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Fresh Air (Musically Speaking) from the North

The MHS Review 403, VOL. 12, NO.7 • 1988

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Frank Cooper


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The cool breezes blowing our way from Canada are not always meteorological, but sometimes musicological, in the best sense of the word. What with excellent profes­sional ensembles, university studies, and instrument makers, early music is alive and well from British Columbia to Quebec and beyond. Prominent among the burgeoning groups is Tafelmusik, an 11-person chamber or­chestra whose name is taken from the celebrated works of 18th-century Ger­many's most prolific composer, Telemann.

This, their first recording, is an in­troduction both to the group and to some wonderful, much-loved baroque favorites in "authentic" perfor­mances. Period instruments or replicas of them are used along with currect scholarship about perfor­mance style. Sound dull? Not on your life. These people are musicians who know how to make their scores real­ly dance and sing. They blow away the dust of--horrors!--the recent past and get back beyond to the baroque.

Only 25 years ago, if you heard Purcell's noble Rondo from Abdelazer, chances are that it was as the theme of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Or­chestra, played by a large symphony and well out of proportion to Purcell's original. Or, if you heard any of the charming dances from Handel's Water Music, it was in the puffed-up version for large orchestra by Hamilton Har­ty. Or, if you met up with "The Ar­rival of the Queen of Sheba" from Handel's Solomon, it was as dished out with spirited rotundity by Sir Thomas Beecham. Or again, if you en­countered the Air from Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, it was offered under the title "Air on the G String" and slurped through by a celebrity violinist or, worse, by the entire string section of a major orchestra. Cinemascopic as such treatments were, the original composers would scarcely have recognized their handiwork.

Baroque composers of the mastery of Purcell, Handel, and Bach could ac­complish miracles of musical expres­sion with only a very few lines and a double handful of players. From their perspective, the colossal groups of in­struments assembled by Messrs. Brit­ten, Harty, and Beecham (not to men­tion such aggregates as the Melachrino Strings or Mantovani and his "or­chestra" dipping poor Bach in liquid saccharin) would have seemed ex­amples of musical elephantiasis. Thus, this recording simply gets things right, by putting them right back where they were meant to be. In the esthetics of this music, less is clearly more.

Adding interest to the program are such perennial delights as THE Pachelbel Canon (with accompanying Gigue), Vivaldi's La notte (The night)--a spooky evocation of how we feel when bad dreams trouble our sleep, and a triad of charmers from the group's namesake, the Tafelmusik (Table music) by Telemann. It is all great stuff for people just getting their bearings in the world of baroque music and, to me, equally delightful for those wanting to clean their ears of the inflated sound of the huff-and­-puff school.

Make no mistake, I actually enjoy the romantic approach to early music (the Liszt and Busoni transcriptions of Bach in particular), but I do not pre­tend that it has anything to do with the baroque. What we hear here is The Real Thing.

Review Popular Masterpieces of the Baroque Page 29

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