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Cantata BWV 168
Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of July 28, 2002 (1st round)

Aryeh Oron wrote (July 28, 2002):
BWV 168 - Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort - Introduction

Today (July 28, 2002) is the 252nd anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. Talking about numbers and calculations, the subject of this week’s discussion, according to Francis Browne’s suggested list, is Cantata BWV 168 ‘Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort’ (Give an account of yourself! Word of thunder) for the 9th Sunday after Trinity. Gospel for this Sunday is Luke 16: 1-9 - the parable of the unjust steward. The librettist of this cantata is Salomo Frank. It is possible that Bach composed an earlier version while he was in Weimar, but this is not extant. The Frank’s libretto is directly connected to the Gospel-reading, because it is concerned with what man owes to God when the hour of judgement comes.


The details of the recordings of this cantata can be found in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 168 - Recordings

Three complete recordings of this cantata come from the regular forces (Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2], and Leusink [3]). John Eliot Gardiner recorded the fourth in 2000 during his Bach Pilgrimage [4].

Texts & Translations

Original German text (at Walter F. Bischof Website):
English translation by Francis Browne:
Another English translation by Z. Philip Ambrose:
Hebrew translation by me:


Commentary in English by Simon Crouch:
Commentary in Dutch by Johan de Wael:
Commentary in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes:

Reading the text, it seems that the opening aria for bass (possibly a senior in the tax authorities) should be frightening. It is interesting to see what musical representation did Bach give to the text, and especially how did the four bass singers interpreted it.

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

Francis Browne wrote (July 28, 2002):
BWV 168: Whittaker

I am sure that I am not alone in finding of great interest the quotations from commentators on the cantatas that Tom Braatz has supplied in recent weeks. Even when they seem mistaken or misguided I have found such opinions useful in coming to terms with the week's cantata (and of course Tom's own superbly detailed comments are a wonderful supplement and often correction to other commentaries).

In discussing BWV 45 Tom mentioned a (wrong-headed) opinion of W. Gillies Whittaker but added he did not have access to the book. I suspect few members of the list do, since the text is out of print and was first published in 1959. This is a great pity since the two volumes and 1400+ pages of the work contain much that is valuable and illuminating. Whittaker clearly had a great love and knowledge of Bach's music and over a period of forty years performed all of the cantatas at least once. Sometimes he is simply wrong about a movement, his sympathies with some aspects of the librettists' expression of Luther's Christianity was clearly limited and his coverage of the cantatas varies greatly in detail and insight. But at his best he is perceptive and illuminating, and I have learned much from the first volume of his book (all frustratingly that my local library possesses!).

To allow other members of the list to sample Whittaker's writing for themselves I add without comment what he says about this week's cantata. I have omitted his quotation of the text - a translation is available - and [quote] means the point is illustrated from the score. The cantata is discussed in a chapter devoted to 'Reconstructed Weimar Cantatas'.

See: Cantata BWV 168 - Commentary

[Just one question on the sustained chords for oboes in the recitative: does Bach use this technique where the text portrays a process of thought on the speaker's part, a working out of the implications of a point perhaps made earlier to reach a conclusion or insight in the course of the recitative? This is what to my untutored ears the sustained chords seemed to convey]

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 29, 2002):
BWV 168 Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort

See: Cantata BWV 168 - Provenance

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 2, 2002):
Francis Browne kindly shared the contents of Whittaker’s comments on this cantata and called our attention to Whittaker’s comments on the Tenor Recitative (Mvt. 2). The points of interest here are:

See: Cantata BWV 168 - Commentary

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 2, 2002):
BWV 168 - Commentary [Spitta, Schweitzer, Dürr]

See: Cantata BWV 168 - Commentary

Philippe Bareille wrote (August 3, 2002):
This rather "terrifying" cantata (metaphorically speaking), "Tue Rechnung!
(Thine accounting! Judgement day!) is worth discovering. I hope many in this group will have this pleasure.

