Dallas — Max Bruch wrote three violin concertos, plus a concerto-like object called the Scottish Fantasy. However, the “other two” violin concertos are seldom played. The Scottish Fantasy gets frequent airings, but the Concerto No. 1 in G minor is a true warhorse of the repertoire.
This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Xian Zhang and violinist Maxim Vengerov, are performing that warhorse.
Here’s the thing, though: the most frequently performed pieces are usually played so often for a reason, and the Bruch is no exception. The opening to the first movement begins with a five-bar introduction in the winds, then the violin enters for a brief cadenza, beginning on the lowest note the violin can play, the open G string. This (by violin standards) growly opening is, if played with beautiful tone and thoughtful phrasing, thrilling. On Thursday evening, Vengerov delivered. That first phrase, which climbs more than two and a half octaves to its end, is marked in the score with the slightest decrescendo, but Vengerov allowed the phrase to die away to nothing. Perfection.
It was a remarkable beginning to what, in the aggregate, was a glorious performance. My only quibble about Vengerov’s playing is that in passages in which he was high up on the G string, he allowed his tone to get a little rough; a bit grainy. And there’s no need. Between the acoustics of the Meyerson, the fine qualities of Vengerov’s 1727 Stradivarius, and Vengerov’s own prodigious skills, he’s going to project. The rest of the time, his tone was silken and pure.
The orchestra, under conductor Xian Zhang, who is Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, mostly supported Vengerov well. The DSO never overbalanced him, despite overly large gestures from Zhang that implied far louder dynamics than the orchestra actually played. One DSO musician remarked that Zhang was quite clear in rehearsals about what she wanted, and that seemed to counterbalance any excesses on the podium.
After the Bruch, Vengerov wasn’t yet done. He treated DSO audiences to a piece that is linked to the Hungarian-influenced final movement of the Bruch: Ravel’s Tzigane. While the title of Ravel’s piece refers to the Roma people, it doesn’t directly quote any of their folk tunes, but is Hungarian in character. (And fun fact: the Bruch was written for acclaimed violinist Joseph Joachim; almost 60 years later, Ravel wrote Tzigane for Joachim’s great-niece, Jelly d’Arányi.)
Tzigane is less Impressionistic and more Romantic than much of Ravel’s music, and the structure of the piece is novel — it begins with an extended violin solo, and only after several minutes does the orchestra enter. Vengerov’s big, beautiful sound filled the hall, and once the orchestra entered, he absolutely took off. This is a virtuosic piece, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it played quite this fast. It’s an opportunity to show off technique and agility, and holy guacamole — Vengerov delivered.
But he wasn’t done yet. He played an encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita (the one that ends with the Chaconne). I frequently say that to know who a string player really is, I need to hear their Bach. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are canvases which musicians can embellish with their own colors, and each performance is as individual as its performer. This was a Romantic Bach, but a Bach for the 21st century. Vengerov chose moderate vibrato, as well as more nuanced dynamics and more rubato than we’re likely to hear in a Baroque performance practice recording or performance. And that’s just fine. In fact, with his extraordinary tone, it was pretty thrilling.
But that was just the first half.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6. This is not one of the composer’s better-known works, but listeners who are at all familiar with the composer will hear his distinctive harmonies throughout the piece. Also, Prokofiev’s writing is often, notoriously, difficult. This symphony was a true test for the orchestra, and they passed with the highest marks. The violas, with the addition of a new principal and three new section players, sounded excellent in an exposed soli passage in the first movement. In the third and final movement, the first violins have a devilishly difficult part, and their ensemble and pitch were top-notch. Matt Good on tuba, Erin Hannigan on oboe, David Buck on flute, and Gregory Raden on clarinet were just a few of the exemplary solos. There were a few entrances and cutoffs that were not quite together, but this was nonetheless a gripping performance of a piece that doubtless deserves more performances than it gets.