Consistency is not necessarily an artistic virtue. But consistency at a supremely high level of creative excellence is.
Welcome to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. For more than 30 years, this world-class ensemble has been providing Torontonians and music lovers around the world with sprightly, disciplined, engaging and gutsy performances. The opening of its 2012 season showed once again why an evening within Tafelmusik’s musical walls is always a treat for the ears, as well as the mind.
Perhaps in communion with the spirit of Glenn Gould, whose 80th birthday on Tuesday occasioned an international conference on the weekend devoted to his memory, Tafelmusik decided to begin their season with the orchestral music of J.S. Bach – three of his six Brandenburg concertos and one of his orchestral suites.
However, in keeping with the latest thinking about the sonorities of Baroque performance, Tafelmusik used a relatively tiny group of players for these works, a different complement for each one. For those of us used to a group of 13 or 14 musicians playing the Brandenburgs, it was a bit of a shock to see only seven players come on stage for Brandenburg No.5 – three of them the soloists! The chamber-sized sound of these familiar pieces lent a new transparency to the music, a bit off-putting at first, but eventually captivating, because, although smaller in sound, the pieces were much more intimate in texture – sort of a Brandenburgs Unplugged.
And what we heard in this format was Bach’s clever use of his various musical forces – his pitting of sound versus sound, winds against strings, upper strings versus lower strings, ensemble against soloists. In the normal version, some of this clever antiphony simply gets lost.
Tafelmusik is an orchestra of soloists. We have known that for years, but never was it more in evidence than in this concert.
Let’s start with the harpsichord of Charlotte Nediger, prominently featured in the Fifth Brandenburg. Nediger is perhaps the least likely looking virtuoso in classical music, a sweet woman who would not be out of place in your local library – if the librarian could take Bach’s incredibly ornate and difficult harpsichord part in Brandenburg No.5 and play it with an astonishing skill and musicality.
Then there were the natural horns of Derek Conrod and Scott Wevers. It was said originally of the oboe, but the natural horns (no valves) are also “ill winds that nobody blows good,” nobody, that is, except Conrod and Wevers, whose parts in Brandenburg No. 1 were note-perfect.
And then there was Dominic Teresi’s bassoon solo in the second movement of the orchestral suite – his riff made you feel as though you were at a Led Zeppelin concert.
Jeanne Lamon always does herself proud with her violin playing, but in this concert she shared solo duties with Geneviève Gilardeau and Julia Wedman. Gilardeau was a fine soloist in Brandenburg No.1, but Wedman stole the show (as much as it could be stolen) in Brandenburg No.3. Her solo cadenza between the first and last movements (not actually written by Bach, who just left a pause in the score) was beautiful and shaped with taste. And watching Wedman play the violin, leaning into the notes, stalking the stage (all the players were standing all night except for cellists and harpischord player), smiling and nodding to her colleagues, living the music she is playing, is a great joy.
That Third Brandenburg, with which the concert ended, was perhaps its highlight, with the players not only standing but also playing without music, directly encountering their audience in a performance that was fast, tight, disciplined, intensely musical.
It’s what we have come to expect from Tafelmusik. But it does not make it any less special simply because the musicians always manage to deliver.
Tafelmusik repeats this program at 8 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the George Weston Recital Hall.