Press

23.01.2018

Review: Beethoven Violin Concerto/Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles

Beethoven Violin Concerto/Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles

Review: The Dallas Morning News
January 20, 2018

A guest conductor much respected by DSO musicians, the Scotsman Donald Runnicles, was on the podium Thursday night. He brought with him an unusual program, in an unusual order: two of the overtures Beethoven composed for his sole opera, originally called Leonore, later Fidelio, framing the composer’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. And he made an arresting case for everything.

Runnicles has impressive credentials in both opera houses and concert halls. He’s music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin but at the moment has no orchestra title more substantial than principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony.

Runnicles’ operatic experience certainly showed in vivid, dramatic performances of all four pieces. Indeed, it was a fairly operatic approach, shared by soloist Nicola Benedetti, that so refreshed the Violin Concerto.

It’s often played, as the late Michael Steinberg wrote, as “an elegant, gracious, playful and virtuosic work more than a ‘deep’ one.” But it hails from the same period as the opera, and Benedetti and Runnicles emphasized its contrasts among sweetly soaring, passingly turbulent and happily buoyant music. They gave it muscle when wanted, sublimity elsewhere. Benedetti played fabulously, with wholly sympathetic collaboration from Runnicles and company.

In the absence of a Beethoven cadenza for the piece, examples by Joseph Joachim and Jascha Heifetz are commonly played. But Beethoven did compose a cadenza when he transcribed the work as a piano concerto (almost never played), and that cadenza was the basis for one contrived by Benedetti and Petr Limonov. With its double-stop tremolos and (!) timpani punctuations, it was quite a surprise. Well, why not?

The Fidelio Overture and Leonore Overture No. 3 were played with all the flair that could be wished. And there was plenty of drama in the Sibelius, the last of the composer’s symphonies.

Twenty minutes long, in one continuous arc of slow, fast, slow, fast and slow sections, it obeys no classical form. Rather, it’s a matter of thematic evolution within rich string textures, with deft decorations by paired winds and stirring surges of brasses.

The luminous wash of those textures was particularly glorious in the clear but lush acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center. As elsewhere in the program, Runnicles sustained a thread of tension through what can seem a diffuse, even incoherent, work. He reminded us that a pianissimo can be as electric as a fortissimo.

It was a most enjoyable concert.

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