MUSIC REVIEW : Philharmonia Baroque Goes Romantic

The San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted as it has been for the last decade by Nicholas McGegan, exhibited its superlative skills in a visit to the Bing Auditorium of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wednesday.

Philharmonia devoted its entire program to composers of the Romantic era, beginning with a wittily insinuating romp through the overture to Rossini’s “La Scala di seta.” Another tidbit, the elfin Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Octet, in the composer’s chamber-orchestra arrangement, provided an impressive display of cohesiveness by Philharmonia’s strings.

The real business of the evening, however, came with the two big contrasting works: Berlioz’s yearning, subtly burning “Les Nuits d’ete,” to poems of Theophile Gautier, and Schubert’s gracious Fifth Symphony.

The six-part Berlioz song cycle was blessed by the presence of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, proving that she is as adept in music of the 19th Century as in the Baroque and Classical repertory on which her career has been built.


Hunt matched expert vocalism--perfectly tuned, imaginatively shaded in color and dynamics--to keen textual projection. The four melancholy songs that constitute the core of the work were taken at dangerously slow tempos, but Hunt sustained them magnificently, the voice never betraying a trace of flutter, with McGegan and his band providing sensitive support.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, like the Berlioz songs, profited from the clarity of texture provided by the small forces and soft-toned period instruments employed and, in this instance, from McGegan’s crisply rhythmical, lively pacing. Again, there was risk-taking that paid handsome dividends, notably in the stylishly applied (unwritten) portamentos of the slow movement.