If there was any doubt about the surpassing world-class excellence of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir – and after three decades or so, there shouldn't be much – it was banished Wednesday night by the ensemble's 35th anniversary concert, Let Us All Sing. For two hours we heard, in the service of fascinating repertoire, a succession of moments of great beauty from the Choir, the Tafelmusik orchestra and guest soloists – a sense of cohesion and purpose that is what music-making on the highest level is all about.
We sometimes forget, because of his charming Herr Handel impersonations at Christmastime and his genial, open-hearted manner, that Ivars Taurins is a conductor of distinction. And that means, first and foremost, that he has a game plan, a sound world and emotional ideal that is always present in his inner ear, the creation of which in the real world is the point of all his artistic efforts.
Taurins is such an expressive conductor on the podium that not only is he simply fun to watch, he actually allows us to see as well as hear his interpretative decisions as a conductor. There he is coaxing a line from his sopranos with a twist of his wrist, moderating the dynamics of his altos with a finger to the lips, carving out phrase after phrase for his orchestra with his body, torso twisting in emotional abandon, dancing the music, as it were, for his troops – and for us. Even if you had an imaginary mute button to press, you would still have been able to experience the music just by watching him.
And although Taurins has a secret (or not-so-secret) yen for the Romantic glories of the late-19th century, his baroque sound is rooted in clarity, precision and overall balance. These, of course, are human, as well as musical ideals (which is why Tafelmusik Choir concerts are so satisfying, in my opinion), and the Choir demonstrated them all in a program that reminds us once again how rich and varied and capacious the baroque era actually is.
So we had Handel on Wednesday's program, but an early, early Handel, in his 20s when he was living in Italy and composing for the Catholic Church – a Handel of a road not taken, youthful, expressive, not yet seized of that impossible simplicity that makes his later works so massive and clean at the same time.
There were two French works on the program: a Lully chaconne – that is, a piece founded on a bass line that keeps repeating and repeating (the baroque equivalent of the 12-bar blues) that was an amazing demonstration of the ability of a great composer to weave impossibly creative materials out of the same fundamental proportions. And then there was Rameau, his In convertendo Dominus expressive and accessible, performed beautifully by orchestra, soloists and choir.
But perhaps the revelation of the night was excerpts from the Stabat mater by Agostino Steffani, a previously unheralded composer, now emerging into the 21st-century light of day, which was simply shocking in its musical breadth. From an opening that might have been written by Anton Webern or Alban Berg, the piece often veered into the sound world of Brahms, if not Mahler, before settling into its 18th-century compass. And it was here, I thought, that the Choir was at its best.
There are many constant beauties in this group, from the easeful clarity of its sopranos, to the lightness of its basses, the perfect blend of its tenors and altos, the precision with which its texts are spoken, but in the Steffani, all of this was heightened by an almost Romantic focus on sonorities – on sound for its own sake – that is rare in the baroque. Taurins told me in an interview last week that as he has matured as a conductor, he has become less and less fearful of silence in his performances, and the Steffani was a textbook case of the value of waiting, anticipation, suspense.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra provided a fine and acute accompaniment to the night's proceedings, with its own blend of precision and emotional commitment and the Choir was joined by three fine soloists, soprano Sherezade Panthaki, tenor Philippe Gagné and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody. Panthaki was especially fine, with a surprisingly powerful voice in her upper range, and a fine sense of articulation and phrasing to go with it.
The concert ended with one of the Tafelmusik Choir's party pieces, the Gloria from Missa dei filii by one of their favourites, Zelenka, and as I watched and listened to the group tear through the excitement of the movement, it hit me. It's confidence that is the hallmark of this group, Choir and Orchestra both, that joyful sense of spontaneity and ease that only comes from dedicated, painstaking work, which is then completely forgotten in the heat and exuberance of actual performance. That's what ultimately satisfies in a Tafelmusik Choir concert – a sense of clarity of purpose, and eloquence in expression that fills a hall with real music.