Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons; Sinfonia in B minor, “Al Santo Sepolcro”; Concerto for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media. $16.99.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra: The Galileo Project—Music of Vivaldi, Lully, Monteverdi, Tarquinio Merula, Michelangelo Galilei, Biagio Marini, Purcell, Rameau, Handel, Telemann, Zelenka, Silvius Leopold Weiss, and Bach. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media. $24.99 (CD+DVD).
So many music organizations have started their own labels in recent years that there almost seems to be a proliferation of the equivalent of vanity-press projects. But there is good economic reason for orchestras and other entities to produce material themselves instead of turning it over to large national or international recording companies: costs for a relatively limited number of items sold can be better controlled by these small producers, the orchestra keeps whatever it makes from the sales instead of having to split the proceeds, and the amount of marketing can be adjusted based on what the performers themselves (and their management) believe each release warrants. The big issue, distribution of the finished product, is much easier to solve than it used to be, thanks in particular to Naxos, whose “distributed labels” include a large number of small niche products, given economy of scale through Naxos’ international distribution network and benefiting from Naxos’ own strong commitment to classical music through the CDs and DVDs it produces under its own label.
One of the new niche labels in the Naxos orbit is also one of the most welcome. Tafelmusik, the excellent Canadian period-instrument ensemble, has created Tafelmusik Media to release its new recordings and re-release some of its older ones (often originally Sony Classical products). This label’s first three offerings are so good that their appearance bodes well for the label’s future. Most of the music on all three releases is well-known, but playing of this quality and with this level of commitment to the works’ original style is not. These are exceptional performances that offer attractive warmth in presentation to complement the accuracy of playing on period instruments and carefully made copies.
There are many recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and many are quite good, but Tafelmusik’s, recorded in 1993-94 and originally released in the latter year, is exceptional. Music Director Jeanne Lamon, playing violin in the first five concertos and viola in the sixth, picks tempos carefully, balances instruments even more carefully, and propels the music with a superb sense of its underlying dance rhythms as well as a deep-seated understanding of the conventions of ornamentation, double-dotting and instrumental balance. Tuned to a pitch of a’=415 Hz and blending with subtlety and real style, the instruments provide just the right mixture of verve and warmth, and the solo elements – from the recorders in Concerto No. 4 to the harpsichord in No. 5 – emerge naturally from the chamber ensemble, the soloists then blending back in with their fellow players seamlessly as their front-and-center roles are concluded. There are occasional small elements here that are not quite authentic and are not ever explained – for example, Alison Mackay plays a violone in No. 6, but in No. 3, which also calls for one, she plays a contrabass instead. Nevertheless, the performances are so good and so thoughtful that it seems certain that Lamon and Tafelmusik have good reasons for their decisions, even if they do not share all of them.
The decisions are equally well-thought-out in Tafelmusik’s splendid recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Lamon is the soloist here, taking a more forthrightly virtuosic role than in the Bach works – as she should, since Vivaldi wrote these pieces for his own performance, which contemporaries found to be quite attention-getting (although they did not always mean that as a compliment). There are some oddities in this release as in the Bach – both positive and negative. On the plus side, the booklet contains the four sonnets that Vivaldi provided as guides to the music (and may have written himself; their provenance is unclear). Also a plus – a big one – is the inclusion of two additional works, the brief but deeply heartfelt Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro” and the four-violin concerto, Op. 3, No.10, here performed with one player per part and sounding beautifully balanced as a result. On the negative side, that concerto is twice identified erroneously (on the back cover and in the listing of movement timings) as being Op. 4, No. 10, although elsewhere it is correctly identified. Also on the negative side – to some ears – will be the tuning of the instruments here to a’=440 Hz, which is essentially modern tuning. There is a reason for this, and the booklet explains what it is, but it seems odd to have the Bach and Vivaldi works offered with different tunings and, as a result, different levels of brightness (the Vivaldi solos certainly ring out more clearly than those in the Bach). This Vivaldi CD dates to 1991, but its sound does not seem to be 20 years old, and fits the music just as well as does the style of the performers.
The most unusual of these first Tafelmusik Media releases may prove to be something of an acquired taste, not because of the music but because of its multimedia structure. The Galileo Project takes just under an hour of music (offered on a CD) and combines it with a series of images from Canadian astronomers and the Hubble telescope, for a kind of “fusion” show lasting an hour and a half (presented on a DVD). Packaging that gives listeners/viewers the option of hearing the music on its own or in the context of the visual presentation is a wonderful idea, and the show’s narration and choreography – intended to commemorate Galileo’s first demonstration of the telescope; hence the project’s name – complement the works nicely, although they do tend to push the musical experience well into the background. The music itself has been chosen to reflect the astronomical theme, ranging from Phaeton excerpts by Lully to an Allegro by Telemann, an Adagio ma non troppo by Jan Dismas Zelenka, and brief works by several little-known composers of the 17th and 18th centuries (that is, during and not long after Galileo’s time). Seekers of complete pieces will find few of them here: the musical selections were chosen and guided by the theme of the visual display. Nevertheless, bass player Mackay, who picked the music and was in charge of putting the show together, chose the works wisely and well, and she and the other members of Tafelmusik perform them with just as much aplomb as they bring to, say, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The concept of The Galileo Project is scarcely unique, but the amazing visual images, the way the program is put together, and the very fine instrumental playing that pervades it, make the whole thing a most worthwhile experience, whether heard on CD or viewed as it was intended to be when first presented to the public in 2009. Tafelmusik Media has set itself high standards for its releases with this initial crop; but then, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra players always set high standards for themselves, and consistently live up to them.