Fort Worth — If there were a contest for most ambitious program of the season, the Fort Worth Symphony’s Symphonic Series program this weekend would certainly be a strong contender. The orchestra, led by German conductor Christoph König, performed works of Sibelius, Bartók, and Brahms in a two-hour-plus, largely successful marathon.
Instead of beginning the program with the usual overture or other short piece, König and the orchestra started with Jean Sibelius’ final symphony, the No. 7 in C Major, subtitled “In One Movement.” The 20-minute symphony’s harmonic complexity belies its brevity, making it a daring opening gambit, one that mostly paid off. Violins and violas sounded particularly sonorous as they passed melodies to one another, although entrances throughout the orchestra were sometimes not quite as precise as one might wish. König is not a flamboyant conductor, but his stick technique appeared to be clear, a necessity in this piece with its frequent changes of tempo.
The highlight of the evening was undeniably Inon Barnatan’s performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This concerto, like Bartók’s Viola Concerto, was composed at the end of Bartók’s life, left unfinished, and completed by his friend Tibor Serly. It is a very different piece than the gnarly Viola Concerto, however: the third piano concerto is remarkably playful, considering the grave health of its composer.
Barnatan took an appropriately whimsical, delicate approach to the first movement, marked Allegretto. Principal Flute Jake Fridkis also shone, evincing a round, pure sound in his solo passages. The second movement, despite a bit of pitch uncertainty in the violins, showed us an orchestra and a pianist who serve the music, not the other way around. Barnatan played with the orchestra, not just in front of it. Balance was consistently good, the orchestra never overwhelming the pianist. Barnatan’s playing was gorgeous and introspective, lingering on the Bartókian dissonances in this comparatively tonal work. The final movement, with its fiercely tumultuous ending, was a technical and musical triumph.
The iconic First Symphony by Johannes Brahms was a bit more flawed, but still worth a hearing. In the opening theme, ensemble was not entirely tight. That issue resolved, and marvelous solos from Principal Oboe Jennifer Corning Lucio and Principal Flute Jake Fridkis made up for any earlier problems. In the second movement, variations in tempo were again an issue. Michael Shih’s solo featured his usual beautiful sound, but with a vibrato a bit too fast for my taste. Similarly, in the third and fourth movements, there were some moments of musical excellence interrupted by the occasional misstep in balance or ensemble. Overall, this was a performance that with a little tightening could have been superlative.
Considering the sheer volume of music on this program, this was an admirable showing, and the Bartók is not to be missed.