Francesco Piemontesi and Andrew Manze took their positions quickly, starting the epic journey of BrahmsPiano Concerto no. 2 without hesitation. A highly expressive horn call filled the auditorium. Increasing the sense of intimacy, Piemontesi entered with a beautifully arched piano figure, and one was pulled deeply into the music and its chamber-like ambience. The mood, like the scale of the music, quickly changed, with a bold orchestral entry with an impressive string sound – rhythmically precise and highly articulate, with perfect intonation. Tutti passages had impeccable balance between the orchestra and the piano, all carefully managed by Manze. Piemontesi’s playing was flawless, meeting all technical difficulties: he made it look effortless, with a feeling of spontaneity which prevailed throughout.

Francesco Piemontesi © Marco Borggreve
Francesco Piemontesi
© Marco Borggreve

The second movement – a Scherzo, marked Allegro appassionato – was taken very literally. This wasn’t Brahms with restraint: this was Brahms with heady Italian passion, coming over one like a tsunami of emotion. Piano lines were judiciously executed by Piemontesi, balanced and expressive, always to the fore, never overpowered or overpowering. The colours of the D minor section were vibrant and dark in mood, turbulent almost. In the final section, as the music becomes musically tighter, Manze and Piemontesi intensified the colours further.

The Andante can sound overly sentimental, but here it was captivating. The mood was deeply melancholic, not giving any emotional respite. The cello solo from Jonathan Aasgaard projected effortlessly against the backdrop of lower strings. The range of dynamics from Piemontesi was extraordinary, and the hall was breathless, having been pulled deeper into this evocative soundscape. Within a baton shake, the clouds dissipated, the sun sparkled as conductor and pianist hand-in-hand changed the character completely. This movement fully captured Brahms’ marking of Allegretto grazioso. With each return of the theme it spoke differently, with an increasing sense of fun. At the end of the concerto, it sounded as fresh and vibrant as it had at the beginning: 55 minutes had passed in the blink of an eye.

Throughout the concerto, Piemontesi’s playing was superb, demonstrating he is a highly accomplished pianist at the top of his game. His visionary insights into musical lines and shaping were extraordinary across all four movements. The balance between and within his hands was remarkable. He changed the weighting for different textures with ever-changing expression and colour. The tone was warm and even in the most demanding sections he was always in complete control.

If the Brahms was heavenly, the Debussy encore was otherworldly. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, from Images, Set 2, was exquisitely played and vividly evocative. It demonstrated further Piemontesi’s technical mastery.

Warmly addressing the audience after the interval, Manze posed the question: “What would have Mozart thought of that first half?” “[He would have] Marvelled”, Manze continued. I do believe too many of us were too “marvelled” from the Brahms and Debussy to take in Manze’s astute comments fully. Describing Mozart’s Jupiter as “the king of classical symphonies” Manze spoke with enthusiasm, passion and excitement about the composer's final symphony.

Manze’s expertise in period music must have informed his differing approaches to style, texture, colour and expression. The sprightly opening Allegro vivace prevailed with much light and shade. The strings played with a different tone from the Brahms, the sound brighter, with a lighter vibrato and a clarity of intonation. On the repeat of the exposition, an increased vibrancy ensured it sounded more spirited than the beginning. Manze – animated and actively encouraging the second violins – brought out detail which is frequently overshadowed.

The Andante cantabile was lovingly caressed, ethereal in nature, with floating melodic lines. The minor sections were phrased impeccably, and the tempo was considered with a gentle sense of momentum. The strings played with complete assurance. A stately minuet followed, with interesting and detailed phrasing. Varied dynamics made the da capo refreshing and sufficiently distinguished. Manze observed Mozart’s tempo marking Molto allegro to the letter. Woodwind playing was excellent, articulate, precise and unified. Each of the five themes on which the movement is based was stated with utter respect, each one a star. Modestly paced to perfection, increasing the excitement and intensity with return of each idea, Manze brought the symphony to a crowning and radiant conclusion.

What was apparent is the respect Manze has for his fellow musicians and how it is reciprocated. Piemontesi and Manze have a strong relationship: this, combined with the special bond Manze is forging as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor, made for a very memorable concert. The RLPO continue to prove what an adaptable and accomplished orchestra they are in his hands, with faith and commitment to his musical vision.


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