J.S. BACH: CANTATAS FOR BASS BWV 56-82-158-203
THE BASS AND SIMEON
There are still many mysteries surrounding Johann Sebastian Bach’s personality. Yet, as new and exciting biographies appear, telling us more and more about the composer, we keep wondering what kind of a man he was in everyday life. Maybe because the very idea of the existence of such a genius is almost disturbing, and never ceases to amaze. However, that Bach was frequently called upon by instrument makers, and not only by organ builders, to listen to, gauge, and probably help tune musical instruments is no secret. He is thus closely related to the oboe family’s history since both the oboe da caccia and the oboe d’amore first appeared in Leipzig while Bach was working there. Moreover, he is the only composer to have offered music (the Passions and numerous cantatas) to the former and its warm, tender tone.
Bach showed unique know-how in the understanding and the use of the instruments’ potential, never limiting any of them to one or two modes of expression when composing, but making the most of all their technical, sonic and expressive facets. He also treated each voice tessitura with equal exactness. Whereas the bass voice is also that of Christ in the Passions, or the evocation of the voice of God in certain cantatas, Bach did not confine it to this sole use. From one Sunday to the next, the bass voice could just as well embody a thundering preacher as a desperate Christian.
Therefore, it is striking that three of Bach’s four surviving cantatas for bass solo present such similarities regarding the theme of their librettos and their chronological proximity. BWV 56 and 82 were composed in 1726 and 1727 in Leipzig. BWV 158 is an older piece from which only fragments have survived. It was revived in Leipzig, probably as early as 1728, according to Joshua Rifkin (or between 1728 and 1731, according to other historians and biographers). If Rifkin says right, we are faced with a proper cycle, a yearly and regular punctuation in the music produced for the liturgical calendar that Bach presented each Sunday. In those years, the composer seems to have regularly privileged the solo bass voice to evoke the relieved and longed-for passage from life to death, most often summoning Simeon, the one who tells us that now, finally, is the moment to die.
This thematic unity will come as no surprise to musicians familiar with Bach’s cantatas, in which the acceptance and hope of death is one of the most recurrent themes, if not the main one, of the entire corpus. But, in the present case, we were nevertheless surprised by its intensity. Bach does the same with human voices as with musical instruments: he seizes death, our fear of death and its expectation, to depict it in all forms and manners, at all levels of expressive intensity and with all possible musical means. His art opens up an infinite prism of perceptions of the world, and his genius definitely makes life more acceptable.
French texts in the booklet
BACH: BASS CANTATAS BWV 56, 82, 158, 203
The three cantatas BWV 56, 82 and 158 deal with death. Not the frightening death against which the helpless individual rebels, but the desired death that both redeems from sin and liberates from the pains of life. “Come, O death, sister of sleep, come and take me away”: the cantata BWV 56, with one of the most beautiful chorales ever composed by Bach, ends with these words as if the music was standing on the fringe of wakefulness and sleep, of life and death, in that transition moment when borders become blurred. All of these cantatas are entrusted to the bass, the voice of a mature man, and in the Passions, the voice of Christ. This leads us to believe that Bach’s personal position is expressed here more directly than elsewhere (according to his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel, he had a “penetrating and large voice”). Incidentally, the term cantata was only assigned to such works for solo voice in those days.
The cantata BWV 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I would gladly carry the cross), was first performed in Leipzig on 27 October 1726. It has an Italian title: Cantata a Voce Sola e Stromenti (Bach composed several cantatas for solo voices during this period). The piece belongs to the musician›s third year of musical production since his appointment as Cantor. Unfortunately, only part of this output has come down to us.
The whole cantata evokes the journey from one world to the other through the images of the cross in the opening aria and navigation in the first recitative. The following aria makes reference to an eagle to suggest the journey. Finally, the last recitative expresses the yearning to reach the destination. Through these images, the burdened body re-enacts the sacrifice of Christ: death is rebirth. The torments and sorrows (Plagen, Kummer), the affliction and misery (Betrübnis, Not), the yoke and the cross (Joch, Kreuz) are metamorphosed by faith and become bliss and rest (Seligkeit, Ruhe). The music expresses this carnal and spiritual reality through harmonic tensions that arise from the relationship between dissonance and consonance. [..]
Read more in the booklet and French texts
Geneva-born Stephan MacLeod is a singer and conductor. He now conducts between 40 and 50 concerts a year worldwide, including an increasing number of appearances as guest conductor with “modern” orchestras. He also happily pursues his career as a singer and is a vocal teacher at the Haute Ecole de Musique de Lausanne (HEMU).
