Francesco Piemontesi at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Piano Sonata in D, K284
Piano Sonata in A minor, D537
Barcarolle, Op.60
Préludes – Book II

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Francesco Piemontesi. Photograph: Marco BorggreveBy a trick of dimming house lights, the man-in-black Francesco Piemontesi seemed to materialise out of nothing, and there was a similar sense of immanence to his playing. The Italian-Swiss Piemontesi, not yet 30, comes armed with A-list credentials – nurtured by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and the BBC’s New Generation Arts scheme, winner of the BBC Music Magazine’s Best Newcomer award – and he is a familiar face on the international circuit. This was his debut recital in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series.

He’s a cool customer, in that his performance style doesn’t give much away beyond the occasional climactic flourish, but his stillness and extreme economy of means are conduits to pianism of a very high order. He has at his command a musicianship of great refinement without being fussily fastidious, which can break cover with displays of prodigious and confrontational virtuosity – fearsome left-hand octave passages, tireless broken octaves and any amount of natural-sounding detail are all delivered with seamless pliancy and precision.

The respectably full audience would have got its money’s-worth just with the penultimate variation in the finale of the Mozart, an adagio blend of limpid aria and soaring fantasy, played with scarcely credible finesse and expressive control, transformative music on a par with the end of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The whole of this finale is a balancing act between baroque mannerisms and classical dynamism, and Piemontesi both honoured and extended the music’s spirit. In general, the Mozart was distinguished by finely terraced voicing and elegantly curved dynamics, within a relatively contained tonal range.

The way Piemontesi regrouped for the assertive romanticism of Schubert’s A minor Sonata was just as impressive – colours more veiled, rubato a more integral means of expression and a tender identification with Schubert’s brand of poetry, all served the conviction that this is how the music should go. The nearest Piemontesi got to stretching the music’s emotional brief was in Chopin’s Barcarolle, which was a long, long way from its Venetian provenance. The sweet melancholy of the rocking gondola had certainly morphed into something bigger and more charged, but quite what was not clear in Piemontesi’s forthright, generally pressured performance.

Even in these completist days, I’m still not convinced that Debussy’s Préludes benefit from being played together, however expertly navigated. Typically, he made every nuance of tempo, shading and detail count, and there was sometimes a quite spiky flair and spontaneity that gave some of Debussy’s softer textures an edge of steel. The rhetoric of ‘La puerta del vino’ and ‘General Lavine’ made its point with surreptitious wit, and Piemontesi had the pomp and whimsy of the ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick’ down to his fingertips. His total rapport with the sensuality of ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ and the edgy characterisation of ‘Ondine’ revealed the degree to which, at his considerable best, Piemontesi can inhabit a composer, and his easy virtuosity and hint of artful detachment delivered a stupendous ‘Feux d’artifice’. His encore was a ravishingly lit-from-within, otherworldly ‘Clair de lune‘ (from Suite bergamasque), which said it all about the superb distillation of Piemontesi’s style.

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