Tafelmusik Shows Virtues, Limits in Beethoven Concert

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The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is pressing forward with a Beethoven project, destined for CD. (Sian Richards)
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is pressing forward with a Beethoven project, destined for CD. (Sian Richards)
By Colin Eatock

The leading period ensemble in Toronto is the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and it’s best known around the world for its historically informed performances of Baroque repertoire. But the orchestra has been gradually pressing forward over the years, embracing the Classical and even the early Romantic periods.

So it came as no great surprise to see Tafelmusik opening its 2013-14 season Thursday night with an all-Beethoven concert. And for the occasion, the orchestra took up residence in Koerner Hall at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. This was a good idea because Tafelmusik was recording the concert for a future CD release, and the hall’s fine acoustics are ideal for this purpose.

Bruno Weil (Tafelmusik)
Bruno Weil (Tafelmusik)

Bruno Weil, Tafelmusik’s principal guest conductor (when the orchestra needs a conductor), led a program that opened with The Creatures of Prometheus, followed by the First and Second Symphonies. And it wasn’t long before both strengths and weaknesses – inherent in having this ensemble play this music with this conductor – were heard.

Let’s start with the strengths. Thanks to Tafelmusik’s three-decade regime of period performance, this band has no truck with the Romantic ideal of the grande ligne. That’s good, because Tafelmusik’s players have instead cultivated a style that emphasizes detail, balance and transparency. Performing Beethoven in this way was illuminating: phrasing was clear, and every inner voice was heard to good effect.

But the other side of the coin wasn’t always so shiny. Since Tafelmusik — expanded for this concert to 36 players — was unable to produce the voluptuous sound of a large modern orchestra, the players, when striving for volume, resorted to an edgy attack that sounded forced and harsh. And throughout the concert, the wind instruments – equipped with only a few keys, or with no valves at all – struggled with intonation, not always successfully.

In Weil’s hands, the Prometheus Overture was lean and aggressive, with a sense of willful insistence rather than natural unfolding. And the two symphonies were approached in much the same way. The first movements both had ponderous introductions, followed by steadfast, workmanlike allegros. Second movements tended to be cautious and plodding, and the minuet-scherzos were often dryly understated.

Surprisingly, in the finales, conductor and orchestra suddenly sprang to life, with sparkling readings full of spontaneous energy. But why save the best for last in this way? It was as though Weil felt that excitement in Beethoven is a commodity that must be rationed, or that too much of it is a bad thing.

Over the years, I’ve heard Tafelmusik give many delightful performances of Baroque repertoire. It’s what these musicians do best, and they usually do it with an admirable sense of ease, comfort and finesse. By comparison, this orchestra’s ongoing ambition to press forward into the 19th century – because that’s what all the early-music ensembles are doing these days – seems contrived and unnecessary.

Note: Tafelmusik’s season continues Oct, 4, in Toronto. For complete details, click here.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.