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Bach's Word of Thunder and Bliss of Heaven

View of the sky at sunset after a storm, with large clouds lit from behind
Andy Wrights
The sky at sunset after a storm

On The Bach Hour, Rudolf Lutz conducts the composer's Cantata 168, in which fearsome metaphors from the natural world are answered by allusions to eternity.

On the program:

Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829 - Murray Perahia, piano

Cantata BWV 168 Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort (translation) - Noemi Sohn Nad, soprano; Antonia Frey, alto; Johannes Kaleschke, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Orchestra of J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen; Rudolf Lutz, conductor

Chorale Prelude: Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, BWV 1114 - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (Trost organ at St. Walpurgis Church, Grossengottern, Germany)

Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 (selections) - German Brass  



The nervous urgency that launches Bach’s Cantata 168 strikes deeply into the very core of human existence and demands a reckoning.


But whenever Bach poses an existential challenge, he also lights up the pathway to a resolution.


In the Cantata 168, the “Word of Thunder” may be fearsome, but the bliss of heaven is right around the corner. It’s all coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. The Cantata No. 168, Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort - or “Settle account! Word of Thunder” - is a very short piece. But it nevertheless embodies the foundations of Bach’s music as an expression of his faith. You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Also on the program today is the amazing double quintet known as German Brass.

And before all of that, here is pianist Murray Perahia. This is the Partita No. 5, here on The Bach Hour.


From a 2009 release, that was Murray Perahia, with one of the sets of pieces you might consider a compendium of styles from around Europe, all channeled through the genius of Bach: The Partita No. 5, built on dance forms from France, Italy, and the composer’s own native Germany.

These days, it’s relatively rare to find any kind of depiction of the God of Christianity that’s not built around warmth and forgiveness. But that’s not the side of God that Bach had in mind when he wrote his Cantata No. 168, Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort - or “Settle account! Word of Thunder.” Set to a libretto by Salomo Franck, it opens with a relentless and threatening aria for the bass soloist, who describes that “word of thunder” as capable of splitting rocks and freezing blood.


The tenor soloist makes it clear that there’s quite a bit of scorekeeping going on, singing, first, that “I shudder when I see my accounts so full of defects. I have the goods, which God has lent to me, cold-mindedly squandered.” And as if that weren’t enough, he continues, “Capital and interest, my debts must one day be accounted for. Everything I owe is written in God’s book.”


I guess we can imagine what the merchant class who filled the church in Bach’s Leipzig might have felt about the time they were hearing this. But then the bass soloist steps in again to say that you can relax. The debts are already paid. They were paid in blood by Jesus. And, by the way, since you’re such a good soul, you probably ought to give your money to the poor anyway.


It all sets up the turning point, when the alto and soprano soloists sing together of breaking the chains of material wealth to embrace a “solid house that will last forever in heaven when the goods of earth turn to dust.”


And through the course of this short cantata, Bach pulls off a sonic corollary to the message he’s expressing. Just as the cantata asks believers to give up material wealth for a purer faith, each movement Bach writes srips away a bit of the complexity of the instrumental accompaniment. Ever so gradually, by removing a few players here and there and simplifying what those musicians play in each new recitative and aria, Bach brings the piece to a close with the starkly pure, beautiful sound of a chorale in four voices.

Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 168, in a performance that features soprano Noëmi Sohn Nad, alto Antonia Frey, tenor Johannes Kaleschke, and bass Peter Harvey, all of whom also form the choral ensemble. Rudolf Lutz leads the orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 168]

This performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 168, Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort - or “Settle account! Word of Thunder” in a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen in Switzerland and director Rudolf Lutz. The soloists included soprano Noëmi Sohn Nad, alto Antonia Frey, tenor Johannes Kaleschke, and bass Peter Harvey, who also formed the choral ensemble.

That’s one of many recordings made so far by the Bach Foundation in Switzerland. Since 2006, the founder of the organization, Rudolf Lutz, has been leading a performance each month of a Bach cantata - each of them recorded for release - along with lectures and reflections by other musicologists and performers. The goal of the foundation is to record all of Bach’s vocal works, and, at that pace, their own estimate is that they’ll finish in the year 2030.

The chorale tune of the final movement of the Cantata 168 is also the basis of this organ prelude, performed by Gerhard Weinberger.

[MUSIC – BWV 1114]

A prelude on the chorale Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good, the same chorale Bach used in the final movement of the Cantata 168. Gerhard Weinberger was the organist at the Heinrich Gottfried Trost organ at St. Walpurgis Church in Großengottern, Germany, one of earliest instruments built by a craftsman who would go on to be a legendary organ builder of Bach’s time.

Speaking of “legendary,” one of the great ensembles of our time is German Brass. Made up of 10 players from orchestras and conservatories around Germany, here they are with the opening three movements from the Easter Oratorio, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 249-I-III.]

That’s Geman Brass, with their own arrangement of the opening movements of Bach’s Easter Oratorio.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.