Francesco Piemontesi at the Wigmore Hall – A poet speaks

Francesco Piemontesi piano

The Swiss pianist presents three major piano works including Schubert’s 1826 sonata, the last published during his lifetime, and Liszt’s 1853 sonata dedicated to Robert Schumann.

Helmut Lachenmann (b.1935)

5 Variations on a Theme of Schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Fantasy Sonata in G D894

Molto moderato and cantabile-Andante-Menuetto Allegro moderato- Allegretto

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Piano Sonata in B minor S178

“Francesco Piemontesi combines stunning technique with an intellectual capacity that few can match” Spectator

Francesco Piemontesi is a pianist of exceptional refinement of expression, which is allied to a consummate technical skill. Widely renowned for his interpretation of Mozart and the early Romantic repertoire, Piemontesi’s pianism and sensibility has a close affinity too with the later 19th century and 20th century repertoire of Brahms, Liszt, Dvořák, Ravel, Debussy, Bartók and beyond. Of one of his great teachers and mentors, Alfred Brendel, Piemontesi says that Brendel taught him “to love the detail of things.”He was born in 1983 in Locarno and studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover with Arie Vardi before closely collaborating with Alfred Brendel. He rose to international prominence with prizes at several major competitions, including the 2007 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. In 2009 he was awarded the fellowship of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. Between 2009-2011 he was chosen as a BBC New Generation Artist.In 2012he was announced as Artistic Director of the ‘Settimane Musicali’ music festival in Ascona,and received the BBC Music Magazine Newcomer Award for his ‘Recital’ disc with works by Haendel, Brahms, Bach and Liszt.Since 2012 he records exclusively for the French label Naïve Classique. He currently lives in Berlin.

I first heard Francesco Piemontesi when he appeared at a Prom concert a few years ago playing the Strauss Burlesque and a concert Rondo by Mozart.His musicianship together, in that period, with another young musician, Martin Helmschen, immediately struck me as a quite exceptional light.He has gone on since then to establish himself as the real musician he is who can shed new light on the works he plays with a refreshing simplicity without any rhetoric.And so it was today in a programme with the magical G major Sonata by Schubert and the monumental Sonata by Liszt prefaced by Variations on the Waltz in C sharp minor of Schubert by the contemporary composer Helmut Lachenmann

Lachenmann was born in Stuttgart and after the end of the Second World War (when he was 11) started singing in his local church choir. Showing an early aptitude for music, he was already composing in his teens. He studied piano with Jürgen Uhde and composition and theory with Johann Nepomuk David at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart from 1955 to 1958[1] and was the first private student of the Italian composer Luigi Nono in Venice from 1958 to 1960. The Five Variations on a theme by Schubert – the waltz in C sharp minor D643 was written in 1956

Immediately taking us into his own very particular sound world of clarity and delicacy with the jewel like precision of sounds barely rising above piano.The first variation was played with a rhythmic energy, the ending thrown off with nonchalant charm.It was followed by a deeply melancholic second variation that sang so beautifully thanks to an extraordinary sense of balance that allowed for such a kaleidoscope of multicoloured effects.Sounds sweeping up and down the keyboard in the third with glissandi where even faster motion was needed all thrown off with such subtle ease and virtuosity.A barely whispered fourth variation followed in which the extreme legato of the right hand was mirrored by the delicate almost plucked staccato of the left.

It made for the ideal preparation to the serene masterpiece of Schubert’s fantasy sonata which Schumann described a the most perfect in form and spirit .David Owen Norris described it as uninterrupted sunshine but that was before the performance of Francesco Piemontesi that was truly Beethovenian and anything but a sunny romp.This was not just an outpouring of Schubert’s sublime melodic invention but a full blooded account where Schubert’s seeming innocence had also an undercurrent of menace and foreboding that every so often would erupt with quite openly drammatic contrasts.

A barely whispered opening to the magic chords of an intimate confession that Richter loved so much he made them last as long as possible and added a good ten minutes to the normal performance time.Francesco Piemontesi played with a simplicity barely caressing the notes with a wondrous flexibility.It made every note talk with a tenderness and yearning that made the sudden outburst of the development in the minor and the gradual build up of tension even more surprising.These brief interruptions were juxtaposed with some of Schubert’s most sublime melodic inventions seemingly of joy but with an undercurrent of melancholic nostalgia .The return of the opening chords after these outburts was even more sublime because Schubert had shared this panorama of emotions with us.

