(Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Tafelmusik. Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5. Bruno Weil, conductor. Koerner Hall, Sept. 22, 2023.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra: It is an odd name for an ensemble that opens its season with Beethoven. But there was no doubt Friday night in Koerner Hall that our beloved purveyors of period style had something significant and profoundly idiomatic to say about the great Ludwig van under the direction of Bruno Weil.
If that name is familiar, this is because the German conductor led Tafelmusik through a landmark recorded cycle of Beethoven symphonies starting in the 1990s. Some players have changed, but the sense of a special symbiosis has not faded. The first movement of the Fifth was powerful and linear, the winds speaking with precise onsets that added percussive force to the celebrated four-note motive.
Even more remarkable was the Andante con moto second movement, amply detailed in terms of colour, phrasing and dynamics yet grand in overall effect. Normally a squad that favours a silvery sound, the Tafelmusik strings on this occasion produced something akin to copper, as usual, with little or no vibrato.
The scherzo was shadowy, the finale heroic, even if I confess to an ultimate preference for modern brass. Still, the growling natural horns lent remarkable darkness to the introduction of the Fourth Symphony, and timpani rolls later in the first movement were marvellously clear. The Adagio was quick but by no means heartless, and the finale (like the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus that began the program) was a great platform for lively virtuosity. As in the Fifth, an abundance of detail led to a cohesive whole.
The extraordinary thing about this band of fewer than 40 was the robustness of the sound at high volume. There were only two double basses. It is common now for first and second violins to be positioned on opposite sides of the conductor, but I do not recall having seen the violas seated beside the firsts. All you need to know is that the configuration worked.
As did many things, thanks to both the playing and the leadership. A stocky man of small gestures who walks slowly to the podium, Weil rarely flashed a profile and never did anything unrelated to the production of good music. He had a stool at his disposal during the Fifth, sitting for the development of the finale and standing for the recapitulation. Even in music this familiar, he used a score. Some conductors still find things in it.
Perhaps I should issue a modernist’s equivalent of a parental advisory. Playing period instruments is more about balance than blend and some of the sonorities that emerge are, by the smooth standards of a contemporary orchestra, a little funky. But they are not coarse. Tafelmusik has chosen “the sound of beauty” as a motto this season. Many moments lived up to the premise.
There are repeat performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Whether inclined to Baroque or Beethoven, you are advised to avail yourself of one of them. Or both!
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Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Latest posts by Arthur Kaptainis (see all)