Last night in Herbst Theatre, Philharmonia Baroque gave the first San Francisco performance in its 2016–17 season. Led by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra opened the season with the one concert devoted to music of the nineteenth century. The title of the program was All Beethoven; and the program consisted solely of one piano concerto, Opus 37 (the third) in C minor, and one symphony, the Opus 68 (“Pastoral”) symphony in F major. The concerto soloist was Robert Levin, playing a fortepiano made by G. Hendrich Guggenberger in Naples some time around 1820. Those wishing to pick historical nits will be quick to point out that Opus 37 was completed in 1802, but that would bypass Ludwig van Beethoven’s dissatisfaction with just about every piano that came his way.
Levin made a few introductory remarks before the concerto performance began. He described Beethoven as a “triple threat,” having by 1802 established his reputation not only as a composer and a pianist but also as an improviser. This observation served to reinforce Levin’s announcement that he would engage spontaneous improvisation of his own at those points in the score when it was appropriate. This promised to be an evening during which the concept of “making music” would involve far more than following the marks on the score pages. However, “appropriate” applied to more than just those points in the score (usually marked by a fermata) in which the performer was required to play a cadenza. Opus 37 has one of Beethoven’s longer concerto introductions; and Levin was already “out of the gate” on the opening beat, interpreting the notated bass line as a continuo for his left hand while improvising upper voices with his right that were consisted with the orchestral writing.
All this endowed the first half of last night’s concert with an electrifying approach to spontaneity in which the practice of making music depended on in-the-moment activities. To be fair, those familiar with the recording that Levin made of this concerto with John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, would have recognized some of the tropes in Levin’s improvisation. Those wishing to accuse Levin of “mere repurposing” need to recall what Brahms said to a critic accusing him of appropriating one of Beethoven’s tropes, “Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel” (every jackass notices that)! Ever since the Homeric bards, tropes have been vital to improvisation; and even the wildest bebop improvisers all had personalized toolkits of tropes.
What matters is how those tropes are engaged, and Levin drew upon his own toolkit with vigorous enthusiasm. If he was channeling Beethoven, he was channelling the full breadth of that “triple threat,” exploring the rhetorical nooks and crannies of what had been committed to notation while bringing expressive shape to each notated phrase. However, the clarity with which this foundation was established then provided the platform for the spontaneity of improvisation, and there was no shortage of sparks flying from Levin’s spontaneity. At the same time, his chemistry with McGegan was impeccable, which mean that he did not have to resort to the usual “trill cues” to signal when he was ready to go back to the notation. (There was, however, one moment when Levin used his left hand to cue the orchestra.) The result was a thoroughly engaging account of a concerto that is all too often dismissed as too heavy-handed when played with more contemporary resources.
In that context one could also appreciate an element of spontaneity that McGegan brought to his account of the Opus 68 symphony. This was not so much a matter of inventive improvisation as it was one of exploiting the transparency that arises when every instrument has its own distinctive sonorities and the overall sound is less of a richly lush texture and more an intimate discussion among a relatively large number of voices. As one might guess, those somewhat alien sounds do much to heighten the drama of the fourth-movement depiction of a thunderstorm. However, more important is that much of the symphony involves give-and-take gestures of motifs that practically bounce across different loci in the layout of the ensemble; and those gestures are far clearly when they involve shifts in sonority.
Fortunately, McGegan chose the layout in which first and second violins face each other for both selections on the program. This facilitates the give-and-take gestures within the string section. However, the technique is far more extensive; and, thanks to McGegan’s approach to layout, it did not take long for the attentive listener to relish just how spatial an account of this symphony could be. Opus 68 is a selection that tends to be far more familiar to concert-goers that Opus 37, due in no small part to its programmatic structure. Nevertheless, there is far more to the music than the program; and McGegan could not have been more skilled at bringing out the musical qualities without overlooking the programmatic ones. Thus, Opus 68 emerged with its own brand of spontaneity, making a perfect complement to the spontaneity of the Opus 37 concerto.
Finally, Levin followed his concerto performance with a brief encore. He played the last (seventh) of the Opus 33 set of bagatelles. I overheard someone in the audience invoking the named “Waldstein” in describing it. The bagatelle has an emphasis on repetition (definitely pushed to almost comical absurdity) that one finds in the opening of the Opus 53 sonata in C major that bears the Waldstein name. However, Opus 33 was composed in 1802, not long after the Opus 37 concerto; and the Opus 53 sonata was composed in 1803. It was as if Beethoven first had a frolic with almost excessive repetition and then refashioned it with a more serious rhetorical stance. In bagatelle form the music was all unfettered wit, and Levin’s knack for spontaneity served his account of that wit splendidly.