Ludwig van Beethoven once said: “Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.” On 19 September, 2013, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performed three works by the late Classical and early Romantic composer: the overture to Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, and his first two symphonies. The notes that the great master put down at the turn of the 19th century continued to sound fearlessly, and roared wildly inside Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

Bruno Weil
Bruno Weil

The Hall is a beautiful concert space that is dramatic in design, yet capable of providing an intimate setting. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra situated themselves comfortably on stage and gave a spectacular and extremely dedicated performance. The special ingredient of the event was the fact that Tafelmusik musicians play on period instruments: this enriched the performance substantially. Classic FM magazine says: “Hearing the music as it would have been heard in the 1800s adds a different dimension to the listening experience”, and it sure did. The audience got to listen to the pieces from a new auditory vantage-point.

Bruno Weil, a leading conductor of Viennese Classicism, was guest conductor for the evening and he was an absolute joy. He was full of energy, keeping up the level even during the slow movements, and his zest flowed effortlessly to the orchestra and then to the audience. The opening overture, from a series of pieces originally written for a ballet, set the overall brilliant tone for the rest of the concert. Tafelmusik played in absolutely synchronized fashion. The strings were especially memorable and pristinely clean in various C major scale runs. The players paid tremendous attention to detail, especially in dynamics, executing each dynamic change as it was intended. The audience was mesmerized to the point that it took us a minute to realize that this celebratory piece was over. We were so caught off guard by this level of professionalism from both the orchestra and the conductor that we almost forgot to clap.

The First Symphony, though continuing with the key of C major, poses a harmonic question first. The slow introduction unfolds with a dominant-seventh chord in the key of F major, thus providing a little tonal ambiguity. This symphony, written quite early in Beethoven’s career, adheres to the Haydn-Mozart compositional model. However, it already features several original characteristics, such as the prominence of woodwinds. The relationship between the royal-sounding strings and the soft but confident wind instruments stands out most of all in the opening movement. Frequent, oh-so-carefully placed dynamics and the long codas of the first, second and fourth movements are also what make this symphony that of Beethoven and not of someone else. One can hear that already in this piece the young composer was mature beyond his years and that he held a tight grasp over his novel ideas. The strong finale of the symphony announces the arrival of genius with no hesitation.

The Second Symphony, in D major, is even grander than the First. The first movement was for me the most successful by far. The length of the introduction is quite monumental. The harmonic range (B flat major presents itself as if out of nowhere) is simply unbelievable for 1801–02, when this symphony was written. Overall attention to the dynamics from the conductor and the orchestra continued even better than before. Their forte moments were so effective precisely because each single crescendo was built out of a true piano, thus leaving room for growth. The coda creates rising tension with the harmonic sequence that begins with an ascending chromatic scale in the bass and proceeds to build towards the epic fortissimo climax. This magnificent musical line lands explosively in the home key and provides much-needed relief.

In the following three movements Beethoven is a lot of things. He is witty, he is playful, he is full of youthful hubris, but this pride is meritorious. It is worth noting that much of this symphony was written when the composer began to lose his hearing and during his stay in Heiligenstadt, where he wrote the famous Testament. One of its lines reads: “Ah, it seemed to be impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me...” And he did. Beethoven brings us a glimpse of the true divine through his music, which continues to stand the test of time without wavering a single inch.

Thank you to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and to Bruno Weil for this performance. It was a joyous celebration of all the music played and, of course, of the one and only Ludwig van Beethoven.