It’s hard to fathom how Dmitri Shostakovich managed to write his Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” during wartime, even as the Nazis advanced and people were starving to death in his besieged city. In its first Leningrad performance, the players were given extra rations just to get through the 70-minute work.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the sprawling, grandiose Seventh Symphony under Juanjo Mena would have made a powerful impact even without knowing that story. Its war-like imagery — incessant drumming, trumpet fanfares, explosive outbursts in the brass and cynical themes in the winds — was brought vividly to life in Friday’s performance in Music Hall.
Spanish maestro Mena, who begins his tenure as principal conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival in May, led an intense and brilliantly played performance. And, in the first half of the program, he was joined by countryman Javier Perianes for a memorable reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (popularly known as the “Elvira Madigan.”)
Mena is already known to this orchestra, having appeared here five times since his debut in 2012. He is a clear and expressive leader, and his view was both intellectually probing and viscerally exciting.
The famous “invasion march” of the first movement began almost imperceptibly in strings and snare drum (David Fishlock), gradually building in a Bolero-like crescendo to the inevitable, explosive climax. In contrast, sections of idyllic beauty were light and unfolded with absolute clarity. I don’t think I’ve heard such soft pianissimos as those he was able to achieve in the rehabbed auditorium.
Articulation was clipped, and every detail stood out in sharp relief. There were many fine soloists, particularly in the second movement, where the unusual sounds of the piccolo clarinet (Ralph Skiano) and bass clarinet (Ronald Aufmann) contributed eerie effects.
The slow movement, with its remarkable unison anthem for strings, had an improvisatory quality that was quite moving. The conductor communicated each phrase with depth and clarity. Indeed, there was such clarity of sound, one could even hear each breath taken by principal flutist Randolph Bowman from seats in the balcony.
The finale unleashed the full power of the brass and Mena led animatedly, sometimes leaping for emphasis. He summoned magnificent sonorities through the movement’s peaks and valleys, taking special care to illuminate the lovely viola theme. The final drive to the finish was a powerhouse of virtuosic playing by the musicians. Perhaps because of the orchestra’s new configuration — on risers and sitting much closer to the audience — its enormous climaxes approached rock-music-like decibel levels.
To open the evening, it was a rare treat to hear Perianes, a native of Andalusia, in Mozart’s C Major Piano Concerto, the calling card for his Cincinnati debut. I enjoyed everything about his playing – his pristine lightness of touch, his musicality and his communication with the orchestra. The first movement’s cadenza, by Mozart, was beautifully controlled, and the pianist easily summoned the power needed for a brief moment of drama.
Perianes’ phrasing in the Andante, famously used in the 1967 Swedish film “Elivira Madigan,” was interior and deeply expressive. Its spellbinding effect was at least partly thanks to Mena, who coaxed an impressive sheen from the strings. The finale was sunny and fleet. Here, the pianist chose a cadenza by the Romanian legend Dinu Lipattii, which included hand-crossing and sparkling runs.
With the crowd on its feet, he chose an exquisite encore: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, No. 20 (posthumous). Let’s hope he returns soon.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday Feb. 3 in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.