Franck Symphony proves the highlight in uneven DSO program

Sat Oct 08, 2022 at 1:27 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Hélène Grimaud performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Fabio Luisi and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Sylvia Elfazon/DSO

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concert Friday night, led by music director Fabio Luisi at the Meyerson Symphony Center, presented a strikingly mixed double feature spotlighting two large works by Brahms and César Franck.

Robert Schumann’s support and advocacy were integral to the swift and sudden success of Johannes Brahms and his music. He had only to hear the young composer once—in a private exhibition of Brahms’ works at the Schumann home—before determining that Brahms’ name should at once become as widely known as his own. 

This gave way to a fast friendship between Brahms and the Schumanns, drawing him into a relationship that would soon be marked by tragedy. In February of 1854, Schumann, a manic-depressive with a long history of mental illness, left his home and threw himself into the Rhine River. He survived the suicide attempt, but was remanded to a mental institution where a rapid decline would end with his death two years later, leaving Brahms to assume to assumer responsibility for Schumann house as well as aiding the welfare of Clara and her children.

This was the impetus behind Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in D Minor, which first took shape as a sonata for two pianos. The orchestral scope of the work would lead Brahms to make a symphony of the sonata before eventually landing on the piano concerto as the final sketch. Part elegy, part portrait of love declaration, the work is both serene and expansively dramatic.

Hélène Grimaud, known equally as a musical artist and a committed conservationist, brought an interpretation to Brahms’ material that, sadly, lacked the requisite emotional scope and breadth of color. Instead, her approach was consistently muscular. Rushed tempo changes saw the soloist and orchestra too often disjoined, and her weighty phrasing unclear in articulation.

The rocky collaboration was most disappointing in the Adagio. Here, Grimaud was wanting in plumbing the music’s intimate expression, her playing more brawny than the light, lyrical touch one would expect.

Grimaud’s big-boned approach proved most effective in the finale, which burst forth from the second movement with assertiveness. Still here too, the DSO’s playing was markedly unpolished. 

The second half of the program was a decided improvement over the first. César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, his only contribution to the genre, was first performed in Paris only a few months before the composer’s death. It was initially considered a failure before achieving popularity as one of the few great symphonies to come out of France in the 19th century.

Here, the DSO returned to the standard of musical excellence that we have come to expect. Luisi, employing clear, judicious gesturing, manages a slow portentous mood in the passage that opened up into the brilliantly energetic Allegro. The orchestra maintained a clever balance of these two moods throughout the movement, with a welcome balance in texture and color.

The second movement was suffused with melancholy, with beautiful plucked passages in harp and other strings accompanying a mournful horn solo. This moved ably into a jovial middle section that reimagines the main theme. Textural swells, both buoyant and piquant, blended brass and string elements beautifully, and throughout, metric pivots were negotiated with notable aptitude.

The festive finale, rich in thematic content, was given a precision that conveyed the material’s mounting wave of strength and assurance. What once carried an air of sadness and solemnity was now convincingly true and triumphant, with a radiant finish.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

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