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Reclothing the “Emperor”

February 12, 2008

In the mid-1980s, when period-instrument bands began venturing out of the Baroque into music of first the late 18th and then the early 19th centuries, many had names at embarrassing variance with the sort of music they were playing. Some of them adopted different names depending on the repertoire on a given program, or reinvented themselves de novo under less period-specific monikers (the English Baroque Soloists renamed itself the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, for example). Some, like the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, simply shrugged off the mismatch.
So it was as PBO (though a somewhat beefed-up ensemble, replete with clarinets, five cellos, and three basses) that Nic McGegan's merry band played a not-remotely-Baroque program at Berkeley's First Congregational Church Saturday night. For all the finesse and dazzle of the orchestra's playing on its original home turf, McGegan's occasional excursions into the 19th century are a special treat.

Not only does his wit lend itself brilliantly to the likes of Schubert and Beethoven, but there's the undeniable thrill of an orchestra approaching the music immediately after 1800 from the other side. It is easy, in our familiarity, to forget how new, strange, and big that music once felt — how unruly, how fierce. Philharmonia sounds firmly at home in the 19th century these days, but never merely at ease.

At the head of the program came Beethoven's mammoth "Emperor" Concerto, starring the indefatigable Robert Levin at an impressive behemoth of a fortepiano. The instrument, a 1985 copy of a Viennese instrument built in 1814, belongs to Bay Area historical-keyboard player Charlene Brendler. Besides a six-octave range and a penetrating sound in all registers, it boasts an array of auxiliary sound-effects (bells, drum, cymbals) for use in playing the janissary (Turkish-military-style) music popular at the time. According to one of the players, Levin actually made use of some of these stops during the opening concert of the set in San Francisco, two days earlier. Not — to my mingled relief and disappointment — on Saturday, though.
Commander at the Keyboard
Levin was his usual brash, impetuous self. He was in complete command of the concerto's torrents of glittering passagework, and anything but shy about wrenching sound out of the instrument, whose lower octaves came in for some furious pounding. It was a performance that rarely paused in reminding you that the piano is a percussion instrument.

The piece gave Levin fewer opportunities than, say, the Mozart concertos do for his favored brand of impish showmanship. Still, his habit of swiveling around to look pertly at the winds every time he and they traded off material is as strong as ever. As he typically does, he accompanied the orchestra throughout most of the tutti passages. He is subtle about this, burrowing into the texture unobtrusively and only occasionally letting himself be heard, always to good effect.

The performance's range of colors and characters was wide. I've heard more elegant and easeful renditions, but few as sheerly exciting as this one. The outer movements were crammed to bursting with energy, from soloist and orchestra alike. Levin was continually champing at the bit (in the finale, he galloped through the theme so impetuously as almost to overshoot himself at the top of the phrase), and the band in the tuttis was like a controlled explosion, taut and rambunctious.

At the same time, the quiet playing was uncommonly beautiful. Levin's instrument has a top register of unearthly delicacy and clarity, and where he tinkled away up there to minimal accompaniment (as in the first movement's second theme or through much of the slow movement), the effect was magical. So was the long duet with Philharmonia's incisive timpanist, Kent Reed, near the end of the finale. And while the fortissimo tuttis packed a bracing punch, the orchestra's great refinement — particularly in the playing of an unusually mellow and unified wind band — was equally telling.
All Clear and Sunny
That combination of brashness and suavity also suffused the concert-ender, Schubert's D-Major Third Symphony (D. 200). The work may not be often played, by comparison with its three immediate successors (to say nothing of the late, great Eighth and Ninth), but it's brimful of charm and Haydnish — occasionally even Beethovenian — brio. With the winds, led suavely by first clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, in blissful accord, and the strings dainty and droll in the slow movement, McGegan's Third was winningly sunny.

When called for, the band played boldly, even fiercely. I realized that this isn't, after all, a "small" piece, despite its touches of winsome cuteness. It has genuine heft and weight, and by the end of the finale there was no question but that it deserved its place at the end of a program that had opened with the "Emperor."

The real discovery of the program, though, came in between. My acquaintance with the music of Anton Reicha (1770-1836) is limited to a handful of pieces of chamber music, mostly for winds or various wind and string combinations. (He also composed a long and reputedly fascinating series of fugues for solo piano, but they seem to be alluded to more often than played.) Nothing I've heard of Reicha prepared me for the D-Major Overture performed by Philharmonia Saturday night — the wildest find I think I've ever heard on a Philharmonia program.

Its peculiarity is that it's written in 5/8 meter throughout. By the end of the 19th century, quintuple time was a recognized, though rare, possibility (think of the quasi-waltz second movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony). But at the time of Reicha's undated Overture it must have been virtually unprecedented, and I can only imagine the conniptions that the work's original performers must have had over it. Even for ears accustomed to odd meters, it's tricky enough. (Reicha stitches the five rapid eighths most often as three and then two, but the reverse happens enough to catch you out repeatedly. I was still missing the occasional stitch at work's end.)

Above the level of the measure, the piece is laid out with disconcerting regularity. The phrases are balanced and matched in such a way that you keep groping for a ghost-piece in a "normal" meter that seems always to be hovering just behind what you actually hear. It's like a parquet of familiar and spacious design, only tessellated with what prove, the minute you look more closely, to be stubbornly bent, irregular shapes. It's bizarre, deliciously scored, and wholly captivating music that I, for one, can't wait to hear again. Any chance that this work will make its way onto Philharmonia's growing collection of downloadable recordings? We can but hope.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.