Gli Angeli Genève Finds Strength and Colour in Bach’s Cantatas

12/08/2018

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The 2018 Vancouver International Bach Festival [2]: Gli Angeli Genève (Aleksandra Lewandowska [soprano], Alex Potter [alto], Thomas Hobbs [tenor], Stephan MacLeod [bass/director]) with Instrumental Ensemble, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 3.8.2018. (GN)

Gli Angeli Genève & Stephan MacLeod (director) © Jan Gates

Bach – ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ BWV 4; ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ (‘Actus Tragicus’) BWV 106; ‘Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu Dir’ BWV 131

Telemann – ‘Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin’

The vocal soloists of Gli Angeli Genève made such strong impression in last year’s Bach Festival, that it was an inspired idea for Early Music Vancouver to invite their troupe of instrumentalists as well for this year’s Bach cantatas. With soprano Aleksandra Lewandowska and alto Alex Potter bringing their captivating radiance, tenor Thomas Hobbs his characteristic flexibility and insight, all coordinated by the imposing tones and attentive direction of celebrated bass Stephan MacLeod, this made for quite a feast when set beside the enticingly-hued output of the ensemble’s 13 instrumentalists. It was unmistakeably strong, rich Bach, the sound typically anchored by the darker fabric of cello and chamber organ continuo, with pungent wind lines often taking precedence over the timbres of the two violins. Adding the beauty and blend of the vocal timbres made for a distinctive fit, witnessed at its finest in the Cantatas BWV 106 and 131 in the second half of the concert, and spectacularly so in the latter work.

The programme combined three cantatas of Bach with a bass cantata of Telemann, all on the theme of the ’release’ of death to an ultimate afterlife. This motif suggests a particularly nice balance of gravity with repose and celestial leanings. Nonetheless, the opening cantata, ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, did not get off to a very settled start. After the strongly etched Sinfonia, the praiseful opening chorus (with the four soloists augmented by four ripieno singers) seemed too robust and not well balanced.  Part of this perception may have stemmed from the closeness of the soloists and orchestra to the audience. Lewandowska’s beautifully suspended soprano aria made partial amends, but the rhythmic insistence of the continuo, coupled with the boldness of the wind projection, seemed to largely preclude repose or any softer textures. Thomas Hobbs’ sensitive restraint in the following aria had difficulty projecting over the orchestral fabric. The later singing had a fine athleticism to place with the instrumental strength, and the final chorus displayed enthusiasm and an enviable vocal blend, but I did not find full emotional absorption overall.

Telemann’s ‘Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin’, featuring bass Stephan MacLeod, fared better.  The strong blocks of instrumental colour and incisive rhythms were still present (sometimes fleetingly reminiscent of the brazen style of early Harnoncourt), yet one could never doubt MacLeod’s own vocal fluency and commitment to the piece. Though his singing was often intense, I enjoyed the way he settled into the lyrical and searching ‘Du bist ein ungestumes Meer’ and found the poignancy of ‘Dir ist, hochsel’ger Mann’; Lewandowska separated these arias by singing of the utmost radiant purity and beauty in ‘Brecht, ihr muden Augenlieder’. This type of musical balance hit the mark more clearly, and Telemann’s music had its adventurous moments too with a strong contribution from the recorders.

One of the marvels of seeing Gli Angeli Genève is watching Stephan MacLeod conduct both the singers and instrumentalists while singing his own part. This is multi-tasking taken to an extreme.  It is doubtlessly a practiced art but, in assessing the first half’s results, I did wonder if MacLeod would get better dynamic contrasts (and a better pianissimo in particular) if he faced the instrumentalists more frequently. Intended or not, much of the orchestral output seemed to be at mezzo-forte.

The second half found a more natural synergy between vocalists and orchestra and, interestingly, the type of over-projection at the start of the concert was not present. The major piece was ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ (Actus Tragicus). It started from a fairly stark Sonatina and a tightly-knit opening chorus, but the soloists eventually won the day, bringing forth Thomas Hobbs’ sensitive ‘Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken’, McLeod’s strong and noble ‘Bestelle dein Haus’ and, perhaps most striking of all, alto Alex Potter’s beautifully-wrought rendering of ‘Ich hare des Herrn’. While one might have wanted more reposeful space before the close (to go with the text’s ‘peaceful and calm’), the final chorus had resplendent strength, and a tangible feeling of ‘singing out’.

The natural pacing and emotional engagement were even finer in the closing cantata, ‘Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu Dir’, which featured singing of lovely transparency, shape and cohesion. This was definitely a notch up: the instrumentalists did a splendid job with the subtle ‘rocking’ rhythms which dominate the work, and it would be difficult to think of more involved singing than Stephan MacLeod and Thomas Hobbs brought to their arias. The closing chorus was overwhelming in its amplitude, richly-blended tonal weight and sense of devotion. The full image of what musical splendour this ensemble can produce was revealed!

It was striking how the music-making built step-by-step to its ultimate focus and concentration: the sheer weight and transcendence of the ending likely amazed (and transfixed) the audience. Still, this was a particular type of Bach performance: structurally cogent, open to larger gestures and fulsome beauty, embedded in a strong, dark sound – like a bold red wine. This is not the only way to perform Bach cantatas authentically, but it has a compelling strength and certainly makes one sit up and take notice. I am sure many would also enjoy a smaller, more intimate scale of singing that seeks out subtle, restrained dimensions of celestial wonder while entertaining a more flexible instrumental style. Of course, that is the very joy of Bach: he can be communicative in so many different styles.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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