Melbourne Recital Centre
May 22, 2018

Returning for their third Australian tour, Canadian baroque orchestra Tafelmusik presents a program devoted to the genius of JS Bach. Devised by the group’s double bass player, Alison Mackay, this narrated multimedia presentation focuses on Bach’s life in Leipzig: the artisans and instrument makers on whom he relied; and the structure of the society in which he played several important roles. Regaling the audience with all of this interesting information is genial narrator, Blair Williams, whose delivery is blessed with clarity and wit. (It was good to note that in the Leipzig of Bach’s day musicians were considered a cut above lawyers.)

The accompanying images, both still and moving, are wide-ranging, covering everything from paper making and instrument making to the sheep that safely graze. The pace of the projection (designed by Raha Javanfar) is also slow enough not to detract from the music.

Mackay’s concept makes sense of the seemingly odd selection of music with its succession of single movements and its alternation of ensemble and solo items. Along the way we were treated to some memorable moments, such as the sumptuous opening of wedding cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202) interpolated into the third Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1048).

In their customary fashion, the members of the group (apart from the harpsichordist) play from memory, thus enabling them to move around the stage and interact with one another with admirable dynamism.

What a joy to see and to hear some of the group’s stalwarts again: John Abberger’s oboe is beguiling; cellist Christina Mahler’s attention to detail is razor-sharp and the sheer joy that radiates from violinist Julia Wedman ensures you leave the hall in a good mood.

Another key contributor is harpsichordist Olivier Fortin whose account of the aria from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) was beautifully judged and elegantly executed.

Taken as a whole, Tafelmusik impresses with its rhythmic drive, agility and shared sense of musical purpose.

Creative use of space also saw the Sarabande from the third solo cello suite (BWV 1009) delivered by two cellists on either side of the stage, while the Allemande from the D Minor solo violin partita (BWV 1004) wafted enticingly through the spacious acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall from several different compass points.

Bach and His World is another successful example of Tafelmusik’s winning multimedia formula, a formula that educates, entertains and uplifts without ever becoming laboured. It is to Tafelmusik’s great credit that having discovered a successful model of audience engagement, the group has stuck with it and refined it and become known for it. There is a sense of solid Canadian commonsense about this that deserves applause. Other historically informed ensembles seem to be forever chasing punters with new and increasingly unusual spectacles, and the results are often mixed.

Later this year Tafelmusik begins its fortieth season, an extraordinary landmark in a distinguished history. Incoming music director Elisa Citterio has big shoes to fill after the 33-year tenure of her predecessor, Jeanne Lamon. It is fair to say at this moment that while Tafelmusik is still playing to an enviably high standard, it is a group in transition. Citterio is still in the process of making her mark, and learning how to take her wonderful players just that bit further. I’m sure by the time Tafelmusik returns for its next tour we will be the beneficiaries of her youthful, Italian energy.

Tafelmusik’s Bach and His World tours nationally as part of Musica Viva’s 2018 International Concert Season