Malaysian pianist Tengku Irfan solos in Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the ASO , Robert Spano conducting. (credit: Nunnally Rawson)

Review: Bartók concerto sizzles, Brahms flows at ASO

Mark Gresham | 04 OCT 2019

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Wagner, Bartók and Brahms, led by ASO music director Robert Spano and featuring Malaysian-born pianist Tengku Irfan in his ASO debut. The program will be repeated on Saturday night at Symphony Hall.

As he did in the season opener, the main body of the concert began with music from the operas of Richard Wagner. This time is was the Preludes to Act I and Act III of Lohengrin, back to back at the top of the show. The Prelude (Vorspiel) to Act I of the opera, as indicated in the score, remains mostly quiet for the first 50 of its total 75 bars. Then it rises to a forte and fortissimo climax for all of seven before returning to its softer spiritual awe.

Spano made more of an arch of the entire, more convincingly building the music as it approached that large and noble moment two thirds of the way through. He gave a lot of attention to great contrast between the gossamer and the grand. Maybe too extreme on the gossamer side. “Audible” can be a virtue, even though the scoring of the opening 19 measures at those dynamics  – four solo violins plus the rest of the violins divided four ways, plus two flute an two oboes in just the first four bars – demands intent listening by a hushed audience, regardless. There were fewer such conundrums to consider with the Prelude (Einlietung) to Act III, which is straightforwardly celebratory and heroic.


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Tengku Irfan first drew Spano’s attention when he heard the young pianist perform a solo piano work by Elliott Carter from memory. Spano was impressed. The most recent occasion Spano had heard his past July at the Aspen Music Festival, again playing music by Carter – this time as pianist in that composer’s remarkable Double Concerto with harpsichordist Daniel Pesca and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Timothy Weiss. Carter’s music can be astoundingly difficult, due to its extremely complex, precisely notated rhythms and metrical modulations.

It is no wonder that while Irfan could have played an easier, more audience-comforting concerto like the Tchaikovsky No. 1 or the Ravel G major (both of which he has recently played with the Malaysian Philharmonic) that Spano and the ASO would book him to play one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the common repertoire: the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Bela Bartók (1931). That was well rewarded on Thursday night as Irfan gave it a sizzling performance, well complemented by Spano and the orchestra.

It’s not a piece that offers the long, slowly unfolding Romantic melodies, by any means, but it certainly is a showpiece for the pianist’s technique and rhythmic acumen. (One you can even bloody your hands with as a pianist.) The intensity doesn’t let up for the soloist, even in the slow sections of the middle movement.


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For the listener, another notable element in the first movement is an important motif (SO-FA-MI-SO-RE) that references the Finale of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Frankly, this performance often felt like Stravinsky from that period, whether it was Petruska or The Firebird that came to mind here or there. To some extent Bartók was paying homage to Stravinsky, but it was no mere emulation. Bartók’s own mature voice remains dominant.

After intermission, Spano and the orchestra turned to a perennial favorite, the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing a leaner, more “driven” approach to Brahms’ symphonies from the ASO over the years – perhaps a Robert Shaw influence on my ears with Brahms – but here we had a Symphony No. 1 that wasn’t as much forward-pushing. It was an approach that flowed; that gave lively shape to individual phrases in a noticeable way.

One can assuredly call Brahms a “Classical mind with Romantic temperament” and lean toward the former easily enough to obtain critically successful, even thrilling results. That’s my own mindset. But here was a little more singing in the phrases, a little more paced and less rushed. Perhaps in a way more joyous. Certainly Spano himself was radiating joy at the end, as he walked amid the orchestra, asking this member and that member to stand to receive applause, and finally the whole ensemble. One could say there is something recently on his mind when it comes to Brahms. And Wagner. Or any music. Maybe life. It shows in the first two programs of the season, but is hard to put a finger on.

Perhaps it is a certain sense of personal musical freedom, becoming even more himself as he enters his penultimate season with the ASO. Perhaps this will be a season of new insight and fresh self-discovery for him. That’s all to the good for Spano, and likely something each of us could use as well. ■

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