Young Swedish pianist Per Tengstrand stormed into Overture Hall last weekend with two refreshingly unconventional display vehicles for the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Richard Strauss never composed a proper piano concerto, but what he might have done is suggested by his "Burleske" for piano and orchestra, written when he was 21. The solo part shows Strauss' early identification with Lisztian extravagance, while the orchestral writing contains quick flashes that anticipate his more famous works to come, especially his operas. (Here a bit of Salome, there a touch of Rosenkavalier.) Its moods vary between boisterous and thoughtful, but its generally saucy flamboyance was ideal for Tengstrand, a musician who combines steely precision with fiery boldness.
For his other selection, Tengstrand went back to Liszt himself, to another work of youth. "Malédiction" for piano and string orchestra was composed by Liszt at about age 24 for his own performance. It, too, is a display piece, alternating stormy and introspective elements in a generally dark mood. Less spectacular than Strauss' effusion, it brought out Tengstrand's capacity for tightly controlled, carefully inflected playing.
His performance prompts the thought that we really do not hear enough of the seminal, sometimes enigmatic, but always fascinating scores by Liszt. Pianists sadly neglect, for instance, his Second Piano Concerto, a work highly original in content and structure. There are the fine symphonic poems, plus the two grand symphonies, "Faust" and "Dante." Food for programming thought!
Framing Tengstrand's contributions were two orchestral works that showed off the talents of the program's other visitor, guest conductor Edo de Waart - a genial yet thoroughly professional musician of the highest caliber. The opener was Wagner's overture to his opera Die Meistersinger, one of the most gloriously life-affirming pieces in all music. The performance soared, though in Overture Hall's bright acoustics it seemed almost too blazing and brilliant.
But the main work on the menu, the closer, was the "Enigma Variations," one of the finest and most beloved scores by Edward Elgar. De Waart took the opening theme a little more slowly than some conductors do, but this connected logically with his sumptuous shaping of the noble ninth or "Nimrod" variation. Each representing affectionately a close friend or intimate, the 14 variations are full of diverse tempos, spirits and colors, all of which De Waart distinguished expertly, and then brought to a triumphant summation.
Through all this, the orchestra's playing was simply magnificent.