Piemontesi, one of the finest young pianists, impresses with his Beethoven and Debussy in Dresden

GermanyGermany Dresden Music Festival 2024 [2] – Beethoven, Debussy: Francesco Piemontesi (piano). Palais im Grossen Garten, Dresden, 11.5.2024. (CC)

Francesco Piemontesi

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas: No.21 in C, Op.54, ‘Waldstein’; No.30 in E, Op.109
Debussy    Préludes, Book II, L 131

The title for this year’s Dresden Music Festival is ‘Horizons’: as Jan Vogler, the director of the 47th festival says, ‘far too rarely do we manage to look far out to the horizon, where heaven and earth seem to touch. With the help of our imagination, we can see much further …  and let our thoughts wander across the universe’. These are ideas which seemed relevant to the recital by the young Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi, particularly perhaps in the later Beethoven, and in the lesser-played set of Debussy Préludes.

My previous impressions of Piemontesi have been uniformly fine: I remember interviewing him about his disc of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Suisse) and encountering a pianist of fine intellect and unquestionable musicality. His Beethoven is a slightly known quantity, in that he has put down a remarkably sensitive performance of the piano contribution to the Cello Sonata No.4 in C, Op.102 with Nicolas Altstaedt (on Genuin), and a stunning Third Concerto with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Sir Roger Norrington as part of a vast 13-disc Sony box, Classical Music in Switzerland – that performance is from the Settimane Musicali di Ascona in 2016 (Piemontesi is admittedly on a more engaged level than his conductor). Piemontesi’s Beethoven has eloquence and maturity. His cause in this recital was helped immeasurably by a fine instrument in the Palais im Grossen Garten, a Steinway from Dresden’s Piano Gäbler. With this instrument, Piemontesi was able to conjure myriad colours.

Piemontesi’s technique is rock solid, which means his Beethoven need never compromise. He took a low-pedal approach to the first movement of the ‘Waldstein,’ textures carefully controlled, rhythm always firm. Clarity was clearly an imperative for Piemontesi, whose finger strength is beyond any doubt. But he also brought moments of glorious fantasy; this was like hearing the work anew. No wonder there was complete silence from the audience in the gap between first and second movements. The second movement, the Introduzione: Adagio molto, was fascinating. Slow, monumental, this felt far more like late, ‘third period’ Beethoven than middle-period, a pre-echo of what was to come, perhaps. Piemontesi took risks, allowing lines to speak, unadorned, so they exuded an aching sense of longing. The transition to the finale was perfectly judged, the last movement’s opening a ray of light. The notorious glissandos were just that, and dispatched. as if they were, as the most natural, and easy, thing in the world.

Moving to Op.109, there was a sense of overarching structural thought that was incredibly impressive (particularly as it was the one aspect I missed in Klaus Mäkelä’s account of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with the Concertgebouw in the Kulturpalast the night before: review to follow). Piemontesi clearly understands, and lives, this music at the deepest level. The second movement is marked prestissimo, and yes the music should not feel breathless. Again, this was perfectly judged; Piemontesi also, in terms of dynamism, was forthright but never forced. Technical control was superb; but it was in the finale that the music elevated to the greatest heights. The marking is, in Italian, Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo (there is also the German ‘Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung’). This was a true andante – it moved beautifully – and what followed as the music multi-coloured of vistas, from full-toned staccato through Handelian grandeur and onwards to the music of the Elysian Fields.

Both sonatas, in their different ways, place importance on the trill, and it was fascinating to hear Piemontesi acknowledge that link, bringing real variety and importance to each occurrence, an oscillation of energy rather than just an exercise.

The second half was Debussy’s second book of Préludes. For some reason this set seems to appear less in recital programmes, and yet Piemontesi persuaded us of its greatness. Here was identifiably the same pianist with the same traits, but his soundworld modulated towards Debussy, adjusting to that composer’s sense of colour perfectly. Clarity was the watchword for the opening ‘Bouillards’ (Mists), mysterious and veiled. Marked Lent et mélancolique, ‘Feuilles mortes’ (Dead leaves) exuded regret; Piemontesi’s sense of line was what made this reading notable. Character was everywhere in the set, but perhaps most clear in the habanera, ‘La puerta del Vino’ (The Wine Gate), the downward arpeggiations carrying fantasy and energy. How Piemontesi’s fairies flickered (‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’); trills here again alight, perhaps providing the firelight.

This was a performance of contrasts, all held within a structural arc: again, that sense of far-sighted vision binding the whole, just as in Beethoven. So it was that the gentle ‘Bruyères’ was set against the humour of ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’; or the hyper-calibrated strata of ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences) against the unpredictable roulades of ‘Ondine’.

Humour certainly arrives with ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq, P.P.M.P.C, with its swagger and its use of God Save the King. Piemontesi gave the piece’s false pomp perfectly; there could hardly be greater contrast than to ‘Canope’ – the harmonies here positively luminous. The final pair of Préludes move forwards in velocity and momentum, the quietly chattering ‘Les tierces alternées’ (Alternating Thirds) ceding to the great virtuoso challenge of ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Fireworks), the true culmination of the set, a show of highest virtuosity from Piemontesi both in finger speed and in colour. Again, a link: the glissando here, perhaps a liberated ‘Waldstein’, full of exultation; and then, form the mists, the Marseillaise.

One encore, but the audience could have easily taken a dozen: the Bach/Busoni Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, from Chorale Preludes BV B 27 (1898), which has appeared on Piemontesi’s Pentatone disc Bach Nostalghia.

Piemontesi has recorded both books of Debussy’s Préludes for the Naïve label; he is one of the finest young pianists and deserves to be fully recognised as such.

Colin Clarke

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