Pianist plays with power

“What a lively concert! No one was dozing.” That comment, overheard at the intermission, pretty much sums up Thursday’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The first half featured two pieces with radically different political pedigrees.

The centerpiece was Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s 1936 Piano Concerto. While other Soviet composers suffered greatly during the great purge, Khachaturian wrote music Josef Stalin’s censors liked, and he was programmed widely behind the Iron Curtain. This concerto, Khachaturian first success, is mostly forgotten today. But occasionally, a pianist comes along to champion it.

The latest is French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and it’s easy to see why the piece attracts him. Theatrical and wildly overwritten, it showcases Thibaudet’s formidable assets: his dazzling technical prowess in the rapid-fire passages, his muscular power during the work’s more boisterous moments and his ability to switch gears for the more thoughtful moments.

The last movement was taken at such breakneck speed that things threatened to get out of sync. Few probably noticed, as all ears were focused on the thrilling pyrotechnic display.

Conductor Robert Spano made no effort to coddle Thibaudet, as the orchestra thundered and crashed through the exchanges.

But the work, which requires the soloist to play almost nonstop, was Thibaudet’s moment. Perhaps his talents could be better put to work on weightier material, but it seems petty to deny him a chance to show off. He played without a score.

The concerto was preceded by Jean Sibelius’ tone poem “Finlandia.” Written in 1899 as Russia was beginning to clamp down on Finland, it is a stirring nationalistic plea for solidarity against oppression. It was the perfect foil for the Khachaturian work. Both pieces used folk material, but only “Finlandia” soared to make a genuine point. Spano gave it every bit of operatic intensity he could find.

The concert concluded with Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 1,” written just before “Finlandia,” but quite different in style. It is a work of great extremes, often quite dramatic and bold, that grabs you and takes you on a Nordic roller-coaster ride. The plaintive clarinet solo that opens the work was expressively performed by Laura Ardan. Then, as the main allegro energico theme arrived in the brass, we felt the power of the whole orchestra.

Standing ovations have become an automatic ritual at Atlanta concerts, robbing them of meaning (like giving all students A’s). Still, at this concert the ovations seemed more spontaneous and enthusiastic than usual.

ASO in concert :

8 tonight. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4800, www.atlantasymphony .org.