On a chilly Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert led by music director Robert Spano with Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen as guest soloist. The ASO will offer an early-evening, shortened version of the program as a “Casual Fridays” concert tonight at 6:30 p.m. The complete program, as heard on Thursday, will be performed again on Saturday at 8 p.m. Both will take place at Symphony Hall.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4. This was Pohjonen’s third appearance as soloist with the ASO, though only his second as part of a subscription concert at Symphony Hall. In July 2009, Pohjonen made his ASO debut at the Verizon Wireless Ampitheatre, the expansive outdoor venue in Alpharetta, with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as part of an all-Beethoven program led by guest conductor Hugh Wolff. Pohjonen returned in January 2013 for a subscription series performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, conducted by Spano.
Granted that Beethoven is a far cry from Prokofiev in compositional style, but just as with his previous ASO appearance, Pohjonen’s performance was crisp and clear, unflappable, confident in execution. While its opening five bars of solo piano quietly invoke a song-like mood for the orchestra’s entry, overall, the solo part is filled with florid figuration that demand dexterity. It is the most lyrical of all of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, and is a staple of the repertoire.
Spano and the ASO deftly underscored Pohjonen’s playing, in a way that was passionate but not overbearing. Together they seemed to balance the classical and emerging romantic aspects of this middle-period work, allowing the effervescent runs of Pohjonen’s piano parts, ranging the keyboard’s gamut, to stand out and sparkle effortlessly without undue force.
Pohjonen returned to the stage for an encore with equal floridness, if at a more modest scale: “Sommerfugl” (“Butterfly”) — the first of Edvard Grieg’s four Lyric Pieces, Book III (Op. 43) for solo piano.
For the second half of the program, Spano and the ASO offered up an inspiring, if at times less than perfect, performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It is the most immediately accessible of Mahler’s symphonies. Yet, given how much Mahler’s music is now seen as a late-Romantic harbinger of the coming modern era, it is a striking thought that this work had its premiere only four years after Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. Mahler would come to make multiple major revisions to this symphony over the next half-dozen years before it took its final form.
The symphony opens slowly, with an eerie, gossamer “A” played as harmonics in the strings, barely heard, except for the lowest third of the contrabasses — simply because they play the lowest “A” available on the instrument, so a harmonic is not possible. Fans of popular culture may sense evocation to the opening of the Star Trek theme, but that is only a momentary mental spookiness, as the music immediately moves in a different direction, with fanfares in the distance.
The second movement, a scherzo in the manner of a ländler, a popular folk-dance in German lands, takes the momentum of the piece forward. The third movement, perhaps the work’s most famous, is a funeral march based on the round “Bruder Martin” (“Frère Jacques”) in a minor key — something actually not of Mahler’s innovation but the way the tune was commonly sung in Austria at the time. Mahler brings into the mix a small Bohemian wind band, recalling imagery of the folkloric “Hunter’s Funeral” where such a band accompanies a procession of animals bearing the hunter’s body to its grave.
It was, however, the stormily agitated final movement which clinched the deal, giving the audience a darkly roiling, energized ride in F minor before climaxing in a full-bodied, triumphant D major. Despite a few pockmarks along the way, the hour-long work proved a fine sonic adventure. Whether one preferred the Beethoven concerto or the Mahler symphony is likely a matter of individual temperament, but together they made for a rather well-balanced program.