The excellent streaming allowed us to appreciate not only the extreme beauty of sound but the beauty of the pianist’s hands as he caressed the keys with a simplicity and sincerity that belied any rhetoric or showmanship.

The Andante was played with the purity of a creamy rich sound that was very moving as nothing was added to the emotion within the notes that Schubert himself had penned. The turbulance of a passing cloud was soon forgotten with the sublime melodic invention that flows continuously from Schubert’s pen in the final years of his short life.Francesco Piemontesi showed a remarkable sense of balance and of self identification with the emotional world of Schubert.He is only a few years older than the composer when he wrote this remarkable work.

The Menuetto was played with a subdued lilt and sense of lyriciam that precluded any percussive hardening of sound.Infact there had been created, from the very first note to the last of this Sonata, a sonorous bubble within which all these marvels were revealed by this true poet of the piano.The Trio, a landler, seemed to grow so naturally out of the Menuetto with a simple uplifting charm and delicate sound that was indeed mesmerising.

The last movement burst in too, quite naturally, with a joyously refreshing lilt as if a window had been opened on the simple folk enjoying the wonders of country life.A beguiling sense of rubato was really quite hypnotic as we were led around this rural scene until the miracle occurs. A barely prepared interruption with one of Schubert’s most sublime melodies.It is as though a cloud has lifted and we are all reduced to silence as we marvel at this heavenly apparition.The delicate ritardando towards the final meanderings was a truly magic ending to a dream.One is reminded of a report of Schubert’s only performance in public where it was noted much to his approval that ‘the keys in his hands became singing voices?

The Liszt Sonata is a monument and together with the Fantasie of Schumann constitutes the peak of the Romantic repertoire (together of course with the Fourth Ballade of Chopin).The Sonata by Liszt is dedicated to Schumann as the Fantasie is dedicated to Liszt – birds of a feather indeed .The Sonata was dedicated to Schumann in return for the dedication of the Fantasie op 17 (published 1839) to Liszt.It was Schumann’s contribution to the Beethoven monument that Liszt had taken in hand (as Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses was too) A copy of the work arrived at Schumann’s house in May 1854, after he had entered Endenlich sanatorium. Schumann’s wife Clara, an accomplished concert pianist and composer in her own right, did not perform the Sonata; apparently she found it “merely a blind noise!”.

I remember André Tchaikowsky persuading his friend Radu Lupu to spend time learning the sonata.Richter played it in London that for us mortals was an absolute eye opener and marvel.Richter was so disgusted by his performance that he would not see anyone after the concert!Gilels and Curzon have shown us that this work although seemingly a showpiece is a work of startling originality.It created a completely new direction of perfect form from the classical style sonata of yore. Liszt, the revolutionary original thinker, was to foresee the direction that music was to take fifty years hence.

I was expecting from Francesco Piemontesi a performance of the introspection of Lupu or the absolute originality of Richter but instead we got a youthful make or break performance that nevertheless kept us riveted from the opening whispered G’s to the all too final submerged murmur of B – played with the right hand deep in the bass!

From the opening notes his supreme musicianship shone through .The contrast between the opening notes that will be trasformed during the percourse of the following thirty minutes was captivating from the very first sounds.This after all is the leit motif idea that was to inspire Liszt’s son in law Wagner in his operas.The first agitato semiquavers were played like rays of light (as Agosti played them) leading to the first triumphant octave declaration.A masterly sense of colour and shape led to the passionate outpouring of the ‘grandioso’.It immediatley dissolved into the mellifluous ‘dolce con grazia’.

It was ,in fact, the total identification with the demonic Florestan and and the ever more tender and magical Eusebius that was remarkable.From the passionate virtuosistic outbursts to the most intimate comuning it was all played with an overall sense of architectutral shape..There was always a sense of balance and colour that never once evolved into the barnstorming of lesser musicians that has been the rule amongst so called virtuosi that plunder this masterpiece!

The Andante sostenuto was of a wondrous beauty coming as it did after such sould searching virtuosity.Managing to keep the pulse flowing even in the’ quasi Adagio’ (where Richter almost came to a stop) leading so naturally and gradually to the passionate central outburst of romantic fervour. It was indeed a ‘scorching’ performance as David Owen Norris aptly described it .But judging from the moments of absolute silence that greeted the final note it was also a deeply touching comuning of the soul.This indeed was a performance to treasure .

The beautiful ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ offered as a thank you to the audience, both real and virtual, seemed to flow from his fingers with such freshness and simplicity and belied the fighting off of the demons that we had witnessed only a few moments before.

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