Slightly obscure, but magical
Steffani: Drama & Devotion
★★★★ (out of 4) Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir with mezzosoprano Krisztina Szabó. Ivars Taurins, conductor. Trinity-St Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor St. W. tafelmusik.org or 416-964-6337 It’s not just established masterworks that guarantee a magical concert. Tafelmusik proved this Thursday evening at the first performance of a program devoted to the now-obscure Baroque-era composer Agostino Steffani.
Not only was his music a revelation, the concert itself was beautifully performed by the period-instrument Tafelmusik Orchestra, Chamber Choir and guest soloist, Toronto-based mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó.
Born near Venice in1654, Steffani was educated in both Italian and French musical styles before spending his time working for German masters, including the Elector of Hanover, who would become King George I of England.
By the time Steffani died in 1728, he had gained respect as a bishop and a diplomat. He kept his hand in writing music, as well.
We are fortunate that his creations survived him and that adventurous period musicians now program them.
Conductor Ivars Taurins’ selection for the two-hour concert (including intermission) was nothing short of brilliant.
The first half of the program consisted of two sacred works, including an elaborate setting of the Good Friday Stabat Mater text.
Steffani considered this his best creation, according to the program notes, and it’s easy to see why. The sensitive, rich and colourful writing was brought to vivid life by Szabó, the choir and soloists plucked from its ranks.
A particular treat was Victoria Marshall, a member of the alto section, who made a fine duet partner with Szabó.
Where the opening setting of Beatus Vir, an early composition, contained clear echoes of Venetian church music from the school centred on St Mark’s Cathedral, the Stabat Mater was something even richer and more varied ion style.
Szabó has matured into a remarkable artist, a master of nuance and expressivity. She had a chance to really shine in the second half of the program, devoted to Steffani’s operatic output.
Taurins organized the sequence of pieces to mirror the arc of a dramatic opera plot, interspersing arias, duets and choruses with instrumental interludes. Rather than sounding like a patchwork, it became a seamless journey from stormy opening to happy resolution.
Although Szabó was captivating in the dramatic opening and closing music, the music that blew me away was “Sfere amiche” (Friendly spheres) from the 1688 opera Niobe.
This soothing aria gave Szabó the opportunity to plumb the subtleties of fine singing.
This was the very essence of musical enchantment, where singer and orchestra became one in a journey that took us far beyond ourselves.
The whole program is so compelling that it is worth snatching a ticket before the last performance at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre on Sunday.
I would also recommend that Taurins & Co. make plans to record it, so even more people can bask in its wonders. Classical music writer John Terauds is a freelance contributor for the Star, based in Toronto. He is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds
Krisztina Szabó is remarkable in Steffani, John Terauds says.