I have just listened to Harnoncourt recording [2] and as often I find his performance rather satisfying. Harnoncourt wrote in the comments on the performance in the booklet included with the CD "In the first aria all the dotted notes were adapted to fit the continuous triplet rhythm, regardless of whether they were semiquavers or demisemiquavers. This articulation brings out the rhythmic severity and ostinato with which the judgement scene is depicted" This comment sets the tone of the aria: ardent, pungent, capturing admirably the spirit of the text. The bass Robert Holl may not be as subtle as Egmond in his delivery but his strong voice is ideally suited to climate of this music.

The tenor aria is no less frightening: Capital and Int'erst payment all my debits great and small I must soon account for all. Equiluz characterisation is outstanding and the melancholic accompanying oboe d'amore brings some solace to the daunting prospects. Harnoncourt wrote "Aria no 3 was of course played as a solo for the first oboe d'amore, although it in fact appears in both parts, as was common at the time ".

The duet doesn't give itself away at a glance. You need several listening occasions to fully appreciate this music. I am glad that Harnoncourt opted for a boy alto rather than the usual Esswood in this aria. His name is Christian Immler. His voice is less appealing than P Iconomou's but he is no less talented. A few months back I happened to see him on a television programme taking part in a Renata Tebaldi master class. He had become a professional bass. In this recording he is well matched to the treble Helmut Wittek who however was obviously still very young so his voice seems to be
pushed up to the hilt.

Another rewarding cantata.

NB: Rifkin who professes to give historically informed performances uses women and countertenors, a fundamental historical inaccuracy!

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 3, 2002):
BWV 168 - Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort - Background

The background below is taken from the following books:
Alec Robertson: ‘The ChCantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972), and
W. Murray Young: ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’ (1989);
The English translation is by Francis Browne, a member of the BCML.

See: Cantata BWV 168 - Commentary

The Recordings

During last week I have been listening to 4 complete recordings of this cantata.

[1] Rilling (1970)
Siegmund Nimsgern, who proves himself as the right man for the job, is simply astounding. He has a marvellous tool in his throat, rich, deep and, when needed, frightening. He is a thinker, and in full awareness of the circumstances. And most important, he has the intelligence and the sensitivity to use his impressive powers to the best. I shall give you few examples. In the opening words ‘Tue Rechnung’ he uses his lowest register to sound authoritative, and does it so naturally that it is easy to believe him. Than, between the word ‘Donnerwort’ and ‘Das die Felsen selbst zerspaltet’ there is a microscopic pause, a moment of tension, as the micro-second when the hammer is up and you are ready, dreadful, waiting it to fall down and break the object into pieces. Nobody catches this short moment better than Nimsgern. And when he sings ‘Seele, fort!’ his voice suddenly softens, as if he wants the soul to do what is needed from her own good will and not because she is horrified. Like a good teacher, or a father, who knows well, that with a whip a carrot must come. He is also helped by the strong, colourful, and forceful accompaniment from Rilling, which creates the atmosphere of urgency. Theo Altmeyer gives a very convincing account of both the recitatives and the aria for tenor, with natural, unforced, and wide expression. The text might be dry, the singing is not. The duet is the least successful movement in Rilling’s rendition. The voices of the two ladies lack tenderness, they sing in full voice with strong vibrato, and the match between their voices leaves the impression that they feel uncomfortable together.

[2] Harnoncourt (1987)
Robert Holl seems to be a much better candidate for a good performance of the opening aria than the usual Egmond with his lighter voice. Holl’s voice is indeed impressive, deep and dark, and most of the time he conveys the message successfully. But hearing him head to head with Nimsgern, and few shortcomings also pop-up. His voice is less flexible, and his expression less varied. The accompaniment is is also less successful than Rilling’s. The tension is not built gradually as it should, because the short notes break it to uniform and uninteresting pieces. There is neither power, nor urgency. As a result, the whole performance becomes monotonous. Equiluz is more restrained than Altmeyer, but no less moving. He quickens the tempo in the last part of his recitative, when he is talking about his wish to run from God’s anger, before the final weep. The idea of using two boys (soprano and alto) for the duet proves itself to be successful here. The pure voices of the singers, the charming way with which they are blending, together with an unchallenging technically piece, makes this duet almost irresistible.

