In these days of period instrument, historically informed orchestras specializing in playing repertoire from Bach to Haydn and Beethoven, on to Stravinsky and Ravel, audiences are more discerning than they would have been fifty years ago about standard 20th-century “conventional” ensembles plowing through older music with little or no evidence of the music’s origins and style. In recent years, The Cleveland Orchestra has regularly invited guest conductors – among them Nicholas McGegan and Ton Koopman – with special expertise in Baroque music. And, chameleon-like, a reduced-size orchestra successfully adapts its playing to become a reasonable facsimile of a period orchestra. The group still plays on modern instruments, but phrasing, articulation and ornamentation are stylishly rendered, with a lean, focused sound.

Harry Bicket © Richard Haughton
Harry Bicket
© Richard Haughton

Harry Bicket, this week’s conductor, is director of The English Concert, one of Britain’s most esteemed period ensembles. Bicket’s program of Handel, Rameau and Purcell was thoroughly delightful, with three works new to The Cleveland Orchestra. Only Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks is a regular on TCO programs.

Bicket conducted several of the works from the harpsichord. Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A major, Op.6 no. 11, opened with an Overture notable for sharply dotted rhythms, and delicate sound. The three concertino solos were prinicipals William Preucil and Stephen Rose, violin, and Mark Kosower, cello. Preucil was especially adept at the virtuoso solos throughout. The four movements were played without significant pause, heightening the continuity of the overall work. The succeeding Allegro led into a short slower movement and an Andante Minuet. The closing Allegro was a whirlwind. Harry Bicket contributed stylish continuo, although the volume of space in Severance Hall always consumes most of the harpsichord sound.

If Handel’s music was about counterpoint, the suite of movements from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s final opera Les Boréades was all about color, ornamentation and grace. The opera was not produced in Rameau’s lifetime, and only rediscovered in the mid–20th century. Harry Bicket selected eleven short movements that form dances and interludes interspersed in the complicated drama. The music is striking in its unusually prominent and virtuosic use of wind instruments, especially clarinets. The Overture features swirls of roulades in the clarinets. A graceful Rondeau for strings and flutes was delicate and refined. A Gavotte was spritely, punctuated with tambourine. In the Entr’acte (Suite of the Winds) Rameau features a wind machine. The winds eventually die down, and the suite ends with a rambunctious Contredanse, which accelerates to a festive conclusion.

Henry Purcell was also represented by an operatic suite, from his 1690 opera King Arthur. There is no mistaking Purcell’s sturdy trumpet tunes from Rameau’s ornamented colors. The “First Music: Chaconne” was perhaps the most stylish playing of the evening, with its lifts off of the first beat of the measure to emphasize the second beat of the measure, sharply etched rhythms and sensitive phrasing. At many points in the evening Harry Bicket conducted not beats, but phrases, and from time to time let the musicians play themselves without conductorial interference.

In Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks the balances were not always right, largely as a result of modern brass instruments simply making more sound that their original Baroque counterparts. But what magnificence in the opening Overture and closing Minuet II! The wind instruments did, however, balance the string sections, for the same reason, in “La paix”, a pastoral “siciliano” dance, with its gently minuet rhythm. “La Réjouissance” alternated martial-sounding brass and snare drum with winds.

Cleveland is home to a number of fine period instrument ensembles, but there is still room for modern instrument performances, especially when they are as stylish and musically well thought-out as this week’s performance by Harry Bicket and The Cleveland Orchestra.