Nicholas McGegan has in recent years become a regular and welcome guest conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, leading programs that combine familiar Baroque works with more unusual repertoire. In the orchestra's program that streamed on Thursday, McGegan led very familiar works by Handel, Corelli and Bach, before finishing with Mendelssohn's rarely performed String Symphony no. 7 in D minor. TCO has cancelled their Christmas concerts this year because of the pandemic, so McGegan's choice of the "Pifa" (Pastorale Symphony) from Handel's Messiah and Corelli's "Christmas Concerto" (Concerto grosso Op.6, no.8) were at least a nod in the holiday direction.

Nicholas McGegan directs The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

In the Handel and Corelli works McGegan conducted while standing at the harpsichord, playing continuo with his left hand when he wasn't otherwise engaged. The opening section of the Messiah overture, in the form of a French overture, was solemn, with sharply dotted rhythms, followed by a more jubilant fugal second half. It was clear that we were not hearing a "Baroque orchestra" with original instruments of Handel's era, but likewise, the overture fit into the orchestra's ethos of lean, precisely tuned sound, with vibrato used as ornamentation. In the "Pifa" McGegan found the right balance of tempo, not rushed, not dragging. Unlike some performances, there were few ornaments in either movement other than what were likely indicated in the published score.

Arcangelo Corelli's concerto grosso for two violins, cello (played by TCO principals) strings and continuo, was given an equally handsome performance. It is a typical Baroque concerto, with alternating fast and slow movements. The closing pastorale, in gently rocking triplets and bass simulating bagpipes (and confirming Corelli's indication that the concerto was for Christmas Eve), was magical, evaporating to silence at its end.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major, for nine string soloists (3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos) with double bass and harpsichord continuo, was a joy from beginning to end. With the players dispersed across the stage for social distancing, the precision of the ensemble was brilliant. Nicholas McGegan was seated at the harpsichord, and he improvised the second movement, in which Bach only wrote the closing two cadential chords. McGegan's invention was highly ornamented, with perfect Baroque harmonic structure. It was in duple meter; perhaps in the style of a sarabande. It was the product of a highly experienced and elegant musician. The third movement was a romp, with the nine soloists going about their contrapuntal "busy-ness" in perfect synchronicity.

Nicholas McGegan conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Felix Mendelssohn's seven string symphonies were written when he was between 12 and 14 years old, yet they show a musical mind far more mature than his chronological age. His sheer technique of melody, harmony and counterpoint in the German tradition are astounding. And the Symphony no. 7 sounds like Mendelssohn, not a student composition. The melodies are abundant, and the movements have the energy of Mendelssohn's later works, especially the Scherzos. Indeed, this symphony's Menuetto–Trio more closely resembles a Romantic Scherzo than the Classical Minuet-Trio. Mendelssohn doesn't repeat the Minuet after the Trio, as would have been the case in Classical style. The Cleveland Orchestra's playing here had all the fine characteristics of the preceding Baroque works: precision in ensemble and intonation in service of subtle phrasing and forward momentum.

McGegan's spoken program notes showed him to be a brilliant and humorous raconteur, making musicological information accessible to listeners of all levels of expertise. 

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream