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.
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.