[3] Leusink (1999)
Sorry, but Bas Ramselaar, who is usually the best part in Leusink cantata recordings is somewhat disappointed here. First, it seems that his voice has not enough ‘bottom’ and he does not put the right amount of expression into the opening words to make them really frightening. In his approach he reminds me of Holl, but he is less well equipped for the job. The light accompaniment and the quick tempo do not help him either. Schoch does not have anything interesting to offer in the recitative and aria for tenor. Surprisingly, the duet comes out quite well in this recording. This is one of the cases where there is good match between Holton and Buwalda, and they seem to support each other in encouragement, as they should.

[4] Gardiner (2000)
I like Gardiner’s dramatic approach to the opening aria, full of drive and momentum, a much better proposition than the other two HIP recordings (Harnoncourt & Leusink). The problem with this rendition of the aria is that the singing of the bass, Peter Harvey, is rather bland. It seems that he tries to do his best, but the tool he has in his throat does not match the demands of the aria. Gilchrist is much more interesting in the recitative and aria for tenor. He sings tastefully with many nuances. The real gem of this recording is the duet for soprano of alto, where the charming voices of Fuge and Taylor and their gentle approach make the duet a real delicacy. It seems that they enjoy singing together. This is the best duet among the mixed couples.


Personal preferences:
Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 4: Nimsgern/Rilling [1], Holl/Harnoncourt [2], Harvey/Gardiner [4], Ramselaar/Leusink [3]
Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3: Altmeyer/Rilling [1], Equiluz/Harnoncourt [2], Gilchrist/Gardiner [4], Schoch/Leusink [3]
Mvt. 5: Wittek & Immler/Harnoncourt [2], Fuge & Taylor/Gardiner [4], Holton & Buwalda/Leusink [3], Burns & Gohl/Rilling [1]
Overall performance: Rilling [1], Gardiner [4], Harnoncourt [2], Leusink. [3]

A movement to take away: The opening aria for bass with Nimsgern/Rilling [1]!

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

Thomas Braatz wrote (August 2, 2002):
BWV 168 – Review of the Recordings

The recordings that I listened to this week were:

Rilling (1970) [1]; Harnoncourt (1987) [2]; and Leusink (1999) [3]

[1] Rilling:

Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 4 Nimsgern:
Nimsgern is “ein schwarzer Bass” (“ a ‘dark’ bass with reference to the dark quality of the voice.) This full voice is aptly suited for portraying with great power the seriousness of the text. The orchestral accompaniment complements this rendition with a full orchestra including a double bass in the bc which makes the bc sound almost too heavy. The strings, despite the agitated (non-triplet) figures sound almost legato at times. There is an obvious contrast, more piano and lyrical, in the middle section where the characterization of the words should change. The expressive qualities of Nimsgern continue to be excellent in the recitative as well.

Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3 Altmeyer:
This is another good singer with a full voice and excellent expression in both the recitative and the aria. Altmeyer does have a problem with his high notes which he approaches from a point slightly below the correct pitch. Most of the time he manages to correct this imperfection in intonation, but not always. This can be very disconcerting. Rilling uses only one oboe d’amore in the aria, whereas Bach calls for two of them to play in unison.

Mvt. 5 Burns, Gohl
Here the chains are so heavy that they are never broken. The thick bc is made even heavier with a double bass. Both voices have thick vibratos and do not match each other (they are so concerned with trying to control their voices that they can not listen carefully to what the other voice is doing.) There seems to be no attempt to sing the words of the text with understanding. Perhaps they had too many other things to worry about.

