Dallas — In a move of audacious programming, Dallas Symphony Music Director Jaap van Zweden opened Thursday’s concert with Tchaikovsky’s charming bit of fluff, Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra (1876)—and then plunged into the huge, dark, empty and gloomy cathedral of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Keep in mind that this piece, written between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885, is one of Bruckner’s sunnier symphonies, except for the inconsolable grief of the slow movement.
The program was also unbalanced as to time. The Tchaikovsky takes less than 20 minutes while recordings of Bruckner’s symphony run from a dash-through-it 55 minutes (Toscanini) to one hour and five minutes (Claudio Abbado) to an hour and a half (Sergiu Celibidache).
The cellist was the astonishingly talented Alisa Weilerstein, who gives stunning performances of almost all the great cello concerti. Tchaikovsky’s delightful set of variations got an amazing performance from her in spite of being programmed as van Zweden’s amuse-bouche before the Brucknerian main course.
Weilerstein tried to enjoy all the humor built into this delightful piece, but van Zweden must have already been in Bruckner’s dense and dark forest. Eventually, she gave up and just played it as any other concerto. Even worse, van Zweden was just slightly behind her at the end.
Bruckner’s symphony also suffered from over-angst—and there is plenty of angst already in the music.
Van Zweden’s performance clocked in near Celibidache’s glacial pace and it felt even longer. Further, the orchestra sounded tired. They were precise as ever, but lacked their usual brilliance.
It was hard to tell which edition was used—there are several, all of which disagree. But it was probably the edition by Leopold Nowak based on an earlier one cleaned up by Robert Haas, because the performance included the single cymbal crash, triangle roll and some timpani, which felt like it was on the inside edge of the pitch all evening.
These editions differ about tempi markings so it is difficult to comment on the tempi in any one performance. The conductor can’t win; some will always think that the fast is too fast and the slow is too slow.
The Scherzo suffered the most from turgid tempo trauma. This is supposed to be a ländler, a jolly Austrian pleasant dance with much stomping, which Beethoven and Mahler used frequently. Van Zweden did a little swaying at the beginning but it was serious stuff thereafter. There was lots of brilliant brass playing, but it was apparent that it was an effort. The finale lost its impact because all the super loud dynamics in the bank were spent long before.