Bach and his World. Tafelmusik
City Recital Hall, June 2
One could be forgiven for approaching Musica Viva's program, Bach and His World, by the superb Canadian Baroque orchestra, Tafelmusik, with a degree of apprehension.
Bach is a towering musical mind of Western music, but his world was often less inspiring.
There was the parochial Leipzig councillor Plaz who said of Bach's appointment that they would have to accept a mediocre candidate because the best was unavailable and the peevish Johann Scheibe who kickstarted his critical career by labelling Bach's music turgid and confused.
But Tafelmusik chose to pay thoughtful homage to those whose skill and industry facilitated Bach's art: from the papermakers who produced rich non-acidic (hence durable) paper for his manuscripts, to the coffee-house owner Gottfried Zimmermann who provided venue and instruments for weekly chamber music, to the artisans who made gut and brass strings and instruments from the local spruce, maple and boxwood, and the Jewish merchants and musicians who paid outrageously unfair taxes to pay the salaries of the Leipzig town musicians.
Devised in multimedia format by double bass player, Alison Mackay, the program's narrative, delivered with smooth polish by actor Blair Williams, was built around Leipzig's symbolic patrons, Apollo, god of music and Mercury, god of commerce.
On the day of his birth, Mercury made the first lyre from a tortoise shell and sold it to Apollo in exchange for his white cattle.
Music director Elisa Citterio set a musical tone of joyful liveliness in Bach's Sinfonia from Cantata BWV249 with rhythmically crisp, scrupulously articulated playing, rich tonal hues and bright colours.
The mellifluous majesty of the Ouverture from the Orchestral Suite No. 1, BWV 1066, and the ensuing fugue had transparent clarity and luminous tonal colour, while the orchestra's impressive delivery of the whole program from memory enhances engagement and close listening.
Bach's cello suite No. 3 was accompanied by a photographic documentation of the making of a replica 1726 Stradivarius cello by Canadian maker Quentin Playfair.
There was an exploration of gut string making leading to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which included an improvised second movement (Bach invites this by writing only the concluding chords).
The closing narrative focused on hands and the skill that take unlikely materials to create transcendent music through which, in the words of Shelley's Hymn of Apollo, the universe beholds itself and knows it is divine.
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