CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 10/23/08
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Orchestral Suite from Naïs. Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G majr, BWV 1048. Johann Christian Bach: Sinfonia Concertante in C major, T289 No. 4. George Frideric Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks. (Nicholas McGegan, cond.)
The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of the Austrian Succession, promised Europe a "Christian, universal and perpetual peace." But this declaration proved as empty as it was grand. The treaty was the product of fatigue, and it made no attempt to address the issues at the heart of the conflict. It's been suggested that it had the effect of a truce—one that allowed the combatants time to rearm for the coming Seven Years' War.
And yet, if it accomplished little else, the agreement prompted the composition of some superb music. In England, the government attempted to drum up support for the unpopular treaty by comissioning a pyrotechnic display—and with is Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. The French celebrated with Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Naïs.
Two hundred and sixty years after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Cleveland Orchestra tackles both the Fireworks music and a suite from Naïs in a program led by Nicholas McGegan. It's a clever conceit: bookending the program with these two works. And the grandiose idioms of this eighteenth-century propaganda elicit some of McGegan's best music-making. Thursday's version of the Fireworks music was invigoratingly paced, nicely textured, and almost good enough to make you forget the absence of period instruments.
The music from Naïs was nearly as expertly conducted, though a degree of sonic blurriness was exacerbated by McGegan's decision to have a wind machine add sound effects to the overture. I know nothing of the musicological or historical grounds behind this choice. Perhaps the overthrow of the Titans portrayed by the music took place on a breezy day. But when the hall's already starting to swallow up some of the music's detail, adding extra noise to the proceedings is a questionable strategy.
McGegan was less successful in the program's other two works: the third Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach and a C-major Sinfonia Concertante by his son Johann Christian. The Brandenburg suffered from instances of technical imprecision and an oddly lackluster concluding movement. The Sinfonia showcased some impressive ensemble work by a quartet of Orchestra principals. And yet the Larghetto had a gushy, romantic veneer that seemed out of place. Open the throttle just a bit, as Simon Standage does in his recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, and you get a slow dance that's far more engrossing.
Neither Bach senior's concerto nor Bach junior's Sinfonia were unpleasant listening. If you've a fondness for Baroque and early Classical music or a hot Severance Hall date, there's no reason to change your concertgoing plans. But there was nothing in Thursday's versions of these two pieces that hasn't been done better elsewhere. Perhaps McGegan's agreeable but elusive program is best regarded as sharing the spirit of the treaty that was its inspiration. It's a pleasant respite from daily battles, but you'd be hard pressed to put your finger on anything substantive that's addressed. What saves the day is the same strategy King George II tried back in the eighteenth century: bringing in the fireworks.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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