Bach and his world
City Recital Hall, Sydney
June 4, 2018
During the course of its three tours to Australia for Musica Viva, the Toronto based baroque ensemble Tafelmusik has garnered a formidable reputation for its expert performances interwoven with captivating imagery and compelling story-telling. The latest conception, Bach and his world continued in this vein, paying homage to three themes – the instrumental music of J S Bach, the artisans whose crafts facilitated the performance, publication and perpetuation of his music and the configuration of Bach’s ensembles, reflected in the consummate artistry of the musicians of Tafelmusik.
The stage was set sans music stands and chairs (except of course for the harpsichord and celli), dominated by an image of a craft-worn hand finely chiselling the scroll of a violin. The 16 musicians, led by violinist and newly appointed director Elsa Citterio, strode purposefully on stage, their instruments already tuned and burst into the Sinfonia from the Cantata BWV 249a. Playing as they do, from memory, they were liberated from the distractions and limitations of being score-bound, they were able to move about the stage, joyfully infusing their playing with undivided focus, interacting with each other and moving to the fore as various concertante sections came into play.
The entire programme was by JS Bach (except for an 18th century Klezmer tune, played as a violin duet) and was an eclectic selection of his instrumental works with some choral and keyboard works arranged for chamber ensemble. Alison Mackay, double bassist and devisor of the concept, program and script had also arranged movements from the cantatas and the Goldberg Variations for solo and ensemble. There were single movements and multi-movement pieces separated by other pieces, all specially curated to underscore the points of the narrative and the images. The Overture to the Orchestral Suite No 1 in C major BWV 1066 and its fourth (Bourée) and sixth (Forlane) movements were spliced with the chorale tune Gloria laus et honor with exquisite antiphonal effect from the two oboeists, John Abbeger and Marco Cera; the Sarabande from the Suite for cello no 3 in G major BWV 1048, was shared hauntingly between cellists Christina Mahler and Allen Whear; the Adagio after Cantata BWV 202 was embedded between the Allegro and the Adagio – Allegro of the Brandenburg Concerto No 3 BWV 1048, the second movement of the concerto, a virtuosic cadenza by violinist Julia Wedman preceding a breathtaking third movement.
Led by Citterio, the performance was spirited and flawless. Narrator Blair Williams spun the tale of Apollo (god of music) and Mercury (god of trade), the immortal brothers and patron deities of Leipzig, the city in which Bach lived and worked for the second half of his life. Accompanying the music and the narrative was a stream of images – maps, statues, instruments, paintings, workshops – which illustrated the life and times of Bach and his colleagues like the instrument maker Johann Christian Hoffmann and the café proprietor Gottfried Zimmerman.
There was a creative use of the space of the City Recital Hall with Allemande from the Partita for solo violin in D minor BWV 1004 resounding in the dark from several points in the galleries. The visuals grew into a stream of images which glorified the human hand in its ability to create works of art and ply a variety of musical instruments; in its anatomy that enables functions which define our civilisation. Finally, Haussmann’s distinctive portrait of Bach looked down on performers and audience as the programme was wrapped up in the joyful Sinfonia after Cantata BWV 11 Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Parise the Lord in his realms).
Containing a commentary that enlightened and reinforced what was heard in the narrative, the programme contained beautiful images from the performance and informative artist biographies.
This is a production that blended modalities and ventured outside ‘the box.’ Visually sumptuous and musically stunning, this was another outstanding production from Tafelmusik and Musica Viva.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©