By Colin Eatock
TORONTO — It has been decades since there’s been anything strange or novel about the artistic goal of playing Bach’s music as it would have sounded in his day. Yet even though the early-music movement is now a permanent fixture in the classical music world, not all listeners have embraced the idea of historically informed performance. To some, I suspect, the whole enterprise seems driven by moralistic pedantry rather than inborn artistic expression.
These people could do themselves a favor by turning their ears toward violinist Viktoria Mullova. As her all-Bach program at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Sunday with the Accademia Bizantina ensemble revealed, she is well versed in, and committed to, the tenets of Baroque playing: lightness of tone, steady, beat-driven tempos and phrasing, and sparing use of vibrato. Yet her personal artistic impulses are also very much front and center, happily complementing her sense of period style.
[Mullova and the Accademia Bizantina are currently in the middle of a world tour with this program. After performances in Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, the musicians continued to New York’s Carnegie Hall and are now headed to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.]
Mullova isn’t an early-music specialist, or a specialist in anything, really. Like most Russian musicians, her training was steeped in the Romantic tradition. (She won the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 and defected to the West the following year.) Yet her musical tastes are wide ranging, embracing jazz, pop, and world musics, and also the Baroque.
Her interest in period performance has led to collaborations with such ensembles as Il Giardino Armonico and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and to her current partnership with the Accademia Bizantina, a small ensemble from Italy (with just six members on its current tour) led by harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone that sounds more like a chamber group than an orchestra. Indeed, the Accademia Bizantina’s sound was so delicate and transparent that Dantone’s harpsichord could be distinctly heard as an instrumental force in its own right, even in tutti sections.
On Sunday, Mullova’s performance was entirely simpatico with the Accademia Bizantina. She sounded like a first among equals, rather than a guest soloist. Diving into Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, her playing was bright and nimble in the outer movements, with a tender fragility in the slow second movement. In the hands of these musicians, musical textures were fluid and graceful — the polar opposite of the “chunky” sound some Baroque groups manage to produce.
And so it went with the other three pieces completing the hour-long program: the Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060, the Concerto in D major, BWV 1053 — both in arrangements by Dantone — and the Concerto in E major, BWV 1042. Every note and every phrase was shaped with a subtle and intelligent elegance. This was not sensational or edgy music-making: there were no surprising shifts in tempo or dynamics, and Mullova didn’t break a sweat, even in the most difficult passages. Yet it was masterful playing — and for the near-capacity audience, this concert offered the kind of unalloyed gratification that comes only with an utterly secure performance. (The four works played on this concert can be heard on a 2013 Onyx CD release featuring Mullova with the Accademia Bizantina.)
As is often the case at concerts presented by Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, the first person on the stage of Koerner Hall was Mervon Mehta, the RCM’s executive director of performing arts, stepping out to thank sponsors. He did this on Sunday afternoon, taking the opportunity to suggest that, in light of recent events, the world was especially in need of great music. This comment was well understood by the audience as an oblique reference to the recent U.S. election. But politics aside, great music is always needed, and Mullova and the Accademia Bizantina gave the kind of performance that completely fills that need.
Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.