The Dallas Symphony turned in another excellent performance on Thursday evening under the increasingly fine ministrations of Musical Director Jaap van Zweden.
This time, the showpiece on the program was a highly nuanced reading of Debussy’s La Mer that was splashed with orchestral color. Although pairing this pinnacle of impressionism with some Wagner seemed odd when looking at the program, like a sausage soufflé, van Zweden’s choices (Siegfried Idyll and The Good Friday Spell from Parsifal) are revealed by his reading to be relatively impressionistic themselves. Thus, the combination worked quite well. And like a string of luminescent pearls that will go with anything, the Mozart piano concerto (D minor K. 466) that filled out the program wouldn’t be out of place on any program, no matter how diverse.
Both Wagner selections were inspiring, although Van Zweden took a different approach to both of them. His Siegfried Idyll was tightly controlled and minimalist in concept. The original version was for just one on a part for the strings and, even though van Zweden used a cut down string section, he kept the intimate chamber music feel of Wagner’s music. No purple Tristan-styled swells here.
The Parsifal Good Friday music is the only performable excerpt from the opera, so it is all that most concertgoers know of it. The Christian influenced opera, which is really more of a pageant, could (by Wagner’s decree) only be presented at this home theater at Bayreuth for the first 20 years of its existence and it is still rarely produced elsewhere. Thus, Wagnerites are grateful for this selection. Van Zweden approached it reverently, lovingly shaping every phrase, but took a more expansive approach than in the Idyll. . His newfound flexibility in his baton technique serves him well in delivering a modest, but stunning, reading of Wagner’s glowing music.
Debussy’s La Mer is a kaleidoscope of orchestral color that requires a virtuoso orchestra and a conductor that knows how to conduct from 40,000 feet while still paying close attention to every single note. This, van Zweden accomplished. He is able to string together all the shiny bits and flashes, swells and hushed eddies, of Debussy’s sprawling canvas. This is a piece that needs to be heard live and with a DSO in top form, the magnificent acoustics in the Meyerson Symphony Center, and a conductor who knows how to balance a large orchestra, you could not do much better than what happened on Thursday evening.
The last time the young French pianist, David Fray, appeared with the DSO playing Mozart, he seemed restrained and a little bland. You can read my take here. Not so this time. His reading of the Mozart piano concerto was full of life and contrasts. You could almost imagine that this might by the young Mozart himself, full of confidence, showing off a little, and bubbling over with the joy of playing his own music.
Fray, born in 1981, looks much younger than his biological age and he brings that youthful vigor to his playing. He is like a spirited racehorse that the jockey, in this case van Zweden, has to keep from running full out before the sprint is needed. It gives his performance an exuberance that is contagious.
Fray has often been compared the deceased Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. There is a faint physical resemblance but this is mostly because of his crouch over the keyboard and his playful attitude. I am told that there are even some Gould eccentricities present at rehearsals, such as humming along and conducting himself whenever he has a free hand. He brings a lot more warmth and humanity to his playing than the clinical Gould, but he is blessed with the same nimble fingers and amazing accuracy.
Stylistically, he is right on the button with his Mozart. Van Zweden is also in an 18th century mood and so is a pared-down DSO. Even the stuffy original instrument crowd would find little to fault with this performance. The only downside, and this is really just a quibble, is that Fray could jettison the overly dramatic releases at the end of phrases. Throwing his hands in the air with a toss of his poet-inspired locks, it looks like he is playing Rachmaninoff. This brings up a point. It would be interesting to hear him play something other than Mozart to see how he would work on a larger canvas.
One last comment. Fray played two cadenzas that were unfamiliar but quite striking. No cadenza by Mozart exists so it is fair game to play anything. Mozart, of course, improvised one on the spot. The cadenza for the first movement is by the Swiss pianist, conductor and pedagogue, Edwin Fischer. In the 1930s, he was one of the first musicians to try to recreate the musical performance practices of the Classical and Baroque periods. This cadenza is a marvel of modern sensibilities and classical reserve. The other, for the last movement, was Fray’s own fusion of two cadenzas. One is by the Rumanian pianist Clara Haskil, who was a contemporary of Fischer. The other is a cadenza by legendary pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who dazzled local audiences last summer at the Piano Texas International Festival. While this cadenza started out with some shockingly overplayed notes, its overall effect is to throw open the windows and bring some contemporary air into Mozart’s more refined parlor.