The combination of conductor Bruno Weil and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is a longstanding and inspired musical union with many performances and recordings of distinction to its credit. This pairing proves that the scale and quality of musical performance are achieved not in the number of musicians but in the skillfully articulated intensity of individual passions put in service of collective expression. So it was last season with a memorable Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and so it was last week with a program of Beethoven’s Eroica and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphonies at Koerner Hall in Toronto.
Weil on the podium seemed, as usual, centred and relaxed in authority, unshowy in manner, and economical in gesture. The Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was in turn both earthy and brisk, propelled with form-bursting joie de vivre, not dainty but full-bodied with a belly full of local ale rather than a Chianti or Barolo. The performance was celebratory overall and the pretty or impish passages felt muscular as well, like raindrops echoing a thundercloud. At times this Mendelssohn seemed quite like Beethoven’s kin taking on all comers with a breathtaking blast of poetry. Between Allegro and Andante, concertmistress Jeanne Lamon scanned the audience here and there with a piercing eye to silence all intrusive noise makers, for these performances are destined for a future recording on Tafelmusik’s new label.
The Andante revealed here a robust finesse as Weil explored the composer’s magical atmosphere, his implied unknowns, and perhaps the secrets that a natural world almost told the composer. Weil evoked a substantial orchestral presence, especially in the strings, by creating linear progression through a blending of forward moving textures. One’s imagination again felt enveloped and consumed. No lightness of being in the Saltarello either, but more a sense of great struggle, or eruption, and one imagined both conductor and composer holding earth and stormy sky in one hand. Tafelmusik, as we happily expect, was again a band of stylistic fibre, agility, and integrated purpose, of delicious variety in individual contributions, of unwavering presence, and as a result one felt very human in their world.
With the Beethoven Third, sounds and passages that still seem oddly eccentric and still jar one with compositional freshness evolved as perfectly placed under Weil’s direction. There was always an inherent sense of adventure, even in smallest details, and a genuine sense of discovery for both orchestra and audience. Tafelmusik are certainly masters in making precision seem like abandon, through attack that is at once fierce and fine among other things, and the result was an immediacy of pulsating textures that in turn created a compelling atmospheric world of sound overall.
Bruno Weil sustained the first movement’s unfoldment with attention to solo and collective detail. A sense of integrated momentum of a complex whole thus resulted, one interwoven with rhythms and syncopations and barely containing Beethoven’s explosive chordal punctuations. Weil repeatedly demonstrated he knew where emphasis would best enhance the overall performance and the result was certainly not an abstraction of cerebral shadings but more a sense of body in the world and world as body in the cosmos. It was a demonstration of visceral existence, a blending of individual statement and overall propulsion, of singular will and massive common will in eruptive musical assertions.
There was so much to relish in this performance -a variety of textured sounds, the breathtaking fluidity in rapidly executed scales, the assertive emphasis by each voice in solo or group passages- and yet it never seemed intended for blatant emotional or metaphysical meaning, or any effect whatsoever. It seemed more a process of realization in very human terms that negotiates its existence in the world. We were very much aware that this was a declaration, through musical means, in which the potential sounds of each instrument would add existential sub-clauses and footnotes to the overall statement. Bruno Weill gave the impression of wanting each voice to be heard, thus creating an inner cumulative tension of individual voices and the overall orchestral thrust to breathtaking effect. This performance seemed metaphysical without the intrusion of philosophy.
In this most involving of symphonies, the variety boldness of Beethoven’s musical innovations allowed for no complacency and manipulated one’s anticipation and expectations, pushing the comfort zone of each listener’s habits. Weil and his band tended to push aside the familiarity acquired through many previous hearings of the Eroica. One tended to appreciate the effect of subtle compositional touches that sometimes ceded to more overt methods and all the while the meatier sound of period instruments revealed new riches in sound everywhere. At one point, the second violinists seemed to be dancing as they sat, almost frenzied it seemed to the point of popping from their seats into collision with the microphones overhead.
As trumpeter Norman Engel remarked during a brief chat after the concert, “Bruno Weil always finds details in the orchestral textures that make the symphony into a new piece of music.” Amen to that, for this was a spirited and subtly demanding performance that led to deeper appreciation of Beethoven’s innovative and aesthetic genius and to much profound pleasure of spirit and mind. Now when do we get the CD?