Mvt. 6 Chorale
The enunciation of the words, the legato phrasing, the intonation between the parts, the temp chosen – all these things are very good, but the middle parts (alto, tenor) in their low ranges tend to become a little weak and unclear. The perceptible vibratos used in the female voices detract from the overall clarity as well.

[2] Harnoncourt:

Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 4 Holl:
This version is astonishingly energetic and angular because of the sharp accents and rhythms and the occasional use of staccato; however, the sheer power (with larger orchestral forces and a more powerful voice, Nimsgern) of this movement is diminished here. Although Holl has a larger, fuller voice than Egmond, there is something lacking in the power of expression when he has to resort to barking out certain words rather than singing them at the correct pitch. In other words, in this version, expression is more important than the proper presentation of text and music. Where Bach has indicated phrasing marks to encompass all three notes in the triplet figures, Harnoncourt persists in doing just the opposite (ms. 15 -17, 48.) Of course, the long notes in the bc of the recitative are lopped off prematurely.

Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3 Equiluz:
The primitive sound of the oboi d’amore lacks any sense of musicality. They are too loud, out of balance with each other and have the usual intonation problems. It must really bother Harnoncourt that these long notes were written out with such long note values (Harnoncourt even tries to shorten them a little because he is so accustomed now, after having complete ¾ of the cantata recordings, to shortening the bc in the secco recitatives.) The negative effects of this type of playing affect Equiluz as well. He departs from his otherwise lyrical style and begins to shout the words rather the sing them. Perhaps he is forcing his voice so that it can be heard over these horridly loud oboes. Does Harnoncourt follow Bach’s indication to use two oboi d’amore in unison in the tenor aria? No! This is probably a good thing, for Harnoncourt now decides to use a silly-sounding, clumsy bassoon (the very type of playing that Bach detested.) Again, Equiluz is forced to push his voice too much and loses the wonderful lyrical, expressive quality that he normally has.

Mvt. 5 Wittek, Immler:
If you thought that Rilling’s soloists were bad, this is much worse. The singing here is almost indescribably bad. Perhaps Immler is only slightly better than Wittek, but it really does not matter when the quality of singing has reached such a low level. How is it even possible to try to concentrate on the text and expression under these circumstances? Have you ever heard of a long held note in the voice receiving a special accent somewhere in the middle when the 1st beat in the measure occurs?

Mvt. 6 Chorale:
The inner voices (alto and tenor) are somewhat clearer here than in Rilling’s version, but, on the other hand, you will have to put up with strange accents and tiny hiatuses between the notes of a phrase. All of this has the effect of cutting up the phrase into tiny stops and pieces. Thus the melody line does not flow easily. At certain points, when the choir accents a high point of a phrase, the choir begins to sound more like it is shouting rather than singing.

[3] Leusink:

Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 4 Ramselaar:
Ramselaar is indeed not a ‘schwarzer Bass’ but what he does offer on a lighter scale with less volume is a clear delivery of the notes with good intonation although the German pronunciation still has a few flaws (‘Himmel’ pronounced as ‘Himmal.’) With less volume available to use, Ramselaar has a more limited range of expression, although he tries to do what he can here within his limitations. The contrast between the outer sections and the middle, lyrical one is very much less pronounced. Leusink does not help much here either since the strings generally stay at about the same volume level all the way through. Leusink does not recognize the ‘piano’ markings that are placed at the beginning of the middle section. The fast moving triplet figures in the bc present Leusink with a problem that he was unable to solve satisfactorily. When these figures accompany the bass voice, they sound like the rumble of a train going by – everything is completely indistinct. You know that there is something going on down there in the bc, but what is it? It can not be clearly identified. The moment these figures change to the typical moving eighth notes, Leusink has the double bass (that horrible, modern double bass [I simply can not believe that the Violone had such a loud sound]) enter to play the ‘easy’ parts. And so a switching on and off of the double bass takes place throughout the mvt.
In the recitative, Leusink tries something new with the chest organ which should be holding out the long tied notes in the bc. He terminates the note prematurely, but then picks up the note again in the middle of the hold when the figured bass chords change. The poor man is caught in a quandary: he wishes to do obeisance to the Harnoncourt theory, but he sees things in the score which stand in contradiction to this theory of the shortened accompaniment of secco arias. What is there left to do? Try to please both sides in the same mvt.!

Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3 Schoch:
What is amazing here is how the oboi d’amore sound so mild and receding (muffled.) Schoch sings many notes without any special inflection, with an almost dead quality. It is very disturbing when he tries to approach (not land on directly) high notes from below. His intonation is slightly flat and he usually takes his time in correcting this intonation flaw. In the aria Leusink has solved the problem of the two oboi d’amore playing in unison (as Bach had indicated), but just how does he do this? Do the sound engineers control this aspect entirely, or do this instruments really sound like this? The volume level of these two instruments does not vary – no change to ‘piano’ takes place when indicated in the score. Schoch’s rendition of the aria is the least expressive of those that I listened to.

Mvt. 5 Holton, Buwalda:
The voices of Holton and Buwalda do not blend well since Buwalda has a completely different timbre. His voice is like a thin, frail reed and hers more like a tiny trumpet. The organ in the bc is much too loud. This rendition, from the standpoint of the expression of text, is rather uninteresting.

Mvt. 6 Chorale;
As usual the final fermata are clipped. There is, unbelievably, some ‘chirping’ and insecurity demonstrated by the sopranos when they hit a high F# which is not that high after all. The word, “stärk” is pronounced like “stark” and at one point I think I can hear the entire choir singing “von dem Welt” rather than “von der Welt.” The consonants generally are too lax in pronunciation.


Mvt. 1 & Mvt. 4: Nimsgern [1], Holl [2], Ramselaar [3]
Mvt. 2 & Mvt. 3 Altmeyer [1], Equiluz [2], Schoch [3]
Mvt. 5: none of the above
Mvt. 6: Rilling [1], Harnoncourt [2], Leusink [3]

Thomas Braatz wr(Auguat 5, 2002):
Philippe Bareille wrote:
< Equiluz characterisation is outstanding and the melancholic accompanying oboe d'amore brings some solace to the daunting prospects. Harnoncourt wrote "Aria Mvt. 3 was of course played as a solo for the first oboe d'amore, although it in fact appears in both parts, as was common at the time ". >
This seems to be another one of Harnoncourt's "selbstverständlich" (his use of "of course" in this context says it all by not explaining anything) ideas that spring from his head from time to time.

The record is simple and very clear (assuming that a conductor take the written record from Bach's hand seriously, which we know is not always the case with Harnoncourt.)

The NBA I/19 KB affirms what can be seen in the autograph score regarding Mvt. 3 Aria:

On the right side of sheet 4 which shows the beginning of Mvt. 3, Bach writes above the topmost line: "Aria Hautb unisoni"

In the original set of parts there are separate sheets for the two oboi d'amore:

the part for the 1st oboe is entitled: "Hautb: 1. d'Amour" and contains mvts. 2, 3, and 6
the part for the 2nd oboe is entitled: "Hautb: d'Amour 2" and also has mvts. 2, 3, and 6

In the 2nd Oboe d'amore part, which was copied by both Kuhnau and Meißner, Bach personally finished copying the mvt. after ms. 128 where Kuhnau had left off. Then Meißner copied Mvt. 6.

In the face of all this first-hand evidence, Harnoncourt's ridiculous claim cloaked in "Selbstverständlichkeit" (a notion that I have discussed here before) exposes another of Harnoncourt's mistaken ideas on how Bach should be performed.

