Two Viennese masters, Beethoven and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, shared the stage in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend. Maestro Jaap van Zweden conducted Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3 and Symphony no. 5 in C minor, and in between these was joined by violinist Hilary Hahn for Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major.

Although neither was born in Vienna, Beethoven and Korngold share an association with the city, with the former having lived there from his early twenties onward and the latter poised to do the same until the outbreak of World War II led him to leave the Continent. Beethoven wrote the most seminal music of what came to be known as the First Viennese School of composers (the other members being Haydn and Mozart); his influence on Central European composers for at least a century after his death was inescapable. By contrast, Korngold has not retained the wide renown he achieved during his lifetime – his legacy rests mostly on his prolific work scoring films – but his concert music, which includes six operas and concerti for cello, violin, and piano (left hand only), makes for interesting listening. Born roughly eight weeks after the death of Brahms, Korngold grew up during a rather different golden age in Vienna; Mahler was at the height of his fame, and Richard Strauss was in the middle of a long, illustrious career.

The first half of this program featured a sort of role-reversal: Beethoven, champion of abstract music, had finally found a topic he deemed suitably serious on which to base an opera, and churned out several different overtures before he was satisfied (three dubbed “Leonore” as well as the Fidelio Overture, as we call them today); and Korngold, master of a relatively new medium, returned to writing “serious” music, inspired to finish his sketched-out violin concerto at the urging of Jascha Heifetz. But even at his most theatrical, Beethoven wrote unfailingly taut, severe works, his imposing personality always matched, if not quite bridled, by constraints of logic and form. Korngold, on the other hand, could write effective works with no screen to accompany, but they maintain the Strauss-meets-Errol-Flynn ebullience of his film music.

On Sunday afternoon, the Beethoven works were given full-throttle readings, and the Korngold sounded simultaneously detailed yet carefree. This was, along with a scintillating Pines of Rome back in September, the most brilliant playing I’ve heard from the DSO this season, and Ms Hahn stood out as one of the best out of the uniformly phenomenal soloists who’ve come to town recently. Mr van Zweden performs Beethoven in streamlined, fiery interpretations, and brought forth an iconoclastic heroism in both the overture and the symphony. Generally speaking, immaculate care was taken with dynamics, although the coda of the overture (marked “Presto”) should begin pianissimo, as the previous section ended, but today it was played at a healthy mezzo-forte. Thus a suspenseful and magical transition was sacrificed, it seemed, in order to show off the orchestra’s technical polish, although it’s possible there is a good reason to read it the way Mr van Zweden did. The Fifth Symphony opened with impetuousness instead of the breadth and weight typically heard, a convincing choice since the famous four-note motive is really the germ of a symphony and not a grand pronouncement; it is the moment before the Big Bang, and not the actual eruption of the universe into being. At many other places, and especially in the Scherzo, this forward drive seemed to be externally imposed on the music; I left the concert wishing Mr van Zweden would occasionally take artistic risks other than merely pushing the orchestra (and Beethoven) to breakneck speeds.

Ms Hahn’s implacable technique, massive yet easy sound, and cool stage demeanor lent themselves well to the Korngold Violin Concerto. She was doggedly attentive to the music’s twists and turns, integrating cadenza-like outbursts into the fabric of the piece, and making each note and harmony speak with the relevance needed to make this concerto come alive. The undulating, kaleidoscopic accompaniment provided by the DSO helped bring to all climaxes and resolutions a sense of proportion, essential in such a meandering work. Perhaps Ms Hahn could have chosen simplicity as a guiding element in certain places, but then again, it’s hard to argue with a performance as good as hers.

****1