Elated music-making with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan

The Cleveland Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan performing Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 7 in D minor at the Severance Hall. © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Elation. If I was to review the fourth episode of the Cleveland Orchestra’s In Focus online concert series with just one word, that would be it. Titled Inventions: Bach to Mendelssohn and conducted by Nicholas McGegan, the episode involves tremendously inspired music-making, in a programme mixing some splendid Baroque standards with a lesser-know Mendelssohn gem. 

Perhaps best-known for his thirty-five-year term as a Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque as well as his twenty-year tenure as the Artistic Director of the International Handel-Festival Göttingen, McGegan is a wonderful musician, whose fabulous performances of the Baroque and Classical repertoire, both in the concert hall and on disc, have been such joyful occasions over all these years.

For some time now, McGegan has been a regular visitor to the Severance Hall, bridging the Cleveland sound to the historically informed practice, to a wondrous effect. 

Like so many of us here in the Old World, I first heard the Cleveland Orchestra on the iconic Columbia recordings conducted by George Szell, many of which were re-released for the first time on CD around the days of my youth. While the orchestra’s sound with Szell was definitely all twentieth century, there was a lot of Haydn and Mozart among the recorded repertoire form early on, thus paving the way for the performance practices adopted by younger generations in Cleveland.

On the Inventions episode, one is simply struck by the dazzlingly vigorous sound and thoroughly brilliant phrasing of the Cleveland strings from the very first bars on. 

McGegan and the orchestra open their programme with two splendid instrumental selections from George Frideric Handel’s best-loved oratorio, Messiah (1741). The oboe and bassoon parts have been recast to strings in the Overture, whereas the ensuing pastorale interlude, Pifa, is based on the original strings-only setting found in Handel’s score. 

Both excerpts are played with joyful commitment by the Cleveland strings, directed from the harpsichord by McGegan. Following the solemn, yet ever translucent Overture, a sounding sea of tranquillity is evoked by the orchestra in Pifa, resulting in one of the most intriguing performances of this music in recent memory. 

In the course of the seventy-five-minute programme, musical performances alternate with McGegan’s spoken introductions, all splendidly devised for the occasion, providing spot-on contextualizations for the pieces performed. If ever in need for a perfect introduction to Baroque, please consult this episode!

The Messiah excerpts are followed by two extraordinary, and astounding different takes on the Baroque concerto, namely Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 8 (c. 1680-1690/1714)  and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (1721), both originally scored for string ensembles.

Often dubbed as the Christmas Concerto, Corelli’s score bears the inscription ”Made for the Night of Christmas.” Cast in six movements, both festive and pious in mood, Corelli’s concerto is abundant with pre-echoes of Bach and Handel. 

A luminous affair, the concerto is performed with riveting musicianship by the Cleveland string players and McGegan. Each movement is aptly characterized, resulting in an invigorating musical journey, an entire sounding cosmos in fifteen minutes. 

Nicholas McGegan conducting the Cleveland Orchestra from the keyboard at the Severance Hall on 27-28 November 2020. © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The absolute highlight of the first half of the programme comes in the guise of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. A Bach masterpiece for nine solo strings and basso continuo, formed by the harpsichord and solo double bass in this performance, the concerto gets one tremendous outing form McGegan and the Cleveland players.

The gorgeous ensemble textures of the outer movements are clad in fabulous colours, rooted in the flourishing Cleveland sound. Mixed with an airy transparency of counterpoint and toe-tapping rhythmic energy, the performance is a feast of joy. 

As is well known, Bach’s score for the second movement consists only of two written-out chords. An apt chance for improvisation, delightfully endorsed by McGegan, the performance of the second movement is built up from an extended harpsichord solo leading to the notated string chords, resolving into the closing movement. 

On a personal note, I wish I had a street-credible story to tell about my first encounter with the Third Brandenburg Concerto in some astounding venue or in a venerable music class. Instead, to be honest, I first heard the score as a source music for the office Christmas party scene in the now-classic blockbuster Die Hard (1988). 

Although not particularly highbrow, this random encounter did, however, whet my appetite for the Brandenburg Concertos, one of the big discoveries of my musical life. Having not heard them in a while, the performance by McGegan and the Clevelanders really made my day. 

The programme closes with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 7 in D minor (1821). Among the Mendelssohn oeuvre, his cycle of thirteen string symphonies, all composed between 1821 and 1823, is a veritable treasure chest. Written by a teenager, the string symphonies are striking in their maturity and originality. 

All too rarely performed, these symphonies are both sounding celebrations of a tradition descending from Bach as well as astonishing feasts of imagination. The Symphony D minor is cast in four movements, the symphony opens with a furious allegro, an ear-opener par excellence. 

The second movement, andante amorevole, brings forth a change of mood, with its song-like opening lines, gradually expanded into a full-fledged string texture. A Haydnesque menuetto, featuring a riveting trio ensues, setting the music alight with dance and kinetic energy.

Rounding of with an allegro molto finale fugue, providing the orchestra with a gorgeous moment to shine, the symphony is brought to its elated close. 

The Cleveland Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan recording Mendelssohn for the orchestra’s In Focus online series at the Severance Hall on 27-28 November. © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Performed with dedication, enthusiasm, and peerless craft, the Cleveland Orchestra and McGeegan give the symphony a remarkable outing. One of the high points of the In Focus series so far, one hopes that there will be further visits into the unique realm of the Mendelssohn string symphonies by this top team ahead during the seasons to come.      

With the performances recorded here, one feels elated indeed. The new In Focus episodes ahead in 2021 will be eagerly awaited.   

The Cleveland Orchestra

Nicholas McGegan

George Frideric Handel: Overture and Pifa from Messiah, HWV 56 (1741)

Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 8 (c. 1680-1690/1714)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (1721)

Felix Mendelssohn: String Symphony No. 7 in D minor (1821)

Recorded at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, 27-28 November 2020

First released on Thursday 10 December 2020 on Adella Live

© Jari Kallio 

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