After studying the violin and the piano, Stephan MacLeod began singing. He first received his vocal training at the Geneva Conservatory, then with Kurt Moll at the Musikhochschule in Cologne and finally with Gary Magby at the Haute Ecole de Musique in Lausanne. His career began while he was still a student in Germany thanks to a fruitful collaboration with Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln. That experience led him to the oratorio repertoire. Stephan MacLeod has since been singing regularly in the world’s most prominent venues under conductors such as Philippe Herreweghe, Jordi Savall, Frieder Bernius, Franz Brüggen, Masaaki Suzuki, Michel Corboz, Gustav Leonhardt, Christophe Coin, Konrad Junghänel, Hans-Christoph Rademann, Sigiswald Kuijken, Vaclav Luks, Philippe Pierlot, Helmut Rilling, Rudolf Lutz, Paul Van Nevel and Jos Van Immerseel, as well as Daniel Harding and Jesus Lopez Cobos.
As a Lied and melody lover, Stephan MacLeod gives numerous recitals. He has also appeared on opera stages, notably at La Monnaie in Brussel, La Fenice in Venice, and in opera houses in Geneva, Toulouse, Nîmes, Bordeaux, Cologne, Potsdam, Freiburg, Gerona, etc. Alongside his singing career, he has also been conducting regularly since 2005 and is the founder of Gli Angeli Genève, an ensemble that has gained significant international recognition in recent years.
Since 2013, Stephan MacLeod is a vocal teacher at the Haute Ecole de Musique de Lausanne. He divides his time between family, teaching, singing commitments, his ensemble and conducting – particularly Bach’s music. His discography includes over 100 CDs, many of which have been awarded.
French texts in the booklet
Gli Angeli Genève was founded in 2005 by Stephan MacLeod. This ensemble of variable size plays on period instruments (or copies thereof) and comprises musicians who pursue a career in baroque music but are not active in this field only: they do not solely play early music. Their eclecticism guarantees the vitality of their enthusiasm. It is also a driving force behind their curiosity.
From the very beginning of its musical adventure – solely focused for several years on the concert performance of the complete Bach Cantatas, with three concerts per season in Geneva – Gli Angeli Genève has been a meeting place for some of the most famous singers and instrumentalists on the international Baroque scene and young graduates of the Basel, Lyon, Lausanne and Geneva music schools.
The ensemble’s first two recordings, released in 2009 and 2010, won critical acclaim and international recognition. Gli Angeli Genève now gives over ten concerts each season in Geneva. These include the complete Bach Cantatas and a series of annual concerts at the Victoria Hall, as well as performances within the ensemble’s own Haydn-Mozart Festival and a season of chamber music concerts from September 2022 onwards. Gli Angeli is also much-demanded in Switzerland and abroad for performances of music by Bach, Tallis, Josquin, Schein, Schütz, Johann Christoph Bach, Weckmann, Buxtehude, Rosenmüller, Haydn, Mozart and others. In recent seasons, Gli Angeli Genève has been in residence at the Utrecht Festival and the Thüringer Bachwochen and has also given concerts in Basel, Zurich, Lucerne, Barcelona, Nürnberg, Bremen, Stuttgart, Brussels, Milan, Wroclaw, Paris, Ottawa, Vancouver and The Hague. It is a regular guest at the Saintes and Utrecht festivals, the Musikfest in Bremen or the Bach Festival in Vancouver. The ensemble made its debut at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in 2017 and the KKL Luzern in 2019.
Gli Angeli Genève’s first recording for Claves, Sacred Music of the 17th Century in Wroclaw, won the 2019 ICMA Award for the best recording of the year of baroque vocal music. In addition, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion received enthusiastic acclaim from audiences and critics, both in Switzerland and worldwide. Gli Angeli Genève›s recordings also include Bach›s Mass in B minor, nominated in 2022 for an ICMA Award, and Antoine Reicha’s rarely performed Symphonies Concertantes, with soloists Christophe Coin, Davit Melkonyan, Chouchane Siranossian and Alexis Kossenko.
(Translation: Michelle Bulloch - Musitext)
French texts in the booklet
Emmanuel Laporte, hautbois (BWV 56 – 82)
Eva Saladin, violon (BWV 158)
Bertrand Cuiller, clavecin (BWV 203)
Emmanuel Laporte, Seung-Kyung Lee-Blondel, hautbois
Marcel Ponseele, hautbois de chasse
Tomasz Wesołowski, basson
Eva Saladin, Adrien Carré, Yoko Kawakubo, violons 1
Nadia Rigolet, Coline Ormond, Xavier Sichel, violons 2
Sonoko Asabuki, Martine Schnorhk, altos
Hager Hanana, Oleguer Aymami, violoncelles
Michaël Chanu, contrebasse
Francis Jacob, orgue
Bertrand Cuiller, clavecin
Aleksandra Lewandowska, Chiyuki Okamura, sopranos
Christelle Monney, Charles Sudan, altos
Thomas Hobbs, Augustin Laudet, ténors
Frederik Sjollema, basse
Stephan MacLeod, basse et direction