Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Vasily Petrenko and pianist Kirill Gerstein, offered up a mixture of early- and middle-20th-century works that appealed well to a mainstream symphonic audience. Works by Edward Elgar and Sergei Rachmaninoff represented the aesthetic sentiments of the first decade of that century, while Dmitri Shostakovich exemplified a conservative brand of modernism from the late 1950s.
Elgar’s 1901 overture “Cockaigne (In London Town)” raised the curtain. The piece is an optimistic and joyfully affectionate tribute to the city of London, and it became one of the composer’s most popular works.
Petrenko, the chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who previously appeared with the ASO in April 2010, led the overture in a sprightly, detailed performance. It avoided the stodgy stuffiness too often imposed upon late-Victorian and early-Edwardian music, though British propriety and pomp in their sunnier incarnations were hardly denied their say either.
Anyone even modestly familiar with the music of Shostakovich could easily guess the composer in a game of “drop the needle” upon hearing his Piano Concerto No. 2. It was written in 1957 for the 19th birthday of the Russian composer’s son, Maxim, who played it for his auditions to enter study at Moscow Conservatory. The Atlanta Symphony’s only previous performance of the piece was in 1983, with Maxim Shostakovich himself as conductor and his own son, Dmitri Jr., as piano soloist.
Although some feel that the Piano Concerto No. 2 is an atypically sunny piece for the composer, overall it has huge affinities in disposition and musical gestures with Shostakovich’s popular Symphony No. 5, composed 20 years before, particularly in the concerto’s outer movements.
The first movement, an exuberant Allegro, opens with jaunty woodwinds and a simple piano tune in octaves, then takes off at a gallop with the full orchestra, in signature Shostakovich manner. For the middle movement, Shostakovich eschews a typical slow Adagio in favor of a remarkably lyrical Andante that, frankly, immediately impresses one as a fine score for a lush, romantic movie — and lo and behold, it was used in director Robert Salis’ 2004 film “Grande Ecole.” Likewise, the first movement found its way into the score of “Fantasia 2000.”
The piano concerto’s closing Allegro movement is a rollicking dance that takes off in a duple-meter, then adds some syncopated bounce in 7/8 meter, with the rhythmic drive entirely relentless to the end.
Guest pianist Gerstein, a professor of piano at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, Germany, and one of the most renowned younger pianists, was a good match with Petrenko in this concerto. It was a confident, extroverted performance by both orchestra and soloist. Gerstein’s crisp, incisive playing captured the outwardly exuberant spirit of the composer’s own 1958 recording of the piece as pianist with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française.
The concert concluded with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1907. Because of its length, the piece has at times been subjected to severe cuts, a practice that was especially prevalent in the mid-20th century. Thursday’s ASO performance made no cuts in the hour-long symphony.
A remarkably long Largo introduction establishes a melodic motif that is used and developed throughout. Then an Allegro moderato proper proceeds in sonata form, with a somewhat abbreviated coda. A scherzo in duple-meter, marked Allegro molto, further develops the motif, also incorporating the Gregorian “Dies irae” chant in the brass. The Adagio third movement is perhaps the best known, familiar as the theme music for the syndicated radio program “Music Through the Night.” In the Russian symphonic manner of the time, the fourth and final movement thematically summarizes the first three.
Petrenko and the orchestra gave the Rachmaninoff the broad, sweeping interpretation it deserved. As in recent concerts, the ASO brass got a fine, muscular workout. Of particular note among the finely played solo wind passages was the significant reverie in the third movement played by principal clarinetist Laura Ardan, recalling moments of the first movement while further evolving the work’s ever-developing melodic motto.
The concert will be performed again Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in Symphony Hall.