The members of the Berliner Philharmoniker rarely invite insufficiently proven newcomers to make their debut with the ensemble. Typically, the musicians they decide to share the stage with for the first time have well-established reputations throughout the world’s musical circles. This was the case in the latest subscription performances when the orchestra performed under the baton of Lahav Shani – in his first season as director of the Israel Philharmonic – and the soloist was the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi. Both thirty-something artists, living at least part of their time in Berlin, have won prizes at important competitions, and have had their careers guided by major musical personalities. (The famous Arie Vardi was, at different points in their educational trajectories, a piano teacher for both).

Francesco Piemontesi and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Francesco Piemontesi and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The two works on the programme were loosely connected despite being quite far apart stylistically. The last of Mozart’s piano concertos and Schumann’s first completed symphonic opus share a B flat major key signature. They were composed exactly 50 years apart, in January 1791 (even if the concerto’s manuscript, dated 5th January, probably includes several-years-old material) and, respectively, January 1841 (when Schumann fully sketched his first symphony in a four-day burst of creativity). There is another connection between the two opuses. Apparently, both composers thought in the dead of winter about the first days of spring. The final movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 is thematically linked to the song Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling that immediately follows the concerto in the Köchel catalogue. Schumann inscribed the title “Frühlings Symphonie” on the first page of his manuscript. Originally, the four movements had their own titles, from “The Beginning of Spring” to “Spring in Full Bloom”. “I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green,” wrote Schumann in a letter about his first successful orchestral attempt.

There is a tendency to search for premonitions of the composer’s death in Mozart’s last piano concerto. In fact, the music is no more melancholic than many other earlier compositions. (One could listen to an example in this very performance, in Francesco Piemontesi’s encore, the Adagio – also in B flat major – from the Sonata no. 12, K. 322, published in 1784). Playing with great fluidity and, at the same time, clear articulation even in the softer passages, the pianist seemed to feel quite comfortable in his debut. His ongoing dialogues with the excellent woodwinds – flautist Mathieu Dufour and oboist Jonathan Kelly – were exemplary in terms of sound balance and smooth transitions. His rendering of the two cadenzas was both assertive and heartfelt. In general, Shani and the ensemble supported the soloist well, letting his wonderfully shaped gradations shine through the orchestral tapestry. More, the conductor made sure that the miraculous mood shifts, the abrupt changes of keys in the development section of the initial Allegro were clearly rendered. He underlined the thematic integration – such as the revival of the Larghetto’s main theme in the Finale’s second one – characterising this work where all three movements are in major keys, although a minor whiff is never too far away. 

Lahav Shani and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Lahav Shani and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Saturday evening’s rendition of Schumann’s First was a perfectly fine one despite a few occasions when winds entries were not exactly in sync. The transition from the rather lengthy introduction to the vigorous Allegro was imbued with excitement. The Larghetto found its way between Beethovenian weight and Mendelssohnian elegance. The melody in the movement’s last bars, announced by trombones and supported by bassoons, evolved naturally into the energetic theme of the following Scherzo. Technically, Shani was in total control, with barely a single gesture wasted. Nevertheless, the overall interpretation seemed to lack the self-doubt that should be pervasive in any Schumannesque musical statement, even in those written in moments of happiness. A young conductor of immense talent may need more time to fully sense it.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live stream.

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