Tafelmusik record Beethoven’s Ninth

Tonight’s Koerner Hall concert was recorded, one of a series. But it seemed like a pair of concerts.

Before intermission we watched the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, led by their founding director Ivars Taurins. This is a choir he built, piece by piece and work by work, so it seemed apt that we were watching them sing a cappella. Their performance was acutely perfect. Can I say that? We listened to three unaccompanied pieces, beginning with Abendlied, a very gentle work by Rheinberger, the world premiere of Jeffrey Ryan’s Valediction, and finally Brahms’s Warum ist das Licht gegeben. Ryan’s work, based on a poem by Norma West Linder, closes with the line “World without, whirled without end”, (which by the way does not have a period, though it does end) the voices conjuring up a genuine sense of whirling motion without the aid of any accompaniment. And then we heard a virtuoso display in the Brahms, especially by the women, unified whether soft or loud, but absolutely perfect.


Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins (left foreground). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann


After intermission? It seemed to be a different sort of concert altogether (and why not after all), as we heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, played by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra led by Bruno Weil, employing that same Chamber Choir for the fourth movement.

Weil is definitely looking older, indeed he moves at times as though he’s in pain, which is hard to watch after so many wonderful years leading the orchestra. But no matter what he looked like the orchestra responded. In general his tempi are quicker than what you’d expect if you listen to a modern orchestra.  The fast movements are irresistible, the climaxes bowl you over.

I can’t help putting that in context with last night. Tonight we heard a work that has long ago entered public consciousness, that turns up in films, TV commercials and even our church service (there’s a hymn called “joyful joyful we adore you”(or thee) based on the same melody as the Ode to Joy), tunes I know so well I could practically sing the whole thing.

I’m not alone.  The guy in front of me was nodding his head in a kind of frenzied ecstasy, depending on what sort of music was playing (for the scherzo his head moved fast, as it did in the last movement while in the third movement he moved his head more slowly). Last night hearing something I’d never heard before (Christos Hatzis’s score for the ballet Going Home Star) I had no real expectation.  One has no way to anticipate what would come next if you’ve never heard the piece before, whereas tonight we can’t help having expectations that verge on stipulations. In the last movement, I hope to hear a clear strong bass voice in the solo to begin, a fast tempo in the big tenor solo, that leads to a clear high note from the tenor, or later when the soprano gets her high note, I hope it’s gentle rather than loud (the way some singers scream it). And there are a whole series of things I hope to hear from the orchestra in each movement. And they delivered on some of my wishlist, while disappointing in other parts of that list.  The chorus were once again near-perfect in their execution.

Maybe I was extra-conscious of this because Tafelmusik are recording their performances this week. Everyone was encouraged to cough between movements but to keep quiet when the orchestra was playing. Maybe I was put into this mental frame of mind after listening to a first-half of the concert sung with absolute perfection.

Before I continue let me offer some context. Back in the 1980s I became serious about getting recordings by ensembles playing what’s often known as “original instruments”, which is to say, strings with catgut rather than metal, wooden rather than metal woodwinds, valveless horns, and so on. These instruments are much harder to play in tune, which might be why you normally encounter Beethoven played on modern instruments, 100% in tune and without any fluffs from any of the wind players. But there’s a trade-off. The sweetness of the sound, the gentle tone of a period band employing historically informed practices, the softer volume and slightly lower tuning all add up to something that has become the core of my listening. I believe we unconsciously suspend judgment in the presence of this sort of playing, as one mustn’t come with the same standards one brings to performances by those playing modern instruments with their perfect execution. I have at least one friend who adamantly refuses to listen to a historically informed band.

Tonight I experienced a disconnect, because the two halves of the concert do not seem to share the same basic principles. The first half with its choral perfection surely isn’t what would have been heard back in the day.  But wait, one of the pieces is from 2015, so why should that work sound like one from 1824? Of course there’s a natural disconnect. Perhaps i am over-thinking, but hearing such clarity in the first half did not work as a set-up for music I really love.  Even so it was a very enjoyable concert, clearly one enjoyed by the rapturous audience.  I’ll be interested to hear the recording they create from the performances made this week.

Tafelmusik orchestra & choir return to Koerner Hall Sunday Feb 7th for another performance of unaccompanied choral works followed by the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, with the orchestra returning in late February to perform Mozart back at Trinity St Paul’s.

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4 Responses to Tafelmusik record Beethoven’s Ninth

  1. cinnamoncrumbs says:

