Dallas Symphony Orchestra fans have come to expect an extremely high caliber of playing from their home band. Surely, though, impeccable performances aren’t all they hope for. On Saturday evening, the DSO were – all but momentarily – in their usual excellent form, playing a program of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; seven songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, featuring baritone Matthias Goerne; and Brahms’ monumental Symphony no. 4. And yet something was missing. Mr Goerne rescued the evening from complete aimlessness; in the Britten and Brahms, everything aside from a few big endings sounded like an afterthought.

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913, but why, when there are only thousands of hours of other suitable concert repertoire out there, should that simple fact stop anyone from observing his centennial in 2014? (To be fair, the DSO did perform Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem in early November of last year, and yes, the present concert is in the same season.) The lackluster interpretation on Saturday evening, as well as some lapses in intonation and coordination, made this feel like a token nod to Britten. One exception was the marvelous ending of “Sunday Morning”, the second of the set, when a sudden diminuendo stripped away all but the core of the orchestral sound; the chord that remained in the winds and brass was haunting, eerily reminiscent of ships’ horns ringing hollow in the pre-tempest air. The rest of the time, though, I sensed Maestro Jaap van Zweden and his players weren’t quite sure what angle to take with this music.

While the Britten Sea Interludes are, at least when taken out of context, lighter fare, the uneven artistic commitment to a work like Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was puzzling. The DSO’s was a performance many orchestras would be proud of from a technical standpoint, but it lacked weight, warmth, and clarity. This last issue was uncharacteristic for Mr van Zweden and the DSO, as I’ve found their renderings of the Romantic repertoire to be sinewy and intellectualized to a fault. But the first movement of the Brahms did in fact suffer from being oversaturated with notes, in a way that did nothing to increase dramatic tension. Distinctive Brahmsian touches such as his signature three-against-two rhythms were played metronomically, their grounded insistence nowhere to be heard. After a lovely Andante moderato, the scherzo and concluding chaconne were subjected to an interpretive scheme that didn’t quite work: each movement was begun almost unassumingly, as if to save room dynamically for a big climax. This conceit proved too clever for its own good, with the result being that the scherzo especially sounded quite matter-of-fact. On the bright side, the wind solos in the last movement, particularly by principal flutist Demarre McGill, were arrestingly beautiful.

Perhaps it was a coincidence – more likely, the success of the Mahler had more to do with Mr Goerne than anything else – but the lack of complete emotional commitment in either the Brahms or Britten was in a way the perfect fit for the irony and ambiguity of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mr Goerne treated innocent love songs such as “Rheinlegendchen” almost like soliloquies, as a boy might hum to himself in a daydream. And in the more profound “Das irdische Leben” and “Revelge”, Mr Goerne transformed bravado and bluster in their initial stanzas into something more deeply upsetting by the songs’ conclusions. Similarly powerful was the come-down from panic to morbid resignation in “Der Tamboursg’sell”, which found Mr van Zweden at his most imaginative in conjuring an orchestral fever-dream around Mr Goerne’s dramatic persona. And, despite an inexplicable miscue within the orchestra, by its end “Urlicht” alone had made the evening worth it.

I’ve rarely, if ever, left a DSO concert with solely negative impressions, and Saturday was no exception. The orchestra was wise to bring Mr Goerne back just less than two years after his DSO debut, and the other works had their moments as well. A big ending to the Brahms symphony capped off this concert more than two hours after it began, but while so much music was heard, not enough was ultimately said.

***11