Tafelmusik: Bach and His World

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Published: 17th June, 2018

A visit of Canadian Baroque orchestra Tafelmusik to town (this is their third) is always a treat. The fact that the orchestra plays from memory is always mentioned as an index of their virtuosity; I’m mentioning it, here, to draw attention to the fact that it should rather be read as an index of their complete familiarity with their programs and, in particular, to praise the way it allows intra-ensemble communication to flourish. This is an orchestra in which all parts are aware of what all other parts are doing.  They dispense with sheet music but they also take the time to look at each other and enjoy the experience of playing. That joy is infectious and, almost apart from what they play, makes hearing andseeing them live such a pleasure.

Fortunately, the sheer skill of their music-making was matched in this concert by a program of music mostly by Bach. This was a pretty dense program (over twenty works in total) but almost nothing lasted long and no major work was presented in sequence or in its entirety, even if some larger works offered something of a spine to the program in total — the C major orchestral suite in the first half, a little bracket of music from the Goldberg variations in the second. Much of the music was presented come sta, just as Bach wrote it, but a reasonable portion was arrangements from various sources. I’m not averse to arrangements, particularly when the music selected is so fine, but I’m not convinced that these arrangements worked well. Some of the “arrangements” were merely stereophonic replications of the sections of a single work (the sarabande from the C major cello suite, the allemande from the violin partita in D minor) by multiple players, a bit of a hallmark of Tafelmusik’s programs.

Some pieces were actual arrangements. The opening arioso from Weichte nur, betrübte Schattenand sinfonia from Lobet Gott in seinen Reichenboth suffered in arrangement from an insufficient differentiation of the solo voice (in the former case) or choral lines (in the latter) from the orchestral body: in the latter, it was difficult to hear the very different character the chorus part has from the orchestral accompaniment. A further arrangement (Schafe können sicher weiden) transposed the soprano solo into the wrong octave, completely disfiguring the trio of high parts Bach really wants in this aria. In general, however, the playing was very accomplished and even very affecting: Wo zwei und drei versammelt sindwas quite ravishing; the two players of the cello suite movement and the four of the violin partita movement showed how two (or four) players can legitimately conceive the same music in different and equally moving ways. Notwithstanding the amount of movement, the ensemble showed quite little strain, even when the speed selected verged on the faster-than-thou and ran the risk of endangering coherence (e.g. the overture to the C major orchestral suite). The best playing of the even came from an unexpected quarter: normally relegated to continuo duties, Olivier Fortin shone in the sinfonia in G minor (BWV 797) and the prelude in C major (BWV 933).

Perusal of the program might have led the casual reader to expect the program had no particular narrative, but that was furnished by the lumièreaspect of this son et lumière exposition of Bach’s life and world conceived by the orchestra’s bass player, Alison Mackay. Actor/director Blair Williams did a fine, not too histrionic, job with a script that verged perilously close to that at times (I am still unable to find who wrote the script). The widest possible net was cast in telling Bach’s and his world’s story — the rise of Leipzig on the back of commerce, the mythic origins of stringed instruments, manufacture of instruments in Leipzig, Jews visiting the fair in the city, the Zimmerman coffee house and its concerts … and so on.  When we were shown a long bracket of pictures of sheep, supposedly to help us contextualise the production of gut strings, that I realised we had truly gone into off-road territory. Can a son et lumière   show work? I’m not sure, but this one distracted from the real show of the evening, a fine orchestra making great music from the scores of one of the greatest.

 John Weretka heard this concert on May 22 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.