    I too found this concert “bifurcated.” The first half was superb technically but perhaps at the expense of musicality. At times it lacked fluidity, though the rising cadence at the end of the Brahms was divine. All praise, too, to Jeffrey Ryan on his new work: it’s a pity if the first half of the concert wasn’t recorded as well.
    The second half, the Beethoven, was an entirely different experience, and one wonders if the same approach as in the first half would have worked better here. There’s a kind of aura about Beethoven that says, “get it right technically and grasp it with passion and all will be right in the world!”
    And the passion was certainly there.
    It is difficult to pick out individual performances, especially when you are “up with the angels,” as I was, but I must say that Julia Wedman and Aisslinn Nosky seemed to excel and show orchestral leadership from the violin, especially in the second movement, the molto vivace. All musicians played well, though once or twice the woodwinds screeched to keep up.
    Amusing I thought was the approach of the male vocal soloists. The tenor was cannier and held his voice for the recording. The younger baritone sang for his audience – bless him – and gave it his all and deserves our thanks, even if he did not quite pull it off, at least in Friday’s performance.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for bearing witness. I am inclined to begin with my subjectivity, which i don’t trust. I wonder, in effect, if our perception in the second half was conditioned by the pristine clarity of the a cappella singing in the first half. Yes there are screeching sounds or fluffed notes: but i think they’re always there in every Tafelmusik concert (and every Opera Atelier performance too), which we only notice because of the way our ears were primed by the first half. In other words, i think the performance was the usual splendid performance but i was listening in a different way than usual. Much as i loved the work of Ivars Taurins and the chorus, i don’t think this the ideal preparation for our ears.

  2. Ivars Taurins says:

    Dear Leslie,
    I find it curious and somewhat amusing that, in your view, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir’s singing and technical skills are too “perfect”, and that it shouldn’t try achieve such perfection in performance, but emulate or recreate some idea of inferior singing of a past age to be “authentic”. The musicians of Tafelmusik orchestra certainly aren’t attempting to recreate performance standards of past centuries – they play their instruments to the highest degree of technical ability and musical expression. We all, orchestra and choir alike, share the same principle: that of historically-informed performance, coupled with a keen sense of communicating the music we perform to our audiences with vitality and passion.
    If I may say so, comparing the capabilities of period instruments to voices is, I believe, the disconnect here.

    • barczablog says:

      I struggled with this write -up, which i am hesitant to even call a review. It’s a bizarre bit of writing, and i was fully expecting your response, as i had previously seen one from you. I love the fact that with Tafelmusik we’re part of a community, where the musical performance is part of a genuine conversation, and i welcome your feedback, especially if i sound like i am full of it…. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting you not be perfect. It’s more a matter of how the programming juxtaposed works that are heard in very different ways.

      I think there’s a paper or book that someone needs to write, about the evolution of our hearing. There have been books that hint at the evolution of cognition, for example Julian Jaynes’ The Birth of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind looks at evidence for different ways of thinking, in the changes between the Iliad and the Odyssey, and especially compared to how we now think. Do we hear the way we did in 1827? I am inclined to think that we do not, not at all. This is the difference then, and not that they sang in an inferior way. I am not denigrating the instruments you hear in a historically informed band, far from it. But there are inevitable fluffs, that we disregard as part of our engagement, something comparable to a willing suspension of disbelief. To a listener from that era? that’s surely not how it worked, because they had not heard a modern orchestra, nor grown up with CDs and vinyl and television and ubiquitous music. Would they have even noticed a fluff? that’s important to ask, not just as a perception question, for there are two parts to it:
      1) they had not grown up listening to a myriad of recordings of symphonies played flawlessly
      2) they had probably not heard the pieces more than a few times in their lives, so likely wouldn’t know the right & wrong notes
      So when we think about that choir of long ago performing at their best, they would still have to cope with a different set of ears.

      So in other words, rather than suggest that in a past age the singing was imperfect, no i suspect that generations of exposure to recordings have altered our ears. A “perfect” live performance in that time would not sound like what we heard from Tafelmusik. I have perfect pitch. And i am willing to bet you do too, Ivars. Are we rare? or just the natural outcome of saturation with recordings: that weren’t there in the first half of the 19th century. It’s just a silly parlour trick at this point. And I know what i hear in old recordings, namely a much looser sense of intonation, both among singers and in orchestras. Helen Traubel sounds flat in almost everything i’ve heard her sing. Jussi Bjorling is sharp in many things he sings. But here’s the key: that people weren’t as hung up on being flat or sharp the way they are now, because of what we have been exposed to.

      So let me come back to the concert. Ivars? you and the chorus did a fabulous job. But i don’t believe the combination was a wise choice. If we compare the art of programming to the way meals are created (what wine goes with what sort of meal), some things don’t work well together, they strike the taste buds with a jarring mis-match of flavours. You must do what you must do, but before you begin, there’s the process of deciding what to put on the same meal / program. Perhaps it isn’t terribly original to program the Choral Fantasy with the 9th Symphony, but we’d be hearing voice + those same period instruments. My own preference is to encounter Beethoven as brash and new, as the sharpest flavour, bursting the bounds of what came before.

      If i had my druthers Tafelmusik would be performing Berlioz and Schumann and Schubert and lots more from the 19th century. I am glad that the Beethoven Symphony cycle will now be available. But i don’t believe that the 9th was dignified or enobled by its companions on this program. I think the chief issue was a first half of a cappella singing that made my hearing super acutely aware of every little flaw, and wow there were none to hear in that first half. And then i couldn’t turn off my hyper acute ear in the second half, noticing fluffs and a missed high note from one of the soloists (etc). I euphemized in my review.

      But truly this isn’t just double-talk. I believe that had you programmed differently, the Beethoven would have sounded better to our ears. The audience gobbled it up, so maybe it was just me…?

      THANK YOU for your feedback, and thank you for your wonderful work in the concert. I hope you don’t mind this rather lengthy reply. As you can probably tell, i was and am conflicted.

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