Pianist Pedja Mužijevič performing Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 2" with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (video frame / ASO)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs well-conceived program of contrasting works

April 22, 2021

Robert Spano, conductor
Pedja Mužijevič, piano
WALKER: Lyric for Strings
CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-minor op.31
SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphony in C-minor op.110a

Giorgio Koukl | 23 APR 2021

On Thursday the 22nd April. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano and with piano soloist Pedja Mužijevič offered a very well conceived program with works from George Walker (1922-2018) Lyric for Strings, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) second piano concerto in F-minor op.31 and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Chamber Symphony in C-minor op.110a.

As this was my first encounter with a live-streamed concert of ASO, the expectations were very high. Indeed this is a world-class orchestra with its distinctive sound, a thing not so common nowadays where the identities of particular orchestral sound tend to be quite similar. But this will be treated later on.

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First of all the video stream. Finally, after so many lock-down products, watching surely well motivated but amateurish attempts to produce a video, this was finally a relief: fully professional and extremely well made. Flawless and stable images, very well chosen solutions, particularly spectacular moments like the opening of Shostakovich with quite dark scene and only three dots of red light, all this surely a result of work of a highly professional team. Some minor issues like not centering the group of instruments playing exactly in the moment of shooting can be easily forgiven.

The precise gesture of conductor Robert Spano was extremely well received and followed by the orchestra. In the slow movements, where pizzicati have to be placed in exactly the right moment, there was not a single moment of hesitation, a tricky task and a real nightmare of every orchestra.

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But even considered the augmented distance between the players, due to the covid measures, all flowed with great dignity and grace. There is a special quality of the string sound, slightly nasal but coherent throughout the time, which seemed to me a quite unique quality of this orchestra and well distinguishable. Some orchestras have a certain particular timbre, usually it is immediately possible to recognize let’s say Vienna, Berlin or La Scala orchestras. Well, the ASO can display such a quality which can be obtained only by long and hard work through time. Certainly this should be a motive of great pride.

The composition of George Walker shares a common destiny with the work of Shostakovich. Both were born as a string quartet and only later transformed in a piece for string ensemble. Being both played inside the same program is certainly a difficult position for Walker. Competing with one of the best ever works of the 20th century is not an easy task. Nevertheless Walker’s music came out with dignity and elegance.

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Robert Spano has chosen a quite unsentimental approach, probably rightly so, as it is far too easy to slip into a sweet, artificial and insincere rendering with these sorts of slow melodies. Knowing the five piano sonatas of Walker and their far more daring harmonies it is somehow a pity to represent the composer with this certainly public pleasing work but which lacks the originality and power he usually possesses.

A short presentation of the Bosnian pianist Pedja Mužijevič preceded his Chopin concerto performance. Here the string section of the ASO was completed by the other musicians and so I had the possibility to listen to their specific qualities. They were good, very good indeed! Europe can usually only dream of players like this with perfect intonation and homogeneous sound. A special mention must be made of oboist Zachary Boeding who delivered a marvelous if brief theme in the first, introductory part of the Chopin concerto with breathtaking musicality. [Ed. note: Top of page five in the full score, Breitkopf.]

ASO music director Robert Spano. (video frame / ASO)

ASO music director Robert Spano. (video frame / ASO)

That Robert Spano is a great conductor to play with as a soloist I already knew from previous recordings. But following his precise gesture in a livestreamed performance was a real pleasure. Here again the choice has been made to avoid an overload of sentimentalism with a very convincing result.

The soloist Pedja Mužijevič has a great and very clean technique, complete command of the expression and a big array of different touch techniques. He was also blessed by a presence of one of the best Steinways I ever heard until now. The ease with which Mr. Mužijevič delivered the scintillating and brilliant cascades of notes in the right hand has in its nature something irritating. Especially in the slow movement these notes resulted perfect but empty, without any emotive load. Just glittering but cool. The overall mixture of piano and orchestra as well as the single orchestral sections were perfectly captured, maybe with a small exception of timpani, a little too distant.

Pianist Pedja Mužijevič performing Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 2" with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (video frame / ASO)

Pianist Pedja Mužijevič performing Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (video frame / ASO)

It is well known fact that Chopin was not at all familiar with orchestration. Many times the task of making a better rearrangement was made, until now as far as I know without success. Anyway under the baton of Mr. Spano the ASO succeeded to let this fact rather disappear for the listener.

The last piece of the program was certainly the highlight of the evening. Dmitri Shostakovich and his string quartet rearranged for a string orchestra, now under the name of Symphony number 10. Surely one of the most important pages of the 20th century it represents a sort of testament citing many previous works of the Russian master and intended to be his last piece before committing suicide.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (credit: Deutsche Fotothek)

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950 (credit: Deutsche Fotothek)

Written in 1960 in East Germany where the composer was sent by the Communist Party to write a film score for just an another propaganda film and, as some scholars suppose, also to distract the poor Shostakovich who suffered clearly of profound depression. This was cause by a multi-layered events in his life, first of all by the fact that he was forced to become member of the Communist Party which Shostakovich hated equally as he hated himself not to be able to say a clear no and face the consequences. Secondarily the mourning of his first wife and a recent divorce of his second wife certainly contributed to his miserable state of mind. The three raps clearly heard throughout the pieces were an eloquent description of a reminiscence of the KGB secret police knocking during the night on his door in order to arrest him. This dramatic experience transformed the whole piece in a terrible outcry of sadness and fear.

Luckily the composer resisted to the suicidal ideas.

Having well in mind the extraordinary rendering of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, in my eyes still the reference recording, Robert Spano and ASO delivered a very convincing version, maybe sometimes lacking a little more aggresiveness in sound and “ugly” scratches which could certainly add more dramatic qualities to the work.

The overall impression of this evening is a very positive one. This orchestra can afford to play practically every repertoire existing without fear. I would love to hear them in a real 20th century firework of virtuosity. They would be certainly great in it. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the complete solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.