Today is a day of packing and organizing for our trip back “home” to California. I only have a little bit of time and very slow internet. So you’ll understand I was glad to realize (thanks to Eduard van Hengel) that for a discussion and recommendation of this Sunday’s cantata, I can refer you to The New York Times 🙂
In an article of January 27, 1991, reviewing Harnoncourt and Leonhardt’s entire series of cantata recordings, Richard Taruskin highlights Harnoncourt’s interpretation of cantata 178 Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (8th Sunday after Trinity, 1724).
Last week, for whatever reason, Bach didn’t use a librettist, and set the entire chorale text, every verse, to music. He either really enjoyed writing a chorale cantata that way, or his librettist was still a little bit under the weather, because for this cantata 178 Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält he used no less than six of the eight verses of the chorale verbatim.
Richard Taruskin’s entire review from 1991 can be found here. For your convenience, I’m directly quoting the excerpt that talks about cantata 178 here below:
“It feels not only invidious but ridiculous to be singling out one recording from a yard-high stack. But in Volume 41, released in 1988, the essential Bach speaks through Mr. Harnoncourt with a special vehemence. Cantata No. 178, “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns halt,” begins with a French overture straight from hell, a portrait of a world without God in which (as Dostoyevsky later noted) all things are possible and there is no hope. Mr. Harnoncourt applies to the dotted rhythms the awful “gnashville” sound he has gradually developed for such occasions, the strings of the Concentus Musicus hurling their bows at their instruments from a great height, producing as much scratch as tone.
The “chorale-recitative” that follows illustrates the futility of human effort with a bass that is continually and arbitrarily disrupted. It is played with greatly exaggerated dynamics to underscore — needlessly, most proper authenticists would insist — the bare message of the notes. After an aria depicting a Satan-engineered shipwreck with nauseous melismas and a chorale verse evoking persecution with a crowd of discomfitingly close and syncopated imitations, we reach the heart of the cantata.
A glossed chorale verse about raging beasts finally dispenses with word-painting, which depends on mechanisms of wit and can be taken as humor. It harks back instead to the wellsprings of the Baroque in grossly exaggerated speech contours, something akin to wild gesticulation.
Now Bach the anti-Enlightener comes into his own, with a frantic tenor aria, “Shut up, stumbling Reason!” (“Schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!”). Past the first line the message of the text is one of comfort: “To them who trust in Jesus ever, the Door of Mercy closes never,” to quote the doggerel translation in the program booklet. But Bach is fixated on that fierce and derisive opening line — indeed, on just the opening word. Out of it he builds practically the whole first section of his da capo aria, crowding all the rest into a cursory and soon superseded middle. Over and over the tenor shrieks, “Schweig nur, schweig!,” leaping now a sixth, now a seventh, now an octave. Meanwhile, the accompanying orchestra, reason’s surrogate, reels and lurches violently.
This one is not for you, Dr. Burney. Hands off, Maestro Norrington. There is no way this music can be fun. In fact, it is terrifying — perhaps more now than in Bach’s own time, since we have greater reason than Bach’s contemporaries ever had to wince at the sound of a high-pitched German voice stridently shouting reason down.”
Wieneke Gorter, August 5, 2017, links updated August 1, 2020.