Why did he not simply admit: "I do not have two oboe d'amore players who can play in unison tolerably. Two players would be too loud and they can't play in tune anyway. Equiluz has complained also that he needs to force his voice too much to overcome the loudness of their playing. Those are some reasons, contrary to Bach's intentions, I have decided to use only one oboe d'amore player."

There is no 'of course' in choosing to have only one oboe d'amore play in Mvt. 3. Harnoncourt needs to explain why he did not/could not measure up to Bach's expectations and not make it sound as if there was an unwritten, undocumented tradition that caused two parts to be written out with exactly the same notes, but then only one part would be played by one instrument. Why would Bach personally write: "Oboes play in unison." Is this just another superscript that Bach placed at the top of the page for this mvt. simply as decoration and not to be taken seriously?

This situation relates directly to the kind of thinking that surrounds the secco recitative shortened bc accompaniment theory.

It is important to understand that this type of thing affects the way you hear the HIP recordings of Bach's cantatas. Note values are abbreviated, chords are left out, and now even entire instrument parts are being removed "selbstverständlich" (without a question.)

Andrew Lewis wrote (August 4, 2002):
[To Aryeh Oron] Aryeh, please note: I believe this is an important issue to all lovers of Bach's cantatas. I once again request that Laurence Dreyfus be asked to interview with you or this list in any way you see fit. Mr. Braatz seems to concur with this issue's importance.

Thomas Braatz wrote:
"This situation relates directly to the kind of thinking that surrounds the secco recitative shortened bc accompaniment theory.

It is important to understand that this type of thing affects the way you hear the HIP recordings of Bach's cantatas. Note values are abbreviated, chords are left out, and now even entire instrument parts are being removed "selbstverständlich" (without a question.)"

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 4, 2002):
[To Andrew Lewis] Have I missed something?
I do not understand what do you mean by: 'I believe this is an important issue to all lovers of Bach's cantatas.' And why do you think that Laurence Dreyfus should be interviewd?

Philippe Bareille wrote (August 7, 2002):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
"If you thought that Rilling's soloists [1] were bad, this (the Duo in Harnoncourt version) is much worse. The singing is almost indescribably bad"
What a strong statement!

I found interesting to compare the boy soprano Wittek in this cantata (BWV 168) with himself in his last appearance in the Teldec series (BWV 196). In the former his voice was still small and he couldn't always project his line forcefully enough (but he was doing his job conscientiously); in the latter he had turned into a mature singer brimming with self-confidence. Hence, (as I have mentioned in a previous email) no wonder why he was selected by the American conductor Leonard Bernstein to sing the sopran aria from Malher 4th symphony (DG).

To remain on the same topic; Aryeh you mentioned in one of your e.mails Markus Klein. He was another very fine boy soprano. His trills in the BWV 106/BWV 107 as well as his lower register and the way he could pass off the most difficult intervals could put many of his more experienced fellow [woman] sopranos to shame!

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 7, 2002):
[To Philippe Bareille] As I wrote in my review of BWV 168, I do like the duet as performed by the two boys from Tölzer Knabenchor. The technical challenges of the duet are not so high and the voices can cope with it without any noticeable difficulties. I also find that in this case boys' voices suit the emotional content of the duet better than women's voices. I know that Tom's opinion is different, but since our conclusions regarding the other singers of this cantata are almost identical, I find it almost logical to disagree about something. After all, these are only personal opinions.

On the other hand, I find that a boy's voice, good as he might be, is almost intolerable in Cantata BWV 196. Here we have a young bride in her wedding ceremony. How could a boy sing her part?

Regarding Marcus (not Markus) Klein, you can see his bio in the following page:
His is one of the very few bios of boy singers I could get from the various boys' choirs to which I wrote.

I repeat my conclusion of Cantata BWV 168: IMO, the gem of this cantata is the opening aria for bass, and Siegmund Nimsgern's rendition (with Rilling [1]) is exemplary, head and shoulders above all the others.


Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 168: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
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
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