Every once in a while, given the right acoustic conditions in ideal concert halls, an apparent vacuum of sound is created from the collective holding of breath by an expectant audience. This is quite incredible considering there may be hundreds, if not thousands, present. It was precisely this kind of silence that greeted the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, brought into existence by pianist, Francesco Piemontesi. By all accounts, this is one of the most daunting moments in the repertoire for concert pianists. If this was the case for Piemontesi, he betrayed no sign of it. Indeed, he went on to deliver one of the most assured performances of the piece I can recall hearing.

Lahav Shani © Yossi Zwecker
Lahav Shani
© Yossi Zwecker

Piemontesi’s conception was mobile, almost daringly so, and unfussy. Yet, he rendered this concerto’s uniquely rhapsodic elements with a deeply-felt intensity and, at times, an ecstatic quality. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was nimbly responsive to the earnest Swiss-Italian pianist, aided by conductor Lahav Shani, himself a pianist by training. In the substantial first movement cadenza, the pianist once again commanded an awestruck silence, astonishing in his maintainance of clarity and accuracy even at daredevil tempi.    

Piemontesi and Shani were as one in Beethoven’s split personality second movement. Rather an intermezzo in length, it seemed even shorter than usual once again due to that forward momentum. The CBSO strings were muscular in their declamatory statements and Piemontesi’s pianism appropriately tender and semplice. Brief interlude it may be, but this movement is where the emotional heart of the concerto lies. Perhaps the most anguished moment is the pianist’s sustained trill just before stunned, soft strings rejoin just before the movement’s close. It was clear here, as elsewhere, that Piemonesi really feels this music in his soul; those spread minor chords have rarely sounded so dark.

There was yet more urgency in the third movement rondo. It took a few moments for the orchestra to adapt to Piemontesi’s tempo but they were with him all the way thereafter. Shani tastefully favoured the use of hard sticks by the timpanist, adding real punch to proceedings. Soloist and orchestra worked hand in glove by generating real energy in the development, generally storming through the movement and yet bringing out Beethoven’s periodic oases of calm. A tremendous artistic success, then, enthusiastically received and with no encore to divert attention from what had come before.

The concert opened with a perfect aperitif in the form of Prokofiev’s overture to his flawed opera masterpiece, War and Peace. There were no flaws, however, in this performance. This was an orchestra in confident form in a piece that is surely not a staple of their repertoire. They were all rounded, proud-sounding brass and burnished strings. The reason for this confidence? A young Israeli conductor with no score between him and the orchestra and a clear passion for Prokofiev. Memorising a score should not be an end in itself for a conductor but there’s no denying that Shani’s complete internalisation of the entire programme galvanised the players and freed him to engage with every section of the orchestra.

The stakes were higher in the second half, featuring as it did one of Prokofiev’s most frequently performed symphonies: the Fifth. The clever programming meant that the overture, lasting little over five minutes, inevitably left the audience wanting more of the deliciously inventive Russian’s soaring melodies, masterful orchestration and cheeky dissonances. The orchestration was aided no end by another Shani masterstroke: trumpet vibrato. Strident enough to bring a grin to this reviewer’s face and yet tastefully in keeping with an authentic ‘Soviet’ approach, it was also symbolic of an orchestra transformed, electrified.

The symphony as a whole was ideally paced. Tempi were flowing and felt natural. All of Prokofiev’s miraculous orchestration registered, particularly the counterpoint in the lower brass. The tubist, bass and E flat clarinettists were particular stars. Shani placed greater emphasis on the grinding dissonances rather than encouraging the more patriotic elements in the music as can sometimes be the case. The swiftly taken first movement coda generated tremendous excitement, featuring icily powerful tam-tam strokes, and was capped with a breathtaking final chord.

There’s no doubting Shani is a risk-taker and what chutzpah for him to display this on his first concert with this orchestra, not to mention his first in the UK. The lively sardonic second movement scherzo and fourth movement gallop brought out a more animated conducting style, with the dapper conductor now reminiscent of a dancing Bernstein. In the third movement, Shani and the orchestra succeeded in transforming the seemingly innocent opening triplet figure in the violins into a terrifying presence later in the movement’s devastating climax. The symphony concluded in a thrillingly demonic fashion, bringing the house down. Only one more word seems appropriate: wow!