Review: ASO performs breathtaking all-Russian concert

What a difference 60 years makes.

In an all-Russian program Thursday night, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented two completely different works from countrymen Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The compositions, separated by more than six decades, showcased the 20th-century progression of Russian classical music. Shostakovich’s pared-down Symphony No. 14, a quasi-chamber work written in 1969 that utilizes only a small portion of the orchestra, is neo-classicism at its best. Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff — a piece written in 1901 and performed Thursday night with awe-inspiring technical prowess by pianist Simon Trpčeski – is rooted in romanticism. In the hands of music director Robert Spano, both pieces sounded like seminal, and somewhat subversive, pieces of music.

Shostakovich’s symphony is an unusual work. Presented as 11 poems, which were sung by bass Morris Robinson and the thrilling soprano Tatiana Monogarova, the dark, foreboding work feels more like an oratorio or a group of songs that explore themes of death and love. The symphony is one of the major works scheduled this year for Robinson, the ASO’s 2015-2016 artist in residence; he blended beautifully with Monogarova during duet and recitative passages, and ably handled himself during solos, but the soprano was the clear highlight of the performance. The text, which is translated to Russian, collects haunting poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Guillaume Apollinaire and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker. With her engaging stage presence and rich, colorful voice, Monogarova infused the poems with appropriate dramatic weight.

Spano created larger movements by grouping the individual poems, directing the scaled-back chamber orchestra of strings and percussion with care and precision. The soloists were supported by music that was in places thorny and almost folklike; the music could be driving, the sharp edges of the string writing propelling the singers forward, or smooth and crystalline. The accompaniment is sparse, and many times only a single instrument — Daniel Laufer’s warm, inviting cello or concertmaster David Coucheron’s burning violin — is left to support the two singers.

During the Rachmaninoff, Trpčeski, a master technician, gave each note a shimmering musicality. From the first timid, slowly unfurling chords to the final triumphant phrases, the pianist worked hard to highlight Rachmaninoff’s writing. While it is a showpiece full of bubbly piano runs and acrobatic playing, it’s important that a pianist keep the music, and not his ego, front and center. Trpčeski performed without any hints of florid theatricality, eschewing self-serving and showy playing; the pianist’s acute sense of dynamics and careful attention to melody perfectly matched the orchestra’s accompaniment. At times, though, the overly loud orchestra rendered the piano nearly mute. On the whole, the full, powerful orchestra elevated Rachmaninoff’s beautiful ensemble writing and helped Trpčeski create a breathtaking performance.

After a few rounds of exuberant applause from the audience, Trpčeski returned to the piano for a breezy, light encore performance of the playful “Three Waltzes” by Frederic Chopin. The bite-sized composition showed the pianist in a different light and let the night’s brightest star shine for just a moment longer. The victory lap was well deserved.

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