While Pohjonen, who has made the trip to Atlanta as a guest artist twice before, was the evening’s main attraction, the ASO has never sounded better than it did that initial performance Thursday night at Symphony Hall. The ensemble filled phrases with dynamism, perfectly playing off the effusive piano part. The musicians paid careful attention to blend and dynamics, creating a luxurious base for Pohjonen’s pianistic feats, then swelling sublimely when called upon to take the spotlight.
After intermission, the ensemble confronted Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, a sprawling, tricky work. The first movement started at a whisper, with a slow, sustained note of ominous caution from the high strings supported by a pedal tone in the bass. Soon, a coterie of off-stage trumpets sounded a hunting call, contrasting this noble-sounding phrase with the relative unease of the onstage music. But these opening phrases of the hourlong symphony sounded uninspired, in contrast to the Beethoven, and proved a bland introduction to the composition.
The second movement, a scherzo, seemed to revive the players. With the cellos sawing away at a staccato musical figure, full of driving downbeats that propelled the music forward, the violins brought forth a folk-tinged melody. Modeled after a popular Austrian folk dance, the second movement righted the ship; the musicians no longer seemed to be playing challenging music, but sounded to be having a bit of fun in the midst of performing a daunting work.
The ensemble performed ably during the rest of the piece, producing passages of pure joy and sublime music that suitably masked intonation issues in the horn section.
On a night where Pohjonen’s guest appearance was billed next to Mahler’s “Titan” symphony, the ensemble’s emotional performance of the Beethoven, coupled with the pianist’s exciting playing, could have easily stood on its own as a fulfilling and complete night of music.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Juho Pohjonen
8 p.m. Feb. 9. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Feb. 11. $20-$59. Casual Friday performance of the Beethoven and the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10. $25. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000,