A Baroque Band Stretches To Make Beethoven Modern

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir completed a Beethoven symphony cycle with Symphony No. 9.(Photo by Christina Gapic)
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir completed a Beethoven symphony cycle with Symphony No. 9.
(Photo by Christina Gapic)
By Colin Eatock

The official name of the ensemble is “Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra” – but there was nothing Baroque about its Feb. 4 concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

Like many early-music groups, Tafelmusik has extended its reach into the nineteenth century, and even beyond. This was evidenced not just in the big piece on the program – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 – but also in several shorter works by Josef Rheinberger, Johannes Brahms, and the Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan that opened the program.

Bruno Weil has led Tafelmusik in all the Beethoven symphonies.
Bruno Weil has led Tafelmusik in all the Beethoven symphonies.

Since 2004, Tafelmusik has been gradually recording Beethoven’s symphonies and has already released CDs of symphonies 1-8. On this occasion, a network of microphones suspended above the stage attested to the twofold purpose of this performance of the Ninth, as both public concert and recording session to complete Tafelmusik’s Beethoven symphony cycle. In committing the cycle to disc, Tafelmusik joins a handful of period instrument ensembles that have done the same thing: the Academy of Ancient Music, the Hanover Band, the London Classical Players the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and a few others.

When playing Beethoven, Tafelmusik updates its otherwise Baroque-style instruments with Classical-period winds. Yet why would – or should – an ensemble rooted in Baroque performance practice play Beethoven at all? In a 2003 interview with this writer, Tafelmusik artistic director Jeanne Lamon had this to say:

“We try to look at Beethoven as new music, rather than old music, and if you approach it from ‘behind,’ it feels like you’re stretching the instruments to their absolute limit. On modern instruments, you don’t get the same sense of stretching the boundaries.”

That’s a good answer, and it certainly accounts for the constant sense of striving and struggling that permeated this Symphony No. 9 (and also Tafelmusik’s recordings of Symphonies 1-8).

For the last 25 years, Tafelmusik’s go-to conductor for Beethoven has been the German maestro Bruno Weil. Also artistic director of California’s Carmel Bach Festival and Bavaria’s Klang und Raum Festival, the 66-year-old conductor has proved a reliable collaborator.  His tempos are generally brisk but steady, and he shows careful attention to detail and balance.

Ivars Taurins directed the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.
Ivars Taurins directs the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.

Leading the orchestra with the score before him, Weil coaxed an energetic and emphatic performance from his players. (There were about 50 in the orchestra – a large group, by Tafelmusik’s standards.) Textures were bright, vivid, and transparent, and it was clear that the orchestra was playing its collective heart out. Was it a “historically authentic” performance? On the contrary, it was probably much better than the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth in Vienna in 1824.

However, for listeners used to the sound of Beethoven played by a modern orchestra (and that’s pretty much everyone, this writer included) it is impossible to “unhear” the greater warmth and expressive range that modern instruments can provide. By contrast, Tafelmusik’s gut-strung violins sounded nasal and strident. As well, there was a rawness, and an occasional moment of bad intonation, from the valve- and key-deprived winds. (Hopefully, these problems will be corrected in the final mix of the CD.)

In the last movement, the vocal soloists were soprano Ruby Hughes, mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, tenor Colin Balzer, and bass-baritone Simon Tischler. Tafelmusik chose the quartet well, and along with a robust Tafelmusik Chamber Choir they made the final movement a vocal tour de force.

If this concert was a showcase for what the Tafelmusik Orchestra can do outside its Baroque wheelhouse, it was also a showcase for the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. Founded in 1981 (a couple of years after the orchestra), it has, over the years, been a worthy contributor to Tafelmusik’s performances of cantatas, oratorios, and other choir-and-orchestra works. Since day one, the ensemble has been directed by Ivars Taurins.

Paul Ryan's 'Benediction' was premiered. (Chick Rice)
Jeffrey Ryan’s choral ‘Valediction’ was premiered. (Chick Rice)

A cappella performances by this choir have been rare. But Rheinberger’s Abendlied, Ryan’s Valediction, and Brahms’ Warum ist das Licht gegeben, in the first half of the program, were all unaccompanied. Under the ebullient direction of Taurins, the Rheinberger and Brahms were solid and well-shaped. Ryan’s Valediction, premiered on this occasion, was slightly tentative in its execution. The piece, a setting of a poem by the Canadian poet Norma West Linder, is well-crafted. But it may be that Ryan’s modern, freely pan-diatonic language was a bit too much of a stretch for this choir.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of two books: Mendelssohn and Victorian England, and Remembering Glenn Gould. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.