The concept of yin and yang, the perfection of opposites, is an Eastern idea. But it was with Western musical culture that the spiritual truth of this insight was given astounding relevance on Thursday night as Tafelmusik presented its last concert of the season.
The earth and fire of yin, to use another set of opposites, was provided by the music of Beethoven, the essence of vitality and forthrightness in Western musical life.
Under the baton of guest conductor Bruno Weil, the Tafelmusik Orchestra burned through a fiery reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, and an intriguing pairing, almost as a suite, of two of Beethoven’s tragic incidental pieces, his overtures to Coriolan and Egmont.
On the other hand, the pairing of water and air, music as subtlety and liquid beauty, was provided by pianist Janina Fialkowska beautifully playing an 1848 Pleyel piano, the same model Chopin himself used at the end of his life, and a chamber arrangement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. While the Tafelmusik Orchestra was expanded to larger-than-usual size for the majesty and power of the Beethoven, it was reduced to merely 10 players for the airiness and exquisite texture of Chopin.
Conductor Weil and the Tafelmusik Orchestra have had a lengthy and fruitful relationship, lasting longer than two decades, and he simply brings out the best in this orchestra. Under his thoughtful, yet passionate direction, the orchestra seems to find a comfortable release for its tight, aggressive playing, full of contrast and sharpness, but also lyrical and serene when needed. Weil is so sure in his interpretations, so clear in his direction, that the musicians of the orchestra seem to feel an abandon in their playing that is rare, even for them. I’ve mentioned before the joys of watching, as well as listening, to Tafelmusik. On Thursday evening, I thought I could imagine Jeanne Lamon and Aisslinn Nosky, facing each other on stage, as principal first and second violin, actually drifting out of their seats toward the heavens, Chagall-like, given the engagement and passion in their playing.
Nosky was also one of the 10 musicians who provided support for the equally heavenly playing of Janina Fialkowska in the Chopin concerto. To prevent the more intimate sound of the Pleyel piano from being overwhelmed, Fialkowska performed a chamber arrangement of the concerto, with five string and five wind players, conceived by composer Sylvia Maessen. And while the new arrangement took a little getting used to (violinists Nosky and Christina Zacharias playing alone the parts often performed by 20-odd players), the intimacy and special charm of this approach to the piece eventually worked musical wonders.
This was especially true in the concerto’s intense second movement, where Fialkowska’s exquisite touch and musical acuity, the very interesting timbre of this almost-but-not-quite-modern piano, and a whole host of effects made possible by the stripped-down arrangement opened up worlds of meaning and interpretation usually closed off to this overly familiar piece.
To take one example of many, in mid-movement Chopin writes a pizzicato bass line to act as counterpoint to arpeggios and other filigree on the piano. When six instruments are performing this music, as is usual, it has a mildly pleasing effect. However, with just bassist Alison Mackay playing the part, standing just a few feet away from the piano, what was just pleasing now became a wonderful moment of duet, of dialogue, of revelation. The movement, and the entire concerto was full of such moments.
Fialkowska told me days before the concert that it is easy to listen to Chopin in a superficial way, letting the music just pass unthinkingly over your consciousness. But, as she said, “If you listen superficially to Chopin, you miss everything! You’ve got to really listen, get beyond that barrier that he sort of sets up himself, of ease and virtuosity.” On Thursday night, Fialkowska, certainly with virtuosity to burn, but with a touch and an approach that forced us to “really listen,” helped us beyond that barrier. And into new Chopinesque worlds.
The series of ovations that Fialkowska received at concerto’s end must have been rewarding to this gentle and generous artist, who has battled and beaten a severe cancer that threatened not only her career, but her life, and who is now experiencing a renaissance in her professional world, with awards and honours everywhere she looks. The reception she got at the end of the first half of the concert was only matched by that received by the orchestra at the end of the second. After close to an hour of the most stirring Beethoven, the audience wildly applauded Bruno Weil, who appeared for one, then a second curtain call. The applause, as it does, eventually died down, generally the cue for patrons to gather up their belongings and make their way out of the theatre.
But Thursday night’s audience just stayed put, unwilling or unable to leave. Not applauding, just sitting in their seats. Stunned, hoping for more, reluctant to re-enter the world of Bloor Street – who knows? Maybe all three. Eventually, the orchestra members themselves started to depart, and so, finally, did the audience. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. I can’t imagine a more glowing a testament to the evening of fine music-making that we had just witnessed.
Follow us on Twitter: