Concert review: Beethoven outshines Mendelssohn in Tafelmusik’s symphonic faceoff

Tafelmusik is doing an end-of-season stretch this year, closing with a one-two early-19th century symphonic punch of Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” with German conductor Bruno Weil, at Koerner Hall.

Friday night’s performance was marked by fantastic, tight playing from the period-instrument orchestra, swollen to double its usual size. But the real revelation came from having two staple works from the symphonic canon placed side by side on the same programme.

Beethoven’s work was inspired by his admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte (before he declared himself emperor). Mendelssohn’s was born of European travels.

Separated by less than 30 years, both pieces have roots in the neat and tidy 18th century clacissism of Haydn and Mozart. But each then takes a separate path leading to the expression of emotion and atmosphere of the Romantic era. Both enjoy a permanent place in the concert repertoire and have spawned dozens of recordings by the world’s most reputable orchestras.

Tafelmusik and Weil didn’t have to do anything but play well in order to have their audience enjoy the evening.

But hearing these monuments of Western music performed on instruments similar to those used at the time brought a different dimension to the experience.

The Beethoven work, densely packed with varied orchestral textures and counterpoints, became an edge-of-the-seat thrill as the 40 instrumentalists teased the score to pulsating, vibrating life.

As has been the case every other time Tafelmusik has presented Beethoven in Toronto, hearing one of the symphonies on period instruments has deepened and intensified the experience.

Thanks to the immediacy of the playing and the gorgeous acoustics at Koerner Hall, it was actually possible to imagine the excitement and surprise that its first audience would have felt in 1803.

Weil is a profoundly uninteresting conductor to watch, as he diligently keeps time like an Energizer bunny with an unlimited supply of double-A batteries. But he has a formidable grasp of every detail, and a keen sense on what to highlight inside the score.

As a result, the Beethoven was full of little “aha!” moments that usually get masked in the denser, more homogenous sound of a modern orchestra.

But the Mendelssohn symphony, which opened the program with a rounded, sweet optimism,  felt almost dull in comparison, suggesting that it might actually sound more alluring with the more piercing, focused sound of modern instruments.

On the whole Tafelmusik’s season ends with a satisfying, enlightening experience that would have been even more potent had the orchestra paired the “Eroica” with another Beethoven symphony, such as the First.

Even so, this prorgam is worth a detour into the concert hall this weekend. (For details on the remaining concerts, click here.)

(This week’s programme is being recorded for a future album release on Tafelmusik’s new, in-house label.)

John Terauds


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