Notwithstanding ongoing worrisome Covid statistics in the United States, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is still holding live concerts, albeit with diminished orchestras and audiences. For their last concert, they invited an impressive pair of guest artists, iconic French pianist Hélène Grimaud and 18th-century music expert conductor Nicholas McGegan, to perform a programme of two masterpieces – unusually, both in a minor key – by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Hélène Grimaud plays Mozart
© Dallas Symphony

There are many ways a streamed concert can be presented. On this occasion, after a brief pre-recorded welcome message by one of the orchestral members, the next thing we saw was conductor and soloist walking onto the stage. A few seconds of visual introduction, for example by panning the hall, the orchestra and the audience, to establish the atmosphere would have been useful.

Grimaud was the soloist in the Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, K466. She played on a massive Steinway piano, a questionable decision, as a smaller instrument would have better suited the delicacy of Mozart. This is a work Grimaud recorded not long ago, and she played it here with impeccable technique and concentration. Her phenomenally strong, yet nimble fingers moved with an assertive energy that seems to be her trademark, recognisable from her various recordings. While the phrasing of the musical lines was elegant and appealing in the first movement, at times the crispness of her unique technique produced sections of sound (occasionally lasting for several bars), where all notes seemed to have the same strength and volume, creating a sense of relentless intensity, as they drove the melody to the next cadential point.

In a recent interview, Grimaud opined that for her, this concerto represents “confrontations with fate or destiny” and few would contest that claim. However, at least to my ears, her artistic concept often resulted in solidly built blocks of sounds, rather than finely calibrated balance between the notes of a chord or a fast passage. In the slow movement, however, there was a welcome feeling of musical expression through a freer use of time. A sense of austerity returned to the middle section, executed well but with less passion than often heard in other performances. McGegan, conducting without a baton, mostly relied on the orchestra’s excellent playing and his musical direction seldom went beyond providing pulse. The accompaniment was therefore reliable, offering a sound cushion around the soloist’s playing.

Nicholas McGegan conducts the Dallas Symphony
© Dallas Symphony

This all changed in the second item on the programme. Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K550 is always a test of chemistry between conductor and orchestra. This is one of the most emotional symphonies of the Master, one of only two symphonies in a minor key, a composition that could easily make the listener teary, or occasionally, to break into a smile. The difficulty with such a popular work is that, while Mozart’s melodies conquer every time, only a distinctive interpretation will make them memorable. The possibilities for such an interpretation are many, as they could include slight changes of the familiar tempi, bringing out melodies that other conductors rarely emphasise, phrasing the well-known musical lines in a different way and so on.

McGegan’s interpretation did not appear to seek to override existing traditions. With some swinging on his toes and parallel movements of his hands, he led a tidy and risk-free, albeit a rather bland performance. Tempi, melodic gestures and dynamics were all well executed, without much sense of the musical turmoils of this dark composition. There was hardly ever a noticeable joy welcoming the cathartic return of the home key towards the end of a movement. The marvel of those astonishing few bars in the last movement, right after the repeat sign, where Mozart lines up eleven of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a row – promising new directions of composition by Arnold Schoenberg and others, more than a century ahead of its time – seemed to be overlooked altogether.

In our times of the pandemic, listening to a concert with masterworks provides an invaluable chance to escape the tragic realities of life for a few hours. Mozart always conquers, yes. Even when the chances prompted by his music for many tears and a few smiles are let go.

This performance was reviewed by the DG Stage video stream