BBC Young Generation Artist Piemontese impresses with Debussy and Schumann

City of London Festival  2011 – Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann: Francesco Piemontesi (piano). St Mary Abchurch, London, 6.7.2011 (MB)

Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Chopin – Mazurkas, op.59
Debussy – Préludes, Book I (selection)
Schumann – Kreisleriana, op.16

An especially welcome feature of this year’s City of London Festival is a series of early evening concerts (6 p.m.) featuring BBC New Generation Artists, all of which will subsequently be broadcast on Radio 3. This piano recital was given by the young Swiss pianist, Francesco Piemontesi, about whom I had heard a number of good reports. On the basis of the present performance, I hope and expect that we shall hear much more from him.

The opening Chopin C sharp minor Prelude took its time, which is not to say that it was sluggish; far from it, for Piemontesi seemed to be framing it as a prelude to the programme as a whole, communicating joy and wonder in its harmonic revelations, closer to the C major Prelude from Book One of the Forty-Eight than I can recall hearing before. Yet it was not all harmony; Piemontesi demonstrated beyond doubt that he knew how to deliver a melting Chopin melodic line. The blurring acoustic of St Mary Abchurch did the two Op.59 Mazurkas no favours. Though lovingly explored, there were occasions, especially during the first of the pair, when the rhythm – this is partly a matter of accent too – sounded closer to a relatively slow waltz than to a mazurka. A touch more rubato would not have gone amiss either.

Danseuses de Delphes received an impressive performance indeed, its cumulative power undeniable yet never exaggerated, founded upon a marriage of secure harmonic understanding, underpinned by accomplished Debussy pedalling, and finely spun legato, negating the piano’s irksome – in this context – hammers. Piemontesi seemed to highlight the post-Wagnerian qualities of Debussy’s harmonic writing, the legacy of Parsifal in particular. Voiles and Minstrels proceeded in not entirely dissimilar vein. The pianist’s emphasis upon harmonic revelation in time, connecting back to the opening Chopin Prelude, was welcome indeed, and never less than thought-provoking, but lightness of touch, which need not entail skating over those progressions, might sometimes have been more to the fore. Maurizio Pollini’s recent account of Voiles managed more fully both to provoke and to satisfy, to scintillate too, but it is surely evidence of Piemontesi’s artistry that one might even consider such a comparison.

The opening two movements of Kreisleriana impressively portrayed Schumann’s dialectic between Florestan and Eusebius, Piemontesi’s sure command of rhythm enabling him to unleash and to underpin both fire and fantasy. The second, ‘Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch’, acquired an almost hypnotic quality; yet equally important, almost a counterbalance, was the palpable sincerity of the composer’s voice as sounded by Piemontesi. Later on, the acoustic – and, one sensed, perhaps the pianist’s inclination – tended to favour poetic introspection over passionate volubility. There were faster passages when louder could sometimes become mere washes of sound, though the impishness of passages in the fifth and final movements came across very well, the darkness of the latter too. The magic, however, of Piemontesi’s Schumann as dreamer cast quite a spell, revived in an utterly rapt encore account of Der Dichter spricht, whose questing harmonic exploration, simpler perhaps but equally powerful, returned us anew to the virtues of that opening Chopin Prelude.

The recital will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 22 July at 1 p.m. I hope that the increasingly raucous sounds from outside the church – could the adjacent wine bar not have requested that its well-heeled City patrons remain indoors for but an hour? – will intrude less than they did on the evening itself.

Mark Berry