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Beethoven the way he sounded back then

Joshua Kosman | on October 17, 2016


Over the decades, the historical performance movement has carved out some fairly well-defined turf. The way we hear the music of Handel and Bach has been broadly altered by such period-instrument ensembles as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, whereas music by, say, Brahms or Tchaikovsky rarely gets the same treatment.

But the music of Beethoven, which occupied Philharmonia’s season-opening concert on Sunday, Oct. 16, is an interesting border case. This is repertoire that is still primarily the domain of the modern symphony orchestra, with its big, lush-toned string and woodwind instruments, as well as the full-throated sound of a grand piano.

So to hear the composer’s Third Piano Concerto and the “Pastoral” Symphony, led by Nicholas McGegan in the comparatively austere form favored by this and similar orchestras, was a matter of continually adjusting one’s expectations. What happened to the robust, rolling piano harmonies most listeners have learned to anticipate? Where are the dark, shattering explosions of the thunderstorm that disrupts the “Pastoral” before dissipating into the sunlight again?

They’re all still there, of course. It just takes a bit of aural recalibration to experience them at the intended scale — that, and performers as persuasive as McGegan, his colleagues and the dexterous fortepiano virtuoso Robert Levin.

Levin’s solo work in the concerto was marked not only by nimble technique and expressive clarity, but by the deep knowledge of the period that gives his every performance such a sense of linguistic mastery. At the most obvious level, that enables him to improvise his own cadenzas — the showy, unaccompanied flourishes that come right before the conclusion of nearly every movement — just as Beethoven and his contemporaries would have done, and to do so firmly within the bounds of Beethoven’s musical grammar and vocabulary.

Beyond that, though, there was a combination of fluency and definition to Levin’s playing that made each individual passage sound richly dramatic. The opening movement was no less tumultuous for being delivered with the slender sonority of a fortepiano; the hushed opening strains of the slow movement sounded, if anything, even more fantastical and affecting. And if the finale began in a somewhat clunky fashion, it emerged bright and gleaming into the light of the concluding Presto section.

Sunday’s concert was relocated on short notice to the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church after the fire earlier this month that gutted the orchestra’s longtime Berkeley base in the First Congregational Church. The result was a logistical headache for the orchestra’s administration — admirably handled, by all indications — but it put scarcely a dent in the orchestra’s artistic execution.

For the second half, McGegan led an evocative and aptly charming account of the “Pastoral,” with a spacious, long-breathed take on the opening movement and an admirably brisk attack on the scherzo. As for the thunderstorm, it glowered as forebodingly as anyone could ask — with tacit encouragement from the actual rain that had pelted audience members on their way in.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. Email: Twitter: @JoshuaKosman

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