Dallas — This weekend’s addition to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival was, in almost all respects, a rousing success. Playing to a large crowd for a Thursday evening, the DSO provided two crowd-pleasing favorites—the Egmont Overture and the Fifth Symphony; sandwiched in between was the Triple Concerto.
The Egmont Overture is actually part of a set of incidental music that Beethoven wrote for the Goethe play Egmont. In addition to the overture, there are a set of pieces for soprano, orchestra, and optional male narrator. Beethoven greatly admired Goethe’s writing, and Egmont additionally features themes of male heroism and female loving devotion that were especially appealing to Beethoven.
There are notable connections between the Egmont Overture and the Fifth Symphony, as well: in addition to the shared theme of heroism and struggle, the overture uses the same four-note rhythm featured in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony.
The DSO’s Thursday performance of the overture was thrilling. Attacks and phrase ends were often so precise as to seem as if a sound editor had already done his work. Tempo was majestic without being lugubrious. In Beethoven’s lifetime, audiences sometimes called for pieces they especially liked to be played again. Two hundred years ago, I feel sure that an attentive audience would have requested another performance of the Egmont.
The Triple Concerto was in some respects the least satisfying part of the evening. Although each of the three soloists, DSO concertmaster Alexander Kerr, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianist Martin Helmchen, is an exceptional musician, their sounds just didn’t match especially well. Helmchen was competent and articulate. The problem arose with the two string players: Weilerstein’s sound is lush, rich, almost cushy, while Kerr’s is dryer and more penetrating. Both are amply worth listening to individually, but their respective sounds just didn’t blend well in the Triple. Weilerstein has a disconcerting habit of double-clutching her bow before entrances—until I accustomed myself to this, I was continually anxious that she was about to come in early. Worth mentioning: her fuchsia, strapless ballgown with bright blue heels peeking out was spectacularly diva-worthy.
After intermission was the piece that, no doubt, many audience members had been waiting for: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In the wrong hands, this piece can sound like a tired warhorse. It’s quite difficult for a conductor to make decisions that allow this most iconic of symphonies to sound fresh. But Jaap van Zweden made many of those decisions Thursday night. The best was to perform the opening of the first movement—those famous four notes—a tempo, rather than with the molto ritardando, the big slowing, that many conductors choose. The effect was of a theme that was lively and, yes, heroic without being overly weighty.
In the second movement, marked Andante con moto, style in strings and winds didn’t always match; still, the overall effect of the entire symphony was a fine new look at an old favorite.
Most impressive was the verve the musicians, from the front of the sections to the back, visibly put into the performance, for a piece that many of them have performed so many times that they could play their parts from memory.