United Kingdom Mozart: Francesco Piemontesi (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.1.2016. (MB)
Mozart, Fantasia in D minor, KV 397/385g; Piano Sonata in D major, KV 284/205b; Rondo in A minor, KV 511; Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i
Mozart will be 260 on 27 January. In seven days surrounding that birthday, I shall be attending no fewer than five concerts devoted to or including his music, both in London and in Salzburg. This Wigmore Hall recital from Francesco Piemontesi was the first; I shall end with another pianist, Radu Lupu, playing two of Mozart’s piano concertos. It was certainly an excellent beginning. There is, I think, nothing more difficult than to give an all-Mozart recital. Ten years ago, as part of a series of events I organised in Cambridge to commemorate the composer’s 250th birthday, I gave such a recital, having returned to performing Mozart in public after burning my fingers badly (albeit metaphorically!) as a teenager and swearing I should never do so again. I was delighted to have done so – reasonably, I thought, at the time – but I can think of no sterner task I have set myself and doubt that I shall ever do so again.
Piemontesi most certainly should; indeed, as part of the Wigmore Hall’s ‘Mozart Odyssey’, he will do so again here as soon as 13 July. This programme, intelligently constructed, and equally intelligently performed, satisfied from beginning to end. D minor led to D major, Don Giovanni-like in the first half, and A minor led to its tonic major in the second. The D minor Fantasia makes for a splendid opening piece. (I say that not only because I chose it to open that aforementioned Cambridge recital!) Far too often today, pianists seem inhibited in playing Mozart on modern pianos. The results are rarely as dreadful as so-called ‘historically-informed’ performances by modern orchestras, to which the only reasonable response can be: ‘What on earth is the point of trying to make modern instruments sound like their ancient counterparts? You will not entirely succeed, and if that is what you want, why not use the latter in the first place?’ The problem is inhibition rather than greyness and downright grotesquerie; at best, we end up with prettified, Meissen china, Mozart, drained of its passion. Such was not the case here, for Piemontesi gave a full-bloodedly Romantic performance. Anyone who doubts Mozart’s Romanticism doubts Mozart, or does not know him at all. Quite rightly, full use was made of the sustaining pedal, not least at the very opening, Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata seemingly only a stone’s throw away. Moreover the element of performance, perhaps recalling the composer’s improvisatory or quasi-improvisatory practice was equally apparent; it was not difficult at all to imagine the composer himself having played like this at the keyboard. Like an operatic scena, this rumbled, raged, above all sang. So much for Joseph Kerman’s assertion, oft-quoted thereafter, that it is ‘almost impossible to play Mozart emotionally on a modern piano without sounding vulgar’. To be fair, he said ‘almost’, but even so. Here, like the Overture to Don Giovanni, and with a similarly abrupt conclusion to the concert ending to that (the first piece I conducted, as it happens), we experience the wonder of this un-Beethovenian yet nevertheless – as E.T.A. Hoffmann understood – quintessentially Romantic journey from darkness to light.
Mozart’s piano sonatas remain absurdly underestimated by many. The old idea of them as ‘teaching pieces’ – yes, of course, they work wonders as teaching pieces, but that is a beginning, not an end – has yet to be eradicated. They perhaps give up their secrets less readily than the concertos, but many of us have learned most of what we fancy we know by playing the solo piano works of Bach and Mozart. The so-called ‘Dürnitz Sonata’ followed, in a reading with which I really could not find fault at all. (Not, I hasten to add, that I was trying to do so!) The Allegro was crisp, commanding, at times orchestral – although Piemontesi knew very well the difference between a piano suggesting an orchestra and an orchestra itself. Often, as here, the former can accomplish deeds that the latter cannot. He knew when to yield, too, at least as important, whilst ultimately retaining a forward-looking (or forward-hearing) impetus; without that, sonata form is nothing, a formula rather than a form. The Rondeau en Polonaise paid its homage, as had the Fantasia, to earlier keyboard music; I thought, not least following the Aurora Orchestra’s recent concert with John Butt, of the Bach sons. Yet there was no doubt whose operatic voice was taking flight here too. In the finale, Piemontesi showed a proper understanding of Classical variation form, all too often – like these sonatas themselves – underestimated, as if the Diabelli Variations and the Goldbergs were the only possibilities here. One needs an intimate acquaintance, emotional yet subtle, stylistically sensitive yet vividly performative, to attend to the demands of characterisation and the greater whole. This performance satisfied on all those counts.
At first I was slightly nonplussed by Piemontesi’s way with the great A minor Rondo. (Is it the composer’s single greatest work for solo piano? At the very least, there is nothing beyond it.) Less overtly Romantic than the performance of the Fantasia though it might have been, it actually proved all the more forward-looking. That is partly a matter of the material and Mozart’s chromatic, contrapuntal development of it. But a relatively – and I stress relatively – ‘objective’ approach, without taking that to extremes, was able to point the way to its constructivism, its proximity to the Schoenberg of the 1920s. It is not that the performance was somehow ‘unemotional’, but that it made one listen to process, to craft, and permitted the highly volatile emotional material to speak for itself.
The A major Sonata, KV 331, 300i, followed. Without underlining the fact, appearing again to let the music simply to ‘speak’, Piemontesi allowed one to appreciate the unusual qualities of a work that has not a single movement in sonata form, and which yet nevertheless feels very much as a sonata ‘should’. Again, the first movement variations displayed a fine balance between individual characterisation and longer-term planning. One almost did not notice the distinction of phrasing and touch – here, as elsewhere – because the pianist felt no need to draw attention to himself; however, on reflection, one knew that much had been done. The second movement Minuet and Trio were taken quite fast, but they did not sound unduly so; indeed, the Trio flowed like oil, to employ Mozart’s celebrated dictum. Piemontesi again showed, in the Rondo alla Turca, what the piano can actually accomplish better than an orchestra, whilst suggesting not only orchestral colours but also the spirit of an older instrument. We do not need a ‘percussion stop’, interesting though it might be occasionally to hear one; we need an intelligent performance, willing to use the means at our modern disposal.