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Great young stars highlight a night of incredible music

Matthias Pintscher
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Atlanta Symphony is back in groove after lockout

By James L. Paulk 

My goodness, what a night! Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert showcased a pair of the hottest sensations in classical music, three works from the greatest masters of all time, and an orchestra that, after a few shaky concerts as the season finally opened following the lockout, is back in fine fiddle.

Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan is the phenomenon of the last few years. This isn’t the result of spectacular displays of virtuosity, though like all young prodigies today he has titanic technical ability.

What sets Barnatan apart, as demonstrated in his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, is the poetry and elegance of his playing. I don’t think I’ve heard a pianist so persuasively portray dramatically shifting moods and tempi. There were so many shades of volume here, all under perfect control via a process that included busy feet. What wonderful phrasing!

The C minor concerto is perhaps the most romantic of Mozart’s piano works, but Barnatan’s spin was lighter and drier than is sometimes experienced, without exaggerated thunder. Conductor Matthias Pintscher was a worthy partner, matching Barnatan’s mood swings and dynamic contrasts with finesse.

German-born Pintscher is actually better known as a composer than a conductor and has quickly become one of Europe’s most admired living composers, celebrated for the originality of his work. He is also music director of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, the world’s most prestigious new music orchestra.

When he appeared here in 2012, he conducted a short work of his own, giving Atlanta a tiny taste of a music world (highly textured and often dissonant) rarely heard here. But for this concert his objective was to demonstrate his fluency with “old dead guys,” and it’s fantastic what he can do.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 might seem an inauspicious vehicle for this. It’s often viewed as “Beethoven lite,” the weaker cousin to dreadnoughts like the “Eroica” which preceded it or the 5th, which came next. So Pintscher had the additional hurdle of making a case for the 4th. And you have to go back quite a while to find a better one. Specifically, to Wilhelm Furtwängler, the great German conductor, whose recordings of this symphony are perhaps the finest ever made.

Like Furtwängler, Pintscher gave the 4th an explosive intensity, but managed to do so without seeming forced or pretentious. Indeed, this was a performance filled with open, transparent textures and carefully modulated dynamics. Anyone hoping for an “authentic” period performance was surely in the wrong room. But there was magic in this performance. The orchestra, its players all back in place after “the troubles,” played superbly, with not a note out of place.

Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” is a brief compilation of themes for his epic “Ring” cycle, at the time still a work-in-progress. Written as a birthday present for his new wife Cosima, it’s a gentle piece which usually serves as a sort of appetizer at a concert. Here it became quite a powerful part of the evening, thanks to a well-articulated reading with nice touches of rubato and some of the cleanest playing you’ll ever hear.