Dallas — Thursday’s evenings Dallas Symphony concert was a first-rate musical experience. Music Director Jaap van Zweden led the orchestra with assurance, letting them play without micromanaging, and demonstrating a clear musical concept for each of the widely varied works on the program. It is early for Top 10 speculation, but this concert will certainly be in contention.
Let us start with the last piece and work back to the first.
Superstar violinist Hilary Hahn was originally scheduled to play Beethoven’s only violin concerto, but had to cancel because of a muscle strain (or something). Stepping in for a violinist with such an outstanding international reputation in not an easy assignment, especially for a young artist at the beginning of his career. You wouldn’t know that from the self-assured and musical performance that German violinist Augustin Hadelich turned in. After getting off to a slightly shaky start, he captivated both the audience and the members of the orchestra. No one missed Hahn. In fact, it is safe to venture that her performance would not have had the loving warmth that Hadelich lavished on every phrase.
He was profound without being pompous in the first movement, lyrical without sentimentality in the second, and playful without trivialization in the final rondo. He was almost more impressive in the softest moments that in the bravura passages. His dead on intonation, especially in the very highest registers, let these extremely high notes ring with a resonance they rarely receive. Yet, his clean technique allowed him to toss off the virtuoso passages with an amazing clarity. His Stradivarius lacks the stentorian voice that many of them have, but he never lacked for power and the trade off for its lovely soft sound is well worth it.
Many violinists claim that the Beethoven is one of the most difficult concerti in the repertoire. Many may make more virtuosic demands, but Beethoven’s writing, or so violinists say, is better suited to piano music, what with its constantly rocking octaves and arpeggios. In fact, the composer later made a version of the concerto for piano, which is never played these days, but many consider being more successful. None of this was apparent in Hadelich’s effortless essay of the work.
It would have been nice to hear less bombastic cadenzi that the ones he trotted out (by Fritz Kreisler). Since Beethoven didn’t write one, it is open season. There are so many of them that we never hear, some by famous violinists of the past (such as Brahms’ muse, Joseph Joachim, who revived the neglected concerto in 1844). Modern violinists, such as Joshua Bell, have written some, as well as intriguing composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns. Although I have never heard it, the less-than-trusty Wikipedia claims that there is even a Klezmer inspired set of cadenzi, which would have been perfect for this performance, which happened to fall on Rosh Hashanah. Airat Ichmouratov, a name I do not know, wrote it for the astonishing young Canadian virtuoso Alexandre da Costa. Hadelich might even try his hand at writing his own.
Before the intermission, Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major received an equally marvelous performance. Intentional or not, it was a fitting tribute to Christopher Hogwood, who died the day before. Hogwood was a key figure in the movement to perform works in the manner of the era in which they were composed (so-called historically informed performances as opposed to performances on the actual original instruments). Before the influence of scholars such as Hogwood, the music of the classical era was performed as if it were Mahler. His return to authentic performance practices gave the musical world a fresh and revealing look at works such as this Haydn symphony and van Zweden followed suit.
All the hallmarks of such a performance were there on Thursday: a lighter touch throughout, minimal vibrato in the strings, clarity of the instrumental lines, buoyant tempi, and beautifully finished off phrases with a decrescendo typically applied to all the last notes.
The symphony calls for a harpsichord, which was sadly hidden in the back of the reduced orchestra. Haydn supposedly conducted this symphony for its London premiere from just such an instrument and added in some flourishes for himself to play near the end of the last movement. Here, that harpsichord solo seemed to come from nowhere and caught everyone by surprise. Had the instrument been near the front, we would have better enjoyed its moment to show off.
The program opened with a work that is conceptually the complete opposite from van Zweden’s carefully crafted recreation of the Haydn: Anton Webern’s astonishing orchestration of a six-voice piece of counterpoint, the Ricercar from Bach’s The Musical Offering. A less authentic and historically correct orchestrated version is hard to imagine, yet it is absolutely faithful to Bach’s original, unlike Leopold Stokowski’s grandiose and gratuitous orchestration of Bach that we heard at the DSO gala.
Webern, the most severe and musically indigestible disciple of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional technique, was also a keen student of historical musical styles. From the Medieval era he resurrected the hocket technique of distributing the melody among a number of different voices or instruments, as opposed to giving it to just one. He called his version of the hocket pointillism and used it frequently in his compositions.
Probably something familiar to modern audiences that will explain how pointillism works is the handbell choir, where each player only has the bells for a few notes and must play them at the right time for the melody to sound. Webern’s orchestration, for a very small orchestra, is a glorious example of this technique.
The reason it isn’t performed more often is that it is extremely difficult to make it sound right and that was the trouble with van Zweden’s performance on Thursday. Much like the otherwise wildly different Mahler symphony we heard last week, each note has its own dynamic marking and each measure must be painstakingly balanced one at a time. Otherwise, the texture continues to grow as more instruments enter and the effect is muddy rather than crystalline. Such was the case here. Many in the audience were mystified by it.
Still, it was wonderful to hear a live performance of this unique piece of music. There are many excellent recordings but one suspects that the clarity in these is sound engineer-assisted. Hopefully, van Zweden will play it again sometime but with more rehearsal and better results.