The virtuosity of pianist Christopher Taylor, a nationally acclaimed star of the UW School of Music faculty, is juxtaposed with orchestral majesty in one of the season’s finest offerings from the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO).
Taylor is always a welcome soloist, and he demonstrates versatility in two contrasting concertos. J. S. Bach never wrote one for piano and big-orchestra strings. It is believed that the original form of the Concerto No. 4 in A was for oboe d’amore and strings. Bach himself adapted it for harpsichord and string chamber ensemble, arguably justifying this modern misrepresentation. Taylor plays strictly, avoiding any Romanticizing, but with aggressive percussiveness that leaves the reduced strings (25 players) on another planet.
Offering contrast to Bach’s disciplined writing, Franz Liszt offers flamboyant style and structure in his Concerto No. 1 in E-flat. Taylor finds moments of poetry, but mainly yields to the temptations of extravagance. (When, though, do we get Liszt’s more substantial Second Concerto?)
The orchestra’s assignment was Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E. This great composer’s magnificent works have long been dismissed or misunderstood, characterized simplistically as “mammoth.” But this Seventh is about as long as the uncut First Symphony of Rachmaninoff, played by the MSO last season: Would anyone apply that label to it? The now-fashionable symphonies of Bruckner’s polar opposite, Gustav Mahler, are invariably longer, but audiences have come to adore them.
As against Mahler’s wild extroversion, Bruckner offers tight construction, powerful manipulation of key structure, and lovely thematic material in magnificent orchestral sound — works of architectural and rhetorical grandeur and uplifting spirituality. Bruckner completed the Viennese symphonic line of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert: Mahler broke away from that tradition.
Long a devotee of Mahler’s symphonies, Maestro John DeMain is finally, after 20 years, addressing Bruckner. His choice of that master’s Seventh Symphony was wise, for it is arguably both the most mature and approachable of its kind. Its opening theme is a wonderful arching melody that informs the entire score, while the deeply felt second movement was Bruckner’s tribute to Richard Wagner, from whom he learned so much.
DeMain shows a true understanding of Bruckner’s style, and draws from the MSO truly Olympian sonorities. (He does succumb to the dubious cymbal-triangle insertion near the second movement’s end, though.) This is a landmark performance, offering inspiration and likely enlightenment to listeners.
MSO and Taylor will pair up for two more performances this weekend: Saturday, April 11 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 12 at 2:30 pm at Overture Hall.