Urbane comfort from the Cleveland Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan

United StatesUnited States In Focus / Episode Four: Inventions: Strings of the Cleveland Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan (conductor and harpsichord). Severance Hall, Cleveland, 10.12.2020, and reviewed as a livestream. (MSJ)

Nicholas McGegan & the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Handel – Overture and Pifa Pastorale from Messiah
Corelli – Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.8 ‘Christmas Concerto’
Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major
Mendelssohn – String Symphony No.7 in D minor

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages in the Midwest region of the United States, the Cleveland Orchestra has cautiously continued online programming, closing the tapings to outside audience members. The fall season has been dedicated to string orchestra works, though next spring’s schedule may see other ensembles, as safety allows.

Like many groups, the Cleveland Orchestra traditionally plays a series of holiday concerts. With that festive option closed to them under today’s conditions, the current concert contains some comforting nods to the tradition but within a strictly classical context, including the two instrumental movements from Handel’s Messiah and Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto.

Nicholas McGegan is known for his work in the period instrument world, but he takes a remarkably non-interventionist approach when he is a guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Indeed, more period touches – sprung rhythms, restricted vibrato – can be found these days in music director Franz Welser-Möst’s classical performances with the orchestra. McGegan is content to not rock the boat and to work with whatever the players choose to give him, which for this program was a rather well-upholstered, stately sound. It’s hardly the end-all and be-all for this music, but in dark times, the comfort is appreciated.

Thus, the approach to the overture and pifa from Handel’s Messiah was steady and rich, a description which could also be applied to the performance of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Corelli is a rare visitor to Severance Hall, and the chance to hear what McGegan described in his video introduction as the ‘gold standard’ of Baroque concertos was quite enjoyable. Section principals handled the solos with assurance.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 was given a surprisingly stately performance. McGegan spoke in a bonus video about the need to increase the scale of the music in a large concert hall as opposed to the intimacy of the sort of space a period instrument ensemble might use. He also cited the challenges of having the players socially distanced. On the other hand, Alan Gilbert led a performance last season of Bach’s third orchestral suite with standing players spread out around the stage, and that still had lively tempos and brisk textures. The present performance plodded a bit, though the video element allows viewers to enter a chamber music feel as the camera observes each soloist and section at work. McGegan made use of what was presumably a Bach keyboard work (it’s not identified in the Adella app notes) to provide an interpolated slow movement. I prefer an improvised cadenza at that point, though it was pleasant to hear a few moments of McGegan soloing.

The most enterprising item on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s seventh string symphony from a set of twelve that he wrote around that very age. It’s astonishingly precocious music, already displaying many of the composer’s characteristic gestures. The tragedy of Mendelssohn was that he had so much material success in his life, he wasn’t forced to grow as a musician, and many of his later works are less interesting than some of the masterpieces he wrote as a teenager.

This work is not quite to that level yet, though Mendelssohn was already adept at showing off things he had learned about form and counterpoint. The first movement establishes vigorous yet debonair gestures, followed by a tenderly lyrical slow movement. The third movement menuetto is the best, showing the young composer discovering some of his original techniques to generate atmosphere, and also displaying inventive architecture, not reprising the main theme but bringing some of its character into the coda of the extended trio. The finale starts off vigorously, possibly playing a little too long with a fugal passage, but bringing the work to an effective close. Good music, rarely heard, and clearly bringing a high level of engagement from McGegan.

Subscriptions to the Cleveland Orchestra’s Adella streaming app are available at Adella.Live or on their website (www.clevelandorchestra.com).

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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