One of Nicholas McGegan’s many talents is the ability to transform a standard symphony orchestra into a reasonable facsimile of a Baroque and Classical era ensemble. With pandemic restrictions and reduced ensemble size, the Seattle Symphony was in a perfect position to do just that for this week’s concert on the symphony’s Masterworks streaming series. The prerecorded concert was filmed live with an in-person audience.

Nicholas McGegan conducting the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

McGegan often conducts from the harpsichord while playing continuo in Baroque works. In this case, he conducted both Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 1, BWV 1066, and Schubert’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major from the podium. His conducting style, without baton, is unorthodox, but effective. As he conducted, he caressed phrases, communicating with players through his eyes. With the flick of a finger or two he indicated the speed of ornaments. The result was a highly integrated, almost vocal, performance, with the conductor intimately involved, not just an emperor of the podium.

The version of Bach’s orchestral suites now commonly performed dates from Bach’s Leipzig career in the 1730s, but it is a revised version of an earlier chamber work. Written for strings, a pair of oboes and bassoon, it is Bach’s own genius take on the Baroque dance suite, a form he returned to time and again. At times the wind instruments are given their own “concertino” passages without strings.

The Ouverture in the French Baroque style opened with a grand slow section, with sharply etched rhythms, followed by an elaborate fugue, at the end of which the slow music returns. Here and elsewhere in the later movements, the counterpoint was exquisitely clear, and ornaments precise. The strings mostly abandoned vibrato except as a kind of ornamentation in longer-held notes. The Gavotte (in two sections) was delicate and especially graceful in the central wind-only section. The Forlane was like a gigue, in duple meter but consisting of triplet figures. It was the closest thing that Bach composed allowing for raucous orchestral behavior. The two Minuets were notable for their inner details and phrasing.

Nicholas McGegan conducting the Seattle Symphony
© James Holt | Seattle Symphony

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony received a single informal reading at what we would now call a “community chamber orchestra” in 1816 when Schubert was 19 years old. The first real performance had to wait until 1873, fifty years after the composer’s death. In brief remarks during the intermission pause, McGegan notes that Schubert’s symphony “inhabits Mozart’s sound world”. That was a vivid description of both the work and the Seattle Symphony’s performance.

The superior qualities of the Seattle Symphony’s Bach continued in their Schubert: clarity and lightness of texture and communicative phrasing. A flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns supplemented a chamber orchestra string section. The Andante con moto second movement was the highlight, with examples of Schubert’s genius for endless melody. The development is not motivic as in Beethoven; rather, Schubert reframed the melodies in various – sometimes remote – harmonic centers. McGegan’s orchestra phrased with ebb and flow, but never losing the music’s inner pulse. The Menuetto, with the tempo marking Allegro, was a wild ride, with some respite from the action in the central Trio section. The closing movement was clearly an homage to Mozart, led and played with gusto. 


This performance was reviewed from the Seattle Symphony video stream

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