Hans Graf returned as guest conductor to Detroit for a unique program of Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. Graf is a very fine musician, but his previous trips to Detroit have had mixed results. This evening was capped by a tremendous and wholly convincing performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, but the rest of the program was decidedly less inspired.

The Prokofiev Classical Symphony is a minor masterpiece, one which requires a talented hand to find the contrasts in the work, especially in the outer movements. Graf managed to make each movement of the work sound sufficiently different, and chose sensible tempos throughout. Woodwind playing is a clear strength in Detroit, so it is unfortunate that Graf did not always permit them to cut through the textures effectively. On the other hand, the conductor was able to obtain excellent results from the strings, which was true of the entire program. Graf also deserves credit for finding more depth in the opening movement than most, with some genuine tension found in the outer movements. All that being said, there were moments where the generally moderate tempos and somewhat cautious approach did not pay off; the work ideally needs some more playfulness and youthful spirit.

The Mendelssohn suffered from this same lack of lightness and joy. Ingrid Fliter has the technical ability to play anything, but occasionally lacks expressive qualities. Fliter made lovely sounds below mezzo forte, but tended to bang out notes in the outer movements. Although Graf conducted with a keen ear for sectional balance, he conjured a darker and grimmer orchestral framework than this work can generally take. The opening movement probably suffered most from this approach, with insufficient dynamic contrast from both soloist and conductor. On the other hand, the slow movement was easily the finest. Here, Fliter was able to show off her considerable skills with a welcome degree of nuance.

The whole of the program was redeemed by a great account of the Beethoven, an interpretation that upped the emotional ante from start to finish. An old-fashioned and full-bodied account of the opening movement showcased the great strength of this performance, namely outstanding clarity in the lower half of the orchestra. Also noteworthy was the wind playing, which did cut through to thrilling effect. Graf was in total command throughout. A terrific slow movement led to two magnificent concluding ones. Graf even managed to corral Detroit’s brass players to produce some beautifully burnished tones. There was one flub, but the overall sense of occasion was unquestionable and the Finale was unfailingly exciting. Graf refused to let the movement spin out of control, while allowing the strings to shine. Given how traditional his opening movement was, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more power the rest of the work unleashed. Only the closing pages lacked the grinding low strings that I expected, and I suspect fatigue was to blame, considering how powerfully they had projected earlier. I cannot pretend this was a great concert overall, as the first half was decidedly uneven. But the Beethoven ranks as one of the greatest live performances I have yet witnessed, and showed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its best shape in quite some time.