Gifted Italians perform ‘all-Russian’ ASO concert


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Jan. 31. Additional performance Feb. 1. $24-$75. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. 404-733-5000.

Atlanta’s winter storm this week showed no respect for classical music, intruding on one of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s most interesting concerts of the season. Thursday night’s “all-Russian” program was canceled, pushing the opening to Friday. Headlining the program were two Italian-born artists, the gifted violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the distinguished conductor Roberto Abbado.

Salerno-Sonneberg performed Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1, a staple in her repertory and a work she’s recorded with Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son, conducting. A challenging work, the concerto was originally written for the immortal David Oistrakh, whose electrifying 1955 recording remains the standard. Oistrakh’s approach was basically 38 minutes of pure pulsing passion. Almost all of today’s artists begin the piece with some restraint, building the drama steadily.

Salerno-Sonnenberg’s intense performance is the nearest we have to Oistrakh today, and this has arguably made her the most interesting interpreter of this concerto. In the opening Nocturne she played darkly, but with perfect focus. Her Scherzo was like a tornado.

The biggest test comes in the Andante, with its wild cadenza. Salerno-Sonnenberg was electrifying here. There’s a bit of rubato to her playing that might challenge your inner metronome, but it does seem to add to the overall effect of immense tension. The finale is big and circusy: Both the soloist and orchestra were all in.

Abbado’s uncle, Claudio Abbado, who died two weeks ago, was often considered his era’s greatest conductor of Italian opera. But he was also extraordinary in the Russian repertoire, which he loved. So, in a way, this concert became an accidental tribute to the elder Abbado. And a fine one, as it turns out. Roberto Abbado was an ideal partner in the Shostakovich. It’s a tricky work, but coordination was superb, and the orchestra’s energy level was electric, like that of the soloist.

After the break we heard Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances.” A big piece in every sense, this one has quite a trajectory, starting out a bit like the score for a vampire movie (he’d moved to Beverly Hills by this time), then moving to some soulful chops for the saxophone, to a waltz, to the Dies Irae (part of the Requiem Mass that deals with Judgment Day) and quotes from his own “Vespers.”

It’s a wild ride. ASO’s brass has become more disciplined in the past couple of years, and rarely has sounded better than on this night. And the woodwinds were formidable. Abbado’s colors were admirably spooky in the spooky bits, and he was unrestrained (and quite loud) with the big stuff.

The concert opened with the orchestral introduction to Mussorgsky’s opera, “Khovanshchina.” It’s a splendid little excerpt from an unjustly neglected opera, but here it seemed to function more as a tuning and coordination exercise for the orchestra. It seems to have worked, as these problems didn’t recur during the bigger pieces of the evening.

Happy hour rarely arrives at Symphony Hall, but ticket holders for this concert series get a free vodka cocktail before the concert. Russian music goes down best with its proper solvent, of course, and this helped take away the chill from a messy week.