The synthesis of different media is only virtuous if their combination delivers new beauty. The blending of forms, of visual art and music, of theatre and television can give rise to new and powerful ideas and provoke enchanted imaginings. However, bringing together these disparate muses is no easy task. It can breed distraction, rather than delight. Sadly Tafelmusik’s latest multimedia offering provides a jarring antithesis rather than a harmonious synthesis.

Tafelmusik © Sian Richards
Tafelmusik
© Sian Richards

As the concert was intended to be an historical journey, as well as a musical performance, it is best to discuss it in two parts: the music first, and the experience second.

Tafelmusik is certainly very good. They play with connection, fluidity, and a fine sense of musical movement. However, though it picked up a little in the second half, the performance lacked verve. The players seemed somewhat listless, despite their technical facility and obviously strong group dynamic. There were technical quibbles – the lutenist had difficulty keeping time on the tambourine in one piece, there was some tentativeness in the second oboe in soloistic sections. However, of most concern is the effect of historically informed performance practice. If the struggle to be historically authentic interferes with the production of beautiful music, then in my view, it goes too far. In this case the strings employed Baroque tools and techniques, which made for a thin, almost wiry tone. This is fine for brief periods but becomes wearing over two hours. It also led to the cellos losing clarity in their faster passages. The bassoonist too, whilst technically excellent, had trouble making himself heard in his exposed moments thanks to the limitations of the Baroque bassoon. This contributed to a lack of balance, with the upper strings often unduly overpowering the reeds and cellos.

Historically informed practice is only valuable when it allows us to discover new interpretations, to search out beauty as yet unknown. It must be historically inspired performance: a process of finding new meaning in old music, rather than a hollow attempt to recapture a lost world by sacrificing the virtuous innovations of the modern age. While Tafelmusik was less guilty in this regard than say, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, they still sacrificed some beauty to the quest for an unattainable authenticity.

However, of greater concern was the show as an experience. It felt somewhere between a bad documentary and a children's concert. It began with half of the orchestra in the aisles – a tired gimmick. The orchestra had some other choreography during the show. Most was good and musically relevant, some was distracting and baffling.

Backing the orchestra was a slideshow, projected inside a gilt frame, intended to link the music to five houses spread throughout Europe. Sadly this was ill-used, and felt almost like a PowerPoint presentation, complete with zoom transitions. It included bad photography and some rather clichéd paintings. The connections between the projected images and the music, and between the houses the images hailed from, were tenuous at best for the most part.

Wandering among the musicians was a narrator, Blair Williams, who attempted to elucidate these connections in between musical snippets. His delivery was fine, though some of his choreography was a little discombobulating. His interludes tended to be jarring, as they almost always involved the music ending, which ruined the immersion. He was also ill served by his script, which ran the gamut from dull to twee.

The choice of music was a little trite, a parade of big names: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Sweelinck. The transition to Vivaldi in particular made me groan under the weight of the cliché. The only really interesting choice was the suite selected from Marais’ Alcyone. This is not unknown by any means but seldom performed and was definitely the highlight. It was paired with an engaging narration of a bad translation of the passage by Ovid which inspired the work. The fantasy was uplifting, and the linkage between the art, the house, and the music was clearer here than at any other moment.

The encore was another joy, the first real moment of energy, with the audience spontaneously joining in. Special mention goes to Aisslinn Nosky, who was the most exciting and entertaining stage presence throughout the show and who provided the drive to the encore. Overall, the concert could be judged a musical success, if a bland one. However, as an experience, it didn't succeed.