We're only three weeks in, but it's very possible that about 340 days from now, we'll name as the best concert of the year Kent Nagano's Thursday night appearance with the Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir. It's hard to imagine music-making of greater exuberance, transcendence and sheer revelatory power being presented any time soon in the neighbourhood.
Nagano is the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and has worked with Tafelmusik before, but never in Toronto. One hopes this is the first of many hookups – their philosophies and musical talents seem to mesh beautifully together.
Nagano and Tafelmusik presented two aspects of faith felt and communicated by Ludwig van Beethoven in his life, in two quite different works, although written about the same time, two testaments to belief and revelation that still inform our view of the world today.
In the famous Fifth Symphony, it is faith in the Enlightenment, in reason and humankind, that is on display throughout. But to effectively present this immensely positive message, Nagano had to do what so many conductors fail to do – play down that ultrafamous "fate knocking at the door" da-da-da-duh, first movement.
The first movement of the Fifth is basically a long introduction to the work, a setup in a thuddingly insistent minor key that provides the opening framework for the progressive blooming of light to follow. Nagano understood this perfectly, and led the orchestra through a series of sometimes dramatic, sometimes funny, always beautifully rendered middle movements that open up to the blazing C major high noon that is the last movement of the Fifth. It is this last movement, not the first one, that is the confession of faith that became Beethoven's great gift to us, and Nagano led his Tafelmusik colleagues through a whirling, speedy, frenzied hymn to reason, openness, brotherhood and hope in that final movement that was nothing short of magnificent.
But it was the other work on the program, Beethoven's Mass in C Major, written just before the Fifth, that was almost a greater revelation. Beethoven remained at least a partial Catholic believer all his life – witness the choral sections of the Ninth Symphony and the late Missa Solemnis – and the faith Beethoven exhibits in the Mass is, by necessity, a more traditional tale of sin, sorrow and eventual redemption.
Beethoven's new Enlightenment ideals never totally released him from the emotional and psychic burden of his Christian faith, so in his religious music, Beethoven works so very hard, strains with such passion to make emotional sense of the deep claims of traditional belief. Where there is relative openness in the Symphony, in the Mass, Beethoven is so much more clearly ill at ease. And far from making the music less successful, it is just that struggle in Beethoven's Mass, the constant changes of key, texture, orchestration, tempo and emotional palette, that made Nagano and Tafelmusik's performance of the piece so overwhelming.
For we are like Beethoven today, aware that the pure, innocent ideals of the Enlightenment are not quite enough – that the contradictions in life, the play of hopefulness and hopelessness that is our true fate, can never recede into oblivion no matter how much we believe in reason, equality and the brotherhood of all. And the true nature of this struggle is made manifest in the Mass by the chorus that participates in almost all of its ever-changing moods. The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir was immensely powerful in its presentation of Beethoven's musical self-doubts. A month ago, we heard the choir present with grace the easy, open-hearted strains of Handel's Messiah. Now, the same voices were deep into the strain and agony and eventual transcendence of Beethoven's powerful storming of the Christian heavens. Between them, Nagano and the Tafelmusik Orchestra, we received a musical bounty in one evening that will not soon be forgotten.