Danzmayr delivers fresh and brilliant Brahms with Houston Symphony

Sat Nov 24, 2018 at 1:36 pm
By Steven Brown
David Danzmayr conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius's Symphony No.1 Friday night in Frankfort.

David Danzmayr conducted the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall Friday night.

As a pillar of the orchestral repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 turns up regularly in the concert hall. It’s familiar, to say the least. But conductor David Danzmayr and the Houston Symphony are proving this weekend that it can still sound fresh and arresting.

In Friday’s concert at Jones Hall, Danzmayr led the orchestra in a Brahms Fourth that brought out the much-played work’s contrasts: the fire and lyricism, intimacy and turbulence, otherworldliness and jubilation.

The symphony’s opening was deceptively understated. The first theme flowed out quietly, even unassumingly, with background murmurings clear yet muted. As the first movement unfolded, though, Danzmayr and the players made each theme and episode vivid. When the cellos welled up with their big melody, the brilliance of the French horn doubling it added even more swagger. A bit later, the woodwinds spun out their interlocking solos sweetly; Danzmayr gave them leeway for that by keeping the accompaniment crisp and light.

The orchestra made the movement’s first climax rugged and vigorous. Yet the middle section registered a striking change, beginning in a haunting sotto voce. Danzmayr lent the music even more mystery by gradually slowing the pace, setting up the opening theme’s hushed, suspended-in-air return. The orchestra’s power and dynamism enabled new passions to break out, and Danzmayr propelled the movement to a blazing close.

In the rest of the symphony, the orchestra’s playing was just as full of character. The slow movement’s first theme sounded wistful and intimate when it appeared, thanks to the woodwinds’ tenderness, and Danzmayr gave it more fervor later by urging the violas to sing out. Meanwhile, the strings’ hymn grew richer each time they played it. Danzmayr and the orchestra complemented the third movement’s gusto and ringing sonorities with the warmth they brought to the middle section.

And in the finale’s passacaglia, Danzmayr balanced momentum with each variation’s individual impact–whether it came from the vigor of the surging strings, the fullness of the solo flute or the wallop of the full orchestra. After the mellowness of the brasses’ hymn, the return of the orchestra’s heft and force registered all the more viscerally, and the group drove fiercely to the final chords.

In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, soloist Inon Barnatan and the orchestra shared the limelight in a work that’s something of a cross between a keyboard concerto and a wind serenade. In the first movement, the woodwinds step to the fore in pairs even before the piano enters; in the slow movement and finale, the winds at times become a choir unto themselves as the strings fall silent.

On Friday, Danzmayr helped facilitate the winds’ prominence by reducing the string section to chamber-orchestra size. That period scale came at a price: In a few of the most sonorous spots, the violins could barely be heard.

But the orchestra, led by Danzmayr, by and large treated the concerto to a performance full of deftness, buoyancy and poignant lyricism. The winds’ generous tone brought out their big moments’ spirit and glow. The strings’ veiled sound and deft phrasing set the slow movement’s pensive tone.

Barnatan added his own dash, sparkle and delicacy. Once in a while, he dug into the keys enough to ring out alongside the orchestra. More often, though, Barnatan emphasized the lighter parts of the spectrum. He drew in the slow movement’s lyricism to an even more intimate, personal level than the strings.

He also brought a freewheeling spontaneity to the candenzas: Alfred Brendel’s in the first movement, Barnatan’s own in the finale. As an encore, the pianist offered Egon Petri’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze. From the purity Barnatan gave the melody to the quiet shadings he conjured up in the accompaniment, every phrase was exquisitely wrought.

Perhaps because substantial doses of Mozart and Brahms were in store, Danzmayr opened the concert on a lighter note, with Franz von Suppé’s Overture to The Beautiful Galatea. Danzmayr and the orchestra treated it to snappiness and glitter at the beginning, then glistening string tone in the slow section. And Danzmayr added another artful touch by taking his time to ease into Suppé’s cozy waltz tune. Brahms and Mozart aren’t the only ones who deserve subtlety, after all.

The Houston Symphony repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Jones Hall. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575.

2 Responses to “Danzmayr delivers fresh and brilliant Brahms with Houston Symphony”

  1. Posted Dec 03, 2018 at 12:32 am by John

    Nice, detailed review, and, as always, great to see a serious and greatly knowledgeable music critic review a major cultural event in Houston. However, whatever niceties the conductor may be credited for bringing to the Brahms, I personally found the performance not all that “brilliant”. For me, it was a case of better performed than better conducted. The Mozart was interesting because the excekkebt HSO woodwinds were given due prominence in this special piece. The pianist had swift fingers, strong musicality, the cadenzas were good, but ultimately, the performance was not transcendent. His Bach encore was indeed beautiful, and the vonSuppe indeed a dreadful choice for the serious concerto that followed it. All in all, a mixed bag of a musical offering by HSO. But thanks for the reviews here, and the chance comment.

  2. Posted Jan 06, 2019 at 9:46 am by George John

    I’ll provide the tie-breaking vote. The Brahms was wonderful. I loved it! And, I’m old and have heard it a ‘million’ times. I attended the Sunday performance.

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