Concerted effort: Tafelmusik performs an all-Agostino Stefani concert

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo; Photo Credit Bo Huang

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Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir directed by Ivars Taurins
Photo Credit: Trevor Haldenby

What is it that makes this music from the mid-Baroque period (the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) so engaging and appealing? Is it the freedom enjoyed by the high instruments and voices as, released from harmonic obligations by the basso continuo, they soar to new heights, tracing graceful melodic contours? Or perhaps it is the strong harmonic progressions of the bass, clearly outlining the tonality while they are opposed by other lines in contrary motion and creating friction with them through dissonance? Or again, is it the rhythmic variation and vitality that occurs over bass patterns?


Steffani’s music has all of these characteristics and more. Italian musicians were sought after by patrons in the German speaking countries. Johann Kuhnau, J.S. Bach’s predecessor at the position in the Thomas church in Leipzig, called Italy the capital of the musical world.

The program began with Steffani’s Beatus vir. The principal stylistic feature was the call and answer between the two halves of the split ensemble, called cori spezzati or split choir and orchestra. Historically this practice began in St. Mark’s church in Venice, where it was based on the Byzantine tradition of singing sacred music in this way with two choirs. In this work and throughout the evening, director Ivars Taurins kept up a good, lively tempo, giving the music a buoyancy that suited its rhythms and harmonies.

The next work was the composer’s Stabat mater, a lengthy sacred piece with varied ranges, affects, and combinations of performing forces. The governing stylistic principle of this work was the concerto principle and genre. In the Baroque, a concerto meant different things: not a specific formal scheme (that came later) but more of a style of music. In part, different voices and instruments blended together and sounded as one (the meaning of working in concert), but the term also carried the opposite meaning: to compete or contend or out-do.

Both meanings were articulated in the Stabat mater. The ensemble of strings, voices, theorbo, and organetto played beautifully together. At the same time many soloists were featured. Of particular note was the convincing and impressive coloratura Kristina Szabó, who was strongly expressive each time she sang. We can understand concerto as an artistic metaphor for the period: a strong bass foundation underlying the forward-moving rhythms and lines of voices and the orchestra, a well co-ordinated corps of musicians going in the same direction at the same time, with skilled soloists standing out, exhibiting their virtuosity, just like the characteristics of a city like Hanover or Munich—a large citizenry working towards the same ends with some talented individuals standing out.

​​Review by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
Toronto ON November 8th 2018

The second half of the evening featured arias and instrumental pieces from Steffani’s operas. The strings were joined by two oboes and a bassoon, notoriously difficult to play, and very skillfully performed on this evening by John Abberger, Marco Cera, and Dominic Teresi. The ensemble was tuned well and carefully at this point, with good results. Often we heard the most frequent texture of the period, the trio-sonata texture, consisting of two high lines over basso continuo. Sometimes the two high lines were performed by two violins, or two oboes, or soprano and oboe, or soprano Szabó. The lovely voice of Tafelmusik’s own alto soloist Victoria Marshall competed effectively with the guest soprano. Their two duets, T’abbracio and Timore, ruine, were the highlights of the evening.

The whole program was well chosen and beautifully delivered. If you missed it this evening, you can still catch Steffani: Drama & Devotion at 8pm on Friday November 9th, Saturday November 10th or at 3:30pm on Sunday November 11th 2018 at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Tafelmusik’s Baroque Chamber Orchestra will present its holiday offering Sound the Trumpet directed by Elisa Citterio and featuring trumpet soloist David Blackadder in Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre on November 21 – November 25, 2018.