Ton Koopman maintains all his energy and spirit at 75

CanadaCanada Various composers: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Ton Koopman (director, solo harpischord and continuo). (GN)

Ton Koopman and the VSO © Matthew Baird

12.11.2019: Ton Koopman (solo harpsichord), Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

Buxtehude – Preludium manualiter in G minor BuxWV 163
Froberger – Toccata No.2 in D minor; Tombeau de Mr. Blancrocher in C minor; La Leclair in G major
Duphly La Forqueray in F minor
Fiocco – Sonata in G major
J.S. Bach – Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor BWV 903; Concerto in D minor (after Oboe Concerto by A. Marcello) BWV 974; Toccata in G major BWV 916; 3 Preludes and Fugues from Well-Tempered Clavier II (C major, D major, E major)

15.11.2019: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Ton Koopman (director and continuo), Chan Centre, Vancouver.

J.S. Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 BWV 1068; Brandenburg Concerto No.1 BWV 1046; Brandenburg Concerto No.3 BWV 1048
HandelMusic for the Royal Fireworks HWV 351

Ton Koopman is celebrating his seventy-fifth year in 2019 and has been actively giving concerts throughout the world. This time, he was in Vancouver for an orchestral concert (sponsored by the VSO) and a solo harpsichord recital (sponsored by Early Music Vancouver). A student of Gustav Leonhardt, Koopman has been a pioneer of authentic performance for over four decades, moving the Dutch tradition forward from its original roots but always maintaining his own individuality in style and performance. One recalls his fearless explorations of composers such as Sweelinck, Biber and Buxtehude, the creation of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and, perhaps above all, his life-long commitment to the works of J. S. Bach. His recordings of Bach’s organ music and complete Bach Cantatas form a wonderful legacy, as does his complete Buxtehude edition released recently. Perpetuating a style that many period instrumentalists now follow, he has moved fluently between directing and playing the organ and harpsichord. The Vancouver concerts showed that Koopman has lost little of his energy, zeal or interpretative cunning: he was thoroughly bracing at points in his Bach and Handel with the VSO, and eagerly adventurous in the solo recital despite some hand issues which emerged during the concert.

Though the VSO concert employed modern instruments and an ensemble of over 30 players, it was Koopman’s persuasive musical energy and resilience of line that marked his readings. These characteristics have always stood out. When I interviewed violinist Monica Huggett a few years ago, she went to great lengths to explain that Koopman was the first musician to teach her what ‘performance’ really is and the art of combining the more visceral aspects of expression with rhythmic certainty and clarity in voicing. (I mentioned Monica’s comments to Ton after the first of these concerts, and he returned the compliment by saying he had never seen a baroque violinist who could do so many things so well. They founded the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra together in 1979.)

The performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3 had enough double-dotting, baroque ornamentation and period accents to at least qualify as quasi-authentic, though the pomp and nobility in presentation perhaps harken back to an earlier time. Except for slightly overbalanced trumpets and timpani (very recent editions actually remove both), the sound from the large ensemble had transparency, and the reading had balance, spirit and a sense of motion. The allegro of the opening Ouverture might have been slightly on the robust side, but it was particularly well-spun, with fine terracing of the string lines. One always noted the care over dynamic shadings and Koopman’s ability to rhythmically anchor the bottom strings. The famous Air was taken quickly yet was fully communicative, without a trace of sentimentality. The subsequent dances had keen rhythmic point, while the closing Gigue was taken at whirlwind speed.

The Brandenburg Concerto No.1 had more problems of balance, and both winds and horns were occasionally too loud. Nonetheless, Koopman found an expressive intensity that managed to bind everything together while utilizing strong accents to secure architecture. The last two movements introduced a more bucolic feel, with incisive rustic rhythms and colourful winds (particularly the bassoon). If I might have wished for a smaller ensemble, the wish was granted in the following Brandenburg Concerto No.3 which used only ten players, Koopman directing from the continuo. Barring a few inaccuracies in the violins, the reading was excellently appointed, the joys of the counterpoint readily standing out. Koopman performed the middle Adagio most sensitively on solo harpsichord. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks closed the concert in fine style, full of pomp and a touch of brash pungency, with the brass on their mettle and dynamic contrasts superbly managed. There was a lot of spirit, and the efforts of the orchestra to assimilate aspects of Baroque style were commendable.

The solo harpsichord recital promised the same quality of experience but, unfortunately, Koopman suffered some spells of finger immobility towards the end of both halves of this concert. Nonetheless, his energy and individuality of spirit were always recognizable. The opening Buxtehude Prelude certainly created fond memories, revealing Koopman’s characteristic intensity and tensile strength in weaving all the counterpoint together and his use of carefully-placed contrasts and brusque accents to heighten dramatic grip. Froberger ‘s Toccata also featured strong rubato and moments of feverish drive, but yielded to the composer’s Tombeau de Mr. Blancrocher, where Koopman’s searching side came to the fore, with delicious detailing and repose.

There was good chunk of Bach on the programme, but this is where the harpsichordist’s finger issues showed. The Concerto in D minor started fluidly but then became somewhat rushed. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue displayed evident virtuosity, yet the angularity and heaviness of some of the attack did not always work in its favour. However, two of the three Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II – the C major and D major – received excellent renderings, while Dulphy’s La Forqueray was enticing, with a richness of expression and an enviable cantabile reach. In the closing Fiocco Sonata, Koopman offered moments of charm, joy and lyrical depth in equal proportion, even if one ultimately wished his hand was in better shape for the delightfully rollicking finale.

In spite of limitations, these two concerts added up to a redeeming experience, giving many glimpses into why Koopman’s contributions as a Baroque pioneer have been both pathbreaking and enduring. And he still has so much energy!

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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