Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi delivered an impressively varied programme to a receptive Queen Elizabeth Hall audience in the penultimate recital of the International Piano Series’ Spring season. An all-Bach first half, with an unadulterated Italian Concerto sandwiched between a clutch of Busoni and Kempff arrangements contrasted with Debussy and Rachmaninov in the second half.

Francesco Piemontesi
© Marco Borggreve

Piemontesi is one of those rare performers who can combine phenomenal technical prowess with intelligent programme choices and emotional sensitivity. Yes, he certainly gave us fireworks in Busoni’s thundering, at times almost violent Bach, and of course in Rachmaninov’s turbulent outpouring that is his Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor. But elsewhere in his Bach set, and particularly in Debussy’s second set of Images, we were treated to delicacy, contemplation and some beautifully coloured and atmospheric pianism. There was intensity in his Bach in particular, but never at the expense of a sense of communicating with an audience. His clear pleasure on receiving the appreciative applause showed he is a pianist that enjoys performing – something that is not always evident with other pianists.

Piemontesi presented his Bach collection of Busoni’s arrangements of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major BWV552 and two Chorale Preludes, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, together with Kempff’s arrangement of the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031 (possibly not by JS but his son CPE – but no matter), all enveloping the Italian Concerto, without breaking for applause. This was remarkably effective, creating a coherent set with surprising variety, from the thundering octaves in the opening Prelude and the Fugue – Piemontesi separated the pair to bookend this half – to the simple beauty of the Siciliano’s cantabile line over its lilting accompaniment. Nun komm… was given a dark and ominous opening before the tender chorale melody took hold, whilst Wachet auf… was delivered with remarkable clarity, Piemontesi managing the combined lines effortlessly, building to a momentous conclusion. His opening movement of the Italian Concerto was steady and bright, never dry, which led well into the contemplative slow movement, in which his emphasis of the cantabile line was never unsettled, despite florid ornamentation in places. There was a slight dip in momentum in the latter part of the movement, but he brought things to a subtle close, handling its decorated cadence with poise. The Presto set off with an immediate surge of energy, yet here too he managed moments of quiet articulation, despite fairly extensive use of pedal. In the Fugue that closed the first half, the build of no fewer than three fugal subjects, through the second’s delicate running lines to the third’s jagged, declamatory forcefulness, led to a ringing, almost violent conclusion.

After the weighty intensity of the first half, Debussy’s Images provided a complete change of gear. Piemontesi delivered the cascading, pealing bells of Cloches à travers les feuilles with an ethereally soft touch, and the precision with which he flicked at chords and picked out the notes of the melody with his little finger in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut was a delight to watch as well as hear. He also managed to inject Poisson d’or and its rippling surges with moments of playful mischievousness.

In the uncut original version of Rachmaninov’s tumultuous Second Piano Sonata, we saw a fresh urgency as Piemontesi sprang into action, hitting the ground running before the applause had died down – agitato this certainly was! Yet this proved to be a perfect demonstration of power combined with control, as Rachmaninov’s bluesy colourings were allowed to cascade down between the outpourings of unleashed energy. The simple opening of central slow movement, folk-like had more than a whiff of allusion to the Bachian chorales of the first half, further indication of the thoughtfulness of Piemontesi’s programming. All was then thrown aside in the showy whirlwind of the finale, with Piemontesi demonstrating dazzling virtuosity and phenomenal control as Rachmaninov’s passionate expression reached its heady climax.

Piemontesi concluded the evening with a delicate encore, Schubert’s Impromptu no. 2 in A flat major from the D935 set. This was a heartfelt, fleeting rendition, shorn of its repeats, settling the audience’s collective heart rate after the storms of the Rachmaninov that preceded it.