CONCERT / Back on the old attack: Tess Knighton reviews Tafelmusik's Prom

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The Independent Culture
EARLY MUSIC, with its relatively small audience-base and the high cost of larger-scale projects, is alarmingly vulnerable to the far-reaching effects of the recession. The Proms are therefore of key importance in bringing historically aware performances of the earlier end of the repertory to a much wider music-loving public. The enthusiastic reception this year of unfamiliar works by composers such as the Gabrielis, Biber and Boccherini has confirmed that such programmes can be successfully mounted in the Royal Albert Hall despite the 'inauthentically' large auditorium - while the space itself is of small concern to the many Radio 3 listeners, of whom I was one, for the Prom debut of the Canadian period-instrument orchestra Tafelmusik.

With Radio 3's presentation style still the subject of heated debate, I enjoyed the opportunity to hear Tafelmusik's violinist director, Jean Lamon, talk briefly and informally about the aims of the group and their choice of programme. According to Lamon, Tafelmusik is not just Canada's leading period-instrument ensemble; it is the only such group north of the Great Lakes. The intended implication was rather that Tafelmusik had been forced, in its relative isolation to the European historically-aware movement, to work out its own approach.

What came across from their late-night Prom was a penchant for a bright, slightly raw tone and an assertive manner of playing as if they did indeed have something to prove. At times, as in Handel's Concerto Grosso in A minor, their attack verged on the aggressive; an athletic robustness in the fast movements tended to result in over-emphatic punchiness, while the slower sections were commendably unfussy but lacked gracefulness.

Their style of playing, which contrasts markedly with the gentler, even laid-back approach of other North American groups such as Joshua Rifkin's Bach Ensemble, was best suited to the Sturm und Drang of the first movement of Boccherini's Symphony in C minor and to the furious torrent of downward scales in the last movement of the Symphony in D minor, which they performed as an encore. Here Tafelmusik certainly proved themselves, even if the overall effect was hectic.

Lamon's programme was apparently based on pieces she believed were appropriate to the time of night, but there was no room for dreamy pillow talk. The nearest it came to dreaming was in Telemann's overture Don Quichotte, a gently humorous portrayal of Cervantes's hero which Tafelmusik played with a strong sense of conviction and a more varied approach.

They were back on the attack, however, for its rather strange bedfellow, Biber's Battaglia. For all its futuristic use of col legno, pizzicato, drum-snare effects created by a piece of paper under the strings of the violone and its Ivesian simultaneous juxtaposition of eight popular tunes, this is not a great piece of music - but the Prommers were won over. Tafelmusik, incidentally, came to London direct from the Utrecht Early Music Festival, which has no counterpart in this country - though something of its excitingly uncompromising approach to programming is clearly beginning to find its way into the Proms.