Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

On another Covid-19 day of closures and lockdowns, our “out of control” world in hastening downward spiral, bleak prospects ahead, this recital from the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi brought respite. A pensive affair, sunlight and shadows lengthening into darkness. Aristocratic.

Everyone plays the Liszt Sonata. Nobody can play it. It’s one of those works that’s near-impossible to hold together. Over the years, from recording studio to concert room, I’ve come to dread it, every page another nightmare of slippery slopes to negotiate, a bottomless pit leading to Hades. Piemontesi cut to the chase. He made me want to listen afresh. Undemonstrative, he’s someone who places clarity and tone at a premium. His basses make for a cathedral-like foundation, fundamentals and harmonics running the gamut from sensual tenderness to Valhalla immersion. Among the more enlightened accounts I’ve heard, this was a B-minor that compelled for its architecture and theatre – theatre vocal, theatre silent. Melodies, chorales, ornaments entwined. Whether monodic or chordal, the repeated sotto voce notes of the opening motif stayed mesmerisingly, organically secco throughout, generating global unity. Growing out of a long-paragraphed Andante sostenuto, the descending scales and transition into the Scherzo was a supreme study in control and fragility; similarly the symphonic build-up into the reprise, magnificently timed. The closing Allegro moderato, creeping in hesitantly … that sunken mausoleum B at bar 737 taken an octave lower … those ethereally heart-stopping final triads so perfectly balanced, suspended like crystals caught in moonglow … such moments stay with one.

Schubert’s G-major Sonata, D894, omitting the first-movement repeat, went its leisured way. Yet conscious that tensioning its lyrical panorama, ppp to fff, there are rocky outcrops, ruffled pools, and cries of personal angst. Piemontesi knows how to sing a line, how to colour modal change, he loves the textural, dynamic and rhythmic contrasts of this music, creating chamber, orchestral images. In his hands ornaments speak, runs become meaningfully inflected counterpoints, dances turn into wistful fragments of things barely touched but deeply longed for. While Pamer and Lanner seduced the Prater, Schubert dreamed the Trio of his Menuetto.

Opening the evening we had Helmut Lachenmann’s appealing 1956 Variations on a Theme of Schubert (the enigmatic C-sharp minor Waltz, D643), a lithe, incisive reading, the breathed timing between Variations making good sense – very different from the future experiment to come from this composer. To finish, a single encore: ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ from the Swiss book of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, the audience (bar one early leaver, his loss) bathed in a mist of velvet, swelling A-flat sound, the “melancholy harmony” of Marie d’Agoult’s recall … Flickering screen, house quiet, the clock chiming nine …