Thank you Tafelmusik. What took you so long?
Tonight I heard Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir venture boldly into the 19th century, sounding very much like they belong there. The program on this occasion consisted of Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Mendelssohn’s “Italian“ Symphonies, two prototypically romantic works offered in historically informed performance (let’s call it “HIP”).
Notwithstanding the excellence of their H.I.P., perhaps “bold” is an unfortunate adjective to use. I purchased my first HIP set of Beethoven symphonies in the late 1980s, as well as symphonic recordings of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann. Since then conductors have employed authentic instrumentation in performances of such late-romantic composers as Wagner, Verdi, Smetana and Brahms. I have to wonder, Tafelmusik: what took you so long? You’re a brilliant ensemble, why not more romantic music?
Perhaps it’s because they understand themselves as a baroque orchestra, both in terms of their training and the audience who have been coming to support them for so long. Perhaps it’s humility and scholarly care, making them cautious. It’s hard to argue with the results, when the orchestra seems to be successful, prosperous, and gradually enlarging its repertoire, to venture more and more past 1800.
Meanwhile I am bouncing up and down anticipating Opera Atelier’s Der Freischütz next season, to be played by Tafelmusik & conducted by David Fallis, the first HIP Freischütz in North America. While I am delighted to see that Tafelmusik will program another romantic concert next season (Beethoven and Chopin), obviously I’m impatient for even more: how about Schumann, Schubert, and Berlioz?
In the Tafelmusic program notes conductor Bruno Weil was asked “Is there repertoire that you have not yet done with period orchestras that you would like to do in the futurem” to which he replied “Yes. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Grosse Fuge, Wagner’s Lohengrin, and the Blue Danube Waltz.”
In the meantime, Bruno Weil conducted stirring performances of the Mendelssohn & Beethoven works in Toronto this week. The “Italian” Symphony that opened the program mostly moved faster than the modern orchestra versions we’re accustomed to hearing. Weil had a careful handle on the meter, without the broad tempi variations one might have encountered in the interpretations of an ensemble such as the Toronto Symphony. Many times in the first movement I saw big smiles playing across Weil’s face, at times returned by a beaming Jeanne Lamon as the principal violinist and Music Director. In the recapitulation of the first movement, the second subject’s statement sings out powerfully from cellos and violas, a richness of tone one simply can’t get from a modern orchestra. From what I understand, it’s harder to play the instruments in tune, but you’d never know it hearing Tafelmusik, whether in the moody second movement, the long luscious lines of the tuneful third movement, or the frenetic energy of the Saltarello that closes the work.
Strong as the Mendelssohn was, I was especially focused on hearing Beethoven’s “Eroica”, the work awaiting us after intermission, and Tafelmusik didn’t disappoint. What we heard was a perfect reflection of something Weil said in the program: “One should approach the “Eroica” pretending you do not know the Fourth through Ninth Symphonies yet.” Weil did not over-emphasize discords or extreme dynamic contrasts, simply letting the work unfold. The second movement was perhaps the biggest contrast to older versions with modern orchestras (usually much slower), yet did not lack for grandeur or gravitas. The third movement flew by with quicksilver clarity, interrupted by a masterful horn trio. Finally the last movement brought us to a joyful conclusion, the orchestra often flashing smiles throughout.
So forgive me if I am completely out of touch with Tafelmusik and their community of support, who may look upon the occasional Mozart & Beethoven on the program as a fun departure from the usual baroque excellence. I want to hear Tafelmusik undertake Berlioz, Schubert, Schumann and more, because it’s clear to me that they’re up to it. They may be the best orchestra in Toronto, and should feel empowered to progam absolutely anything.
But for now I will be patient.