Friday night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Music Director Fabio Luisi at the Meyerson Symphony Center, featured a surprisingly mixed double feature highlighting two great works by Brahms and César Franck.
Robert Schumann’s support and advocacy was integral to the rapid and sudden success of Johannes Brahms and his music. He only had to hear the young composer once—in a private exhibition of Brahms’s works at Schumann House—before he determined that Brahms’ name should immediately become as widely known as his own.
This gave way to a quick friendship between Brahms and the Schumanns, dragging him into a relationship that was soon to be marked by tragedy. In February 1854, Schumann, a manic-depressive with a long history of mental illness, left his home and threw himself into the Rhine. He survived the suicide attempt, but was returned to a mental institution where a rapid decline would culminate in his death two years later, leaving Brahms to assume responsibility for the Schumann household as well as assist in the welfare of Clara and her children.
This was the impetus behind Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in D minor, which first took the form of a sonata for two pianos. The orchestral scope of the work would lead Brahms to make a symphony of the sonata before finally landing on the piano concerto as the final sketch. Part elegy, part portrait of declaration of love, the work is both serene and extremely dramatic.
Hélène Grimaud, known as both a musical artist and a committed environmentalist, brought an interpretation to Brahms’ material which, unfortunately, lacked the required emotional range and color scope. Instead, his approach was always heavy-handed. Hasty tempo changes saw soloist and orchestra too often disjointed, and his heavy phrasing was unclear in articulation.
The rocky collaboration was the most disappointing in the Adagio. Here Grimaud failed to fathom the intimate expression of the music, its playing more muscular than the light, lyrical touch one would expect.
Grimaud’s muscular approach proved most effective in the finale, which erupted from the second movement with confidence. Here, too, the DSO’s play was distinctly rudimentary.
The second half of the program was a marked improvement over the first. César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, his only contribution to the genre, was premiered in Paris just months before the composer’s death. It was first considered a failure before becoming one of the few great symphonies to come out of France in the 19e century.
Here the DSO has returned to the level of musical excellence we expected. Luisi, using clear and judicious gestures, manages a slow and prodigious mood in the passage which opens with the brilliantly energetic Allegro. The orchestra has maintained a careful balance between these two moods throughout the movement, with a welcome balance in texture and color.
The second movement was tinged with melancholy, with beautiful plucked passages in harp and other strings accompanying a mournful horn solo. This deftly moved into a jovial mid-section that reinvents the main theme. The textural swells, both floaty and stingy, blended the brass and string elements beautifully, and throughout, the metric pivots were negotiated with noticeable aptitude.
The festive finale, rich in thematic content, was given a precision that conveyed the material’s rising tide of strength and assurance. What once bore an air of sadness and solemnity was now convincingly truthful and triumphant, with a radiant finish.
The program will repeat at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. dallassymphony.org