Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto is a tricky work. It is the gentlest and most thoughtful of his scores in the form, yet it contains enough fancy passage work to tempt soloists to push it in the direction of the flamboyant "Emperor" Concerto, the Fifth.
In the Madison Symphony Orchestra's latest program, which debuted Friday night in Overture Hall, visiting French pianist Philippe Bianconi rather succumbs to such temptations. His showy moments are delivered in a hard, rigid way that makes transitions to more fluent, poetic playing not wholly convincing, at least in the flanking movements. He does catch more of the poignancy of the middle movement, in its dialogue between the pleading piano and the stubborn strings. In all, a performance more striking than fully consistent.
But, in fairness, I wonder if part of the difficulty is the imperious power of the modern grand piano: in at least this concerto, the fortepiano that Beethoven knew might be a more accommodating performing vehicle.
As an (unannounced) encore on Friday evening, Bianconi played the "Warum" section from Schumann's "Fantasy Pieces" - obviously congenial territory for him.
Preceding the concerto is a pretentious concert overture by the youngish American composer Kevin Puts. Titled "Inspiring Beethoven," it is based upon fragments of the first movement of that composer's Seventh Symphony, supposedly imagining what went on in his mind while he wrote that great work. The risk in commenting on the music of another composer is that you have to have something of your own to say, some new insights to contribute. All Puts offers is a rummage sale of portentous chords and occasional loud outbursts, illuminating nothing of the ideas Beethoven had already created.
For real excitement, however, the program's second half offers a rare chance to hear live one of Richard Strauss's most extended and monumental symphonic poems, "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"). One may debate the musical substance of this vast score, but there is no denying its glorious orchestral extravagance.
Quite full of himself, and already a world-famous composer in his mid-30s, Strauss conceived the work as a self-congratulatory tribute to himself. He represents himself in a sweeping main theme, as against a delicate violin solo portraying his wife. He puts down his carping critics with brilliant sonic sarcasm, and he fights a colossal battle (oh, such a tumultuous conflict!), winning, of course. He relishes his constructive achievements (subtly quoting some of his own prior compositions), and he fades into a self-satisfied apotheosis.
All of this is in absolutely sumptuous orchestral writing. And what a thrill it is to hear the MSO, music director John DeMain in firm control, roll out cascade after cascade of magnificent sound. Special praise, too, to concertmaster Naha Greenholtz for her lovely rendition of the solo violin segments.
The Beethoven concerto is beautiful music, but, let's face it, the Strauss really makes this program worth catching. Saturday, March 31 (8 p.m.), and Sunday, April 1 (2:30 p.m.), still remain.