The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s April program offers three contrasting items: a High Romantic gem, a fascinating modernist work and a bravura workhorse, with a brilliant French pianist as the exponent. "Colossal Piano" made its debut Friday night at Overture Hall.
Robert Schumann’s music to accompany Byron’s poem Manfred is full of fine things but is little heard today, save for its overture. That overture is itself one of the great masterpieces of Romantic orchestral music, at once a concise achievement in symphonic writing and a piece of powerful dramatic expression. Maestro John DeMain’s subtle variations of tempo help highlight the dramatic element. In a way, it would work well as the closing work on a program instead of the opener. If it were the only work on the program, I could go home happy.
The composer Witold Lutosławski became the greatest of Poland’s 20th Century avant-gardists. His Concerto for Orchestra (1954) is a relatively early work, still reflecting his interest in folk songs and dance rhythms. But it is a remarkable adaptation of Baroque forms into bold, sometimes raucous, but kaleidoscopic displays of orchestral colors. The third and final movement — the length of the other two combined — starts as a passacaglia, and expands to comprehend hymn melodies and emphatic climaxes. I have come to appreciate the work, and watching the MSO forces deliver it has helped illuminate it greatly. The dazzling performance earned a just ovation Friday evening.
Gifted and versatile French pianist Philippe Bianconi is the visiting hero of the second half. His vehicle is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, composed in Russia just before the First World War and the revolutions that led him to abandon his beloved homeland. This concerto has a lot of beautiful music in it, typical of the composer’s flair for lush melody. But all that is overlaid with writing for the soloist that is regarded as the most elaborate and demanding in the concerto literature. Rachmaninoff loved to play it (while he came to hate his Concerto No. 2, now so adored by audiences) and he set the model for extravagant showiness in performance.
Bianconi brings off all the fireworks (standing ovation, of course), but he does seem able to add softening touches. He confirmed his capacity for delicacy with a Debussy Prelude (one he has recently recorded) as an encore.
"Colossal Piano" is repeated on Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.), April 8-9.