Queen Elizabeth Hall
Mozart – Piano Sonata in D major, KV 284/205bSchubert – Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537
Chopin – Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60
Debussy – Préludes, Book II
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
I first heard Francesco Piemontesi last year, at the City of London Festival. In a not entirely dissimilar programme, though with no duplication, he had performed music by Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann. Chopin and Debussy remained for this International Piano Series concert, joined by Mozart and Schubert.
Mozart is the cruellest of masters. If Piemontesi did not emerge unscathed from the encounter, he nevertheless accrued some credit. The first movement of the D major sonata, KV 284/205b, opened in orchestral – if chamber orchestral – manner; one could imagine bright open strings. Terraced dynamics marked an interpretation on the cusp of Baroque and Classical, but there was more localised shading too, for instance in the generous shaping of the second subject. What I missed was something bolder, at least at times. Perhaps the tempo was a little fast; some passagework veered towards the inconsequential, though there was nothing to which one could violently object. Subtle variation in touch contributed greatly to a graceful reading of the slow movement, Piemontesi’s phrasing vocal and assured. Even by Mozart’s standards, the theme of the finale is treacherous in its deceptive simplicity. It was voiced sensitively with a keen ear for the composer’s harmonic shifts. The variations were, well, varied. Sometimes tone was brittle, as in a second variation that sounded closer to Scarlatti than to Mozart. Piemontesi could also be more efficient, as in the third, than seductive. Balanced against that, one could enjoy playfulness in the sixth, eighth, and ninth, the latter two delightfully Haydnesque, and Romantic tenderness in the seventh. And if the Adagio cantabile lacked warmth, there were winning contrasts at which one could smile in the succeeding twelfth and final variation.
Schubert’s first A minor sonata opened impressively indeed, Piemontesi showing himself willing to employ a considerably greater expressive range. The first movement proved bolder and more ‘naturally’ lyrical. And there was darkness at its developmental hear. That and the success of the movement as a whole rested on a sure understanding and communication of harmonic motion. Piemontesi did not sentimentalise the second movement and conveyed a sure sense of where it was heading. It was a little on the chilly side, though, bracingly so in the turn to the minor, less convincingly so otherwise. There was welcome clarity but a little more sense of song would have been welcome. Mood swings were powerfully brought home in the finale, though sometimes – only sometimes – the pianist could sound impetuous rather than darkly furious.
A surprise came after the interval. Expecting ‘Brouillards’ from Debussy’s second book of Préludes, I heard instead Chopin’s Barcarolle, obviously a late addition to the programme, since it was not listed in my booklet. Piemontesi gave it a forthright performance, with strong rhythmic and harmonic underpinning. There was not so much, however, in the way of charm.
The Préludes, when they came, enjoyed a noticeably different tone, the pianist seeming better attuned to Debussy’s sound-world and, perhaps surprisingly so, given the prosaic Chopin, to his poetry. Moreover, atmosphere did not obscure what I hesitatingly call the more ‘purely’ musical thought. Likewise, one could hear what was going on without any of the earlier chilliness. ‘La puerta del vino’ was dark and sultry, differently atmospheric from what had gone before; there was no all-purpose allegedly Debussyan haze. Rhythmic insistence and rubato were finely matched. If ‘Bruyères’ opened in rather plain-spoken fashion, it softened; soon chords genuinely sounded as if they emanated from an instrument ‘without hammers’. ‘“General Lavine” – excentric’ and the ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.’ were sharply etched, or perhaps I should say vividly painted, for there was nothing monochrome, nor for that matter pastel, about them. We benefited from a properly aristocratic tour of ‘Canope’ prior to the relative abstraction of ‘Tierces alternées,’ which might yet have stepped a touch further in the direction of the Etudes. The neo-Lisztian pyrotechnics of ‘Feux d’artifice’ were relished, but Piemontesi showed himself equally able to sing, as it were, between the notes. Debussy, as last year, proved the highlight of the recital.