The Canadian orchestra Tafelmusik has long reigned as one of North America’s most exciting period ensembles. For its return to Carnegie on Friday 12 November 2011, the orchestra delivered fresh and stylish playing to a sold-out Zankel Hall.
Many aspects of the program were typical – a little French music, a little Italian music, and a healthy heaping of German music, which exhibited the synthesis of both the French and Italian styles. Their arrangements of two works by Bach, however, were anything but typical.
Charlotte Nediger, Tafelmusik’s principal harpsichordist, arranged the Concerto for three violins in D Minor from Bach’s Concerto for three harpsichords. Though Ms. Nediger does not tour with the ensemble, concertmistress Jeanne Lamon explained her reasons for arranging the work. Bach originally composed the conerto, evidence suggests, for three violins, only later adapting it for three harpsichords. Nediger’s clever arrangement approximates what the original version could have sounded like.
The result was a success. The three soloists, Julia Wedman, Patricia Ahern, and Aisslinn Nosky played with fury and finesse. Their lines blossomed in what became a sumptuous garden of counterpoint for strings – quite a different effect from the version for three harpsichords.
In the second half of the program, Tafelmusik performed another arrangement of a familiar work. The Suite for Flute and Orchestra in B minor, BWV 1067 was adapted for violin and orchestra, knocking the whole work down a full step to A minor, in what Ms. Lamon called a “more friendly key for the whole orchestra.” Surely Bach arranged and re-arranged much of his own work, as well as works by other composers – a practice typical of the time. Ms. Lamon claimed the figuration for the soloist is more suited to the violin than the flute, in some ways.
I am not thoroughly convinced by the violin arrangement of this work. Perhaps at one time, the work did exist in a version for violin and orchestra. However, when Bach died and his sons were dividing his estate, including his music library, perhaps there’s a reason why the violin arrangement did not survive. Maybe sheet music for the alleged original version was used to pack the fine China, like many other inconsequential works. Still, Tafelmusik should be commended for its creativity and willingness to go boldly where few ensembles have gone before. By adapting works in this manner, the group truly embraces the spirit of the baroque.
Tafelmusik should also be commended for programming the Orchestral Suite in D minor by Johann Friederich Fasch. The composer, though little known to audiences today, was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach. In fact, he received his early training from the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where J.S Bach would later teach, and the composers had many friends and colleagues in common.
By pairing the suite by Fasch with the concert by J.S. Bach side by side in the program, the orchestra highlighted the continuities and differences between their styles. Hopefully, audiences and performers alike will be encouraged to explore the works of Fasch more. Perhaps, however, in future performances of the Orchestral Suite in D minor, the oboes will be a bit more present.
The Suite from Phaëton by Jean-Baptiste Lully was the third and final work on the first half of the program. Tafelmusik gave a lively rendition of this overture and set of dances. Indeed, many of the players could hardly help but dance, aided by the fact that they all played standing (save the harpsichord and ‘celli). Playing standing is not only historically correct but also allows the players to execute rapid divisions on the violin with more facility. Though the entire suite was delivered with ease and grace, the sound could benefit from a few more players for a true “Lully-sized” orchestra.
The Vivaldi Concerto in D minor for two oboes, strings and continuo could also have benefited from a few more players. Though the balance of strings was fine, a double bass, two ‘celli, and one harpsichord does not a full continuo make. In this piece, a few plucked strings, such as a guitar, lute, theorbo, or any combination thereof, would have enriched the sound. In truth, plucked strings would have improved the sound of every piece that evening, and Tafelmusik should be taken to task for not employing at least one full-time lutenist to tour with them.
Tafelmusik boasts a strong contingent of young and highly talented players – the biggest asset to the ensemble. While Tafelmusik benefits from strong artistic leadership and a long history of success, young blood and fresh faces are what will continue to keep their CDs selling like hot cakes during intermissions.