: Rilling/Augér [3]; (big gap here) Gardiner/Fuge [4]; Leusink/Holton [5]; Leonhardt/Lengert [2].

Augér is in a category all by herself, then Fuge and Holton are very average with little expressive power. Lengert+oboist are both shaky at times thus putting this performance into the below average category.

Mvt. 5:

In order of preference:
Rilling/Heldwein [3]; Gardiner/Schwarz [4]; Leusink/Ramselaar [5]; Leonhardt/van Egmond [2]

Very similar to the soprano situation above, the HIP half-voices are quite limited in their expressive powers and in the lower range as well.

Philippe Bareille wrote (October 27, 2002):
It is a more intimate cantata (Alfred Dürr) that expresses all kinds of feeling from deep sorrow (soprano aria), wistful longing (Recitative Tenor), and great resolution (bass aria).

I have listened to Leonhardt [2] only. For me, he captures the spirit of this music admirably, especially in the final bass aria where the dancing-like rhythm is clearly emphasised by the strings. Egmond is excellent as usual. He doesn't have a strong voice but his inner sensitivity brings a human quality to his characterisation particularly appropriate in this context. He strikes the right balance between suffering and joyous anticipation. The soprano aria is one of the greatest musical masterpieces of Western music. The oboist (Bruce Haynes?) is eloquent and affecting. Unfortunately the boy soprano is very disappointing. He simply fails to penetrate the grief laden core of this aria and he is technically insecure. I am astonished that Leonhardt chose this boy for such a demanding aria when he had at his disposal in the Hannover choir (according to the date of the recording) an outstanding soprano like Marcus Klein (BWV 88, BWV 89, BWV 106, BWV 107) or Detlef Bratschke (BWV 91, BWV 92, BWV 100)! After reading Aryeh and Tom' s reviews I shall buy Rilling version [3] to fully enjoy this aria.

NB: At last I managed to find the CD with Aafje Heynis singing BWV 169/BWV 170. To say that Heynis gives a deeply satisfying performance of these 2 cantatas is an understatement!

Philippe Bareille wrote (October 27, 2002):
What and who dictates the choice of singers in a recording? It can sometimes - like the choice of the soprano in the BWV 98 conducted by Leonhardt [2] - be quite frustrating.

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 98: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: 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

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