The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: French pianist Philippe Bianconi explains why his favorite Beethoven piano concerto is No. 4 – which he performs this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and conductor John DeMain.

March 26, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed French pianist Philippe Bianconi, who took a silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Competition in 1985, returns to Madison to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The program includes American composer Kevin Puts’ “Inspiring Beethoven”; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, which is famous for the interplay between the piano and the orchestra; and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) with solos by the new MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below).

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $13.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Or visit:

For more information about the concert and soloists, including videos, videos, visit the MSO at :

To read or download program notes by J. Michael Allsen, visit:

Bianconi, who last turned in an enthralling, rhapsodic performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” two years ago with the MSO, and who just started a U.S. tour, recently gave The Ear an email interview:

Many consider Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 the best of his five piano concertos and perhaps the greatest piano concerto ever composed. Why do you think that is, and what speaks to the public so strongly about it?

Well, I also know a lot of people whose favorite Beethoven piano concerto is No. 5, the so-called “Emperor.” The Fifth is a larger concerto in scope. It is really majestic and has more brilliant virtuosity. And it has a gorgeous slow movement too. I can see why many people love it: It is a great piece!

But No. 4 is a more intimate concerto and a very poetic piece. (See the video at bottom.) The poetry you find in the slow movement of No. 5 pervades the entire Fourth, from beginning to end. The themes have such a melodic quality that really touches the heart.

It does have its share of virtuosity, but most of the time it is not virtuosity per se. Most of the runs and arpeggios are much more integrated into the orchestral texture. They are like arabesques floating around the main themes played by the orchestra, which gives the piece its unique luminous quality. I guess people who favor more intimate, chamber music-like concertos over bombastic pieces prefer No. 4 of course.

How do you yourself place it among other piano concertos and Beethoven’s work in general?

It is definitely my favorite Beethoven concerto for the reasons I explained above. Even though I love Nos. 1, 3 and 5 for different reasons, No. 4 is the one that touches me the most.

There is also the short but incredible slow movement with its opposition between the ruthless statements of the strings and the pleading cantilena of the piano.

There are so many beautiful moments in this piece, and one of my favorites is the end of the first movement after the cadenza, when the orchestra comes back: to me this is some of the most poetic and soothing music ever written.

I love the big romantic concertos like Rachmaninoff’s, but I place them in a different category. I place the Fourth by Beethoven (below) among the most beautiful concertos ever written, together with the late Mozart concertos, Schumann A minor and the two Brahms concertos.

This is a return appearance for you in Madison. What do you want to say about playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain and about Madison audiences?

This is my fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony and my third time with John DeMain (below).

I feel like I have developed a special relationship over the years with that orchestra and I’m always very excited to come back. And I’ve always received a very warm and enthusiastic welcome from the audience.

From the very first time, I have been impressed with the quality of the orchestra and I love working with John DeMain. He is the kind of conductor who makes a soloist feel very secure and he is such a wonderful musician. I am so looking forward to playing this magnificent concerto with him.

Do you know the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, and do you prefer No. 4 or No. 5?

How do you rank No. 4 among Beethoven’s five piano concertos and among all piano concertos?

What do especially like about it?

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