The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concerts this week are an under-the-radar hit. A quick gander at the program suggested a dinner of nothing but sweet potatoes: one long and overperformed concerto, one long and underperformed symphony, two solid hours of Tchaikovsky.
But conductor Vasily Petrenko, a boyish-faced Russian in his early 30s, is the real thing: a comprehensive interpreter with a stick technique that gets the orchestra to play as a tight, disciplined unit. He brought what’s become his calling card: Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony, for which he won Gramophone magazine’s Best Orchestral Recording award with Liverpool’s Royal Philharmonic (on the Naxos label). It was his ASO debut.
Whereas Tchaikovsky’s late, numbered symphonies — his Nos. 4, 5 and 6 — are played by the ASO every season, sometimes all three in a season, “Manfred” was last heard in Symphony Hall in 1995. It’s really a narrative tone poem, based on Byron, stretched to fit the frame of a 50-minute, four-movement symphony. And although it was composed between Nos. 4 and 5, at the height of the composer’s creativity, it lacks the brilliant tunes and wrenching emotional surges that keep those numbered symphonies at the core of the literature.
At least that’s been the rap on “Manfred.” Petrenko sees the thing as a masterpiece, and he had us believing it, too. He offered his own logic to the score, which might be called dry-eyed Romanticism: not especially plush or sentimental but concentrated and detailed. In the second movement, a 10-minute gem that could almost stand on its own, he judged the scurrying fairy bits and tender, flowing melody beautifully, and gave the whole thing a compelling shape, with the tick-tock of the clock at the end. More than most mature Tchaikovsky works, the “Manfred” is performer-dependent to bring out its potential, which the ASO realized.
In the concert’s opening half, Petrenko and the orchestra had fine rapport with Irish pianist Barry Douglas for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, although much of the playing was fast, loud and muscular — in a word, conventional. Douglas won Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1986 and was among the last to gain a substantial career based on the gold-standard associations of his gold medal. (Van Cliburn, who won the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958, became a symbol of Cold War tensions and the possibility of cultural rapprochement through the arts. It was a good thing: his celebrity was as much political and cultural as musical.) Today the proliferation of competitions, and the machine-tooled musicianship of too many of these winners, has greatly devalued the whole competition-to-fame scheme.
Perhaps to squeeze the most juice from the Tchaikovsky concerto, Douglas played the ASO’s New York Steinway, an instrument that’s not heard as often in Symphony Hall as the orchestra’s other concert-quality instrument, a Hamburg Steinway. At intermission, a pianophile in the audience astutely summarized the situation: “You have to bang the shit out of that New York Steinway to get any sound, but at least it’s got a good heavy bass. The Hamburg is more lyrical, but you’d never hear it over the orchestra in this concerto.”
Douglas played said concerto with impressive authority and grandeur. He seemed to know all its secrets. This had a downside: he wasn’t making the old chestnut sound fresh. Perhaps to be expected, no one in the entire audience clapped after the bravura first movement, in strict conformity to the No Applause Rule. (We might expect the whole thing to brighten up for performances tonight and Saturday.) But go for Petrenko’s “Manfred,” a revelatory experience.