To kick off the Ionarts Baroque Weekend™, the superlative, Toronto-based historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Tafelmusik gave an outstanding concert in the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday night. The program sewed together some 18th-century favorites, with legends drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses as a common thread. To provide the seams, Canadian actor R. H. Thomson narrated the evening, from a script by the group's bass player, Alison Mackay, that related six stories from Ovid. The metaphor could apply both to a Baroque tapestry or to a Frankenstein monster, and at one point or another both seemed to apply, but by far the former.
Tafelmusik, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Ovid was the most common source of mythological legends in the 17th and 18th centuries, and his stories were commonly adapted as operas in the Baroque period, mined here not for vocal music but for instrumental dance pieces. The evening began with Rameau's Castor et Pollux, two pieces from the astrological ballet that concludes the opera, as the twin brothers are placed in the heavens as the constellation Gemini. A Tambourin displayed the unity of articulation among the dozen or so core players of Tafelmusik, under the animating bow of music director Jeanne Lamon, who sits as concertmaster. The drum beat was provided ably by a violinist magically transformed into a percussionist.
The next set provided a chance to compare that piece with a more rustic Tambourin from Lully's Acis et Galatée, from 1686 (last heard from Opera Lafayette in 2005 and reviewed on disc from Les Musiciens du Louvre). Most satisfyingly, Tafelmusik plays dance music as if it were for dancing, with weight where it should be and lightness likewise. The stunning Passacaille, which concludes this opera, was played with finesse and urgency, never allowing the structural repetition of the form to overburden the listener. Rameau's overtures are almost always worthy listening, and Tafelmusik's performance of the overture from Pygmalion (recorded on the recently recommended survey by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques) proved that estimation true. The remaining selections, especially the vigorous Contredanse for Pygmalion's wedding dance with the Graces, were just as finely etched. The closing set, from Marin Marais's Alcione, was the least familiar. Its lusty Marche pour les Matelots, for the sailors of Ceyx's ship, was matched by a booming Tempeste for the storm that sank it. Marais showed himself the master student of his teacher, Lully, in an extended Chaconne and rousing Tambourin.
Nicolas Poussin, Echo and Narcissus, 1628-30, Musée du Louvre (with thanks to Web Gallery of Art)
In some cases, Ovid merely provided a link to gather non-operatic music into groups, like the set of echo pieces, a favorite Baroque device, that accompanied the Echo and Narcissus section. The same was true of the Contest of Pan and Apollo, little more than an excuse to bring together two perennial favorites, Alessandro Marcello's D minor oboe concerto and Vivaldi's Summer concerto from The Four Seasons. Little matter, since the solo performances, by oboist John Abberger and violinist Julia Wedman, were both stylistically sensitive and beautifully embellished. In fact, the only criticism one could make of this excellent program was that the narration was not made up simply of readings of Ovid's poems. The desired effect, according to Mackay, was to render the stories as directly as possible, but it made the whole affair more prosaic than poetic as a side-effect. A minor complaint, to be sure.
Coming up next month, the Gryphon Trio will play in the Barns at Wolf Trap (March 7, 8 pm).