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Francesco Piemontesi – live from Rudolfinum

Piemontesi has the reputation of a sensitive artist who approaches each phrase with great attention to detail. He opens the eight edition of the festival with a combination of the Classical repertoire and modern music. The programme is introduced with a piece by one of Germany’s most distinguished contemporary composers, Helmut Lachenmann, followed by Schubert’s  Sonata in G major. The concert will end with Liszt´s masterful, monumental Sonata in B minor.


  • Helmut Lachenmann: Five variations on Schubert's theme
  • Franz Schubert: Sonata in G major D 894
  • Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor S 178


  • Francesco Piemontesi - piano

Date of event

01 / 11 / 2020
Sunday 20.00

Francesco Piemontesi

A native of Locarno, Switzerland, Francesco Piemontesi grew up in a trilingual family – from childhood he was surrounded by Italian, German, and French. If you look at his scores, you will notice the striking number of comments in all of those languages and in English as well. Ad no wonder – Piemontesi’s teachers and mentors include many illustrious pianists from around the world: Arie Vardi, Alfred Brendel, and Murray Perahia, just to name a few.

He has earned a reputation as a sensitive artist who gives careful thought to every phrase. At London’s famed Wigmore Hall he held a highly successful series of recitals with the title Mozart Odyssey, in the course of three seasons performing all the sonatas by that master of Viennese Classicism. He has received critical acclaim for his ability to give contrasting shades to individual motifs. Piemontesi revealed his approach in an interview: “Mozart was a great opera composer, so I think up a different character on stage for each of his motifs.”

Piemontesi does not, however, limit his repertoire to just the Classical period. He revealed his mesmerising sonic imagination when he recorded Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. For the British music critic Peter Reed, the way Piemontesi, a superb interpreter of Mozart, contended perfectly with the virtuosic repertoire of late Romanticism was a revelation. “There were moments when his noble counterpoint vanished into a welter of piano roar, and by the end of ‘Wachet auf’ no sleeper could have been anything but awake,” writes Reed.

Although he had begun playing piano at an early age, in secondary school he considered whether to pursue a career in science. Fortunately for him and the public, music won out. In 2007 he won a prize at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and for the years 2009-2011 he was selected for the project BBC New Generation Artists. But his passion for physics has not left him. “Sometimes I spend long hours studying new discoveries in an attempt to grasp where our society’s learning is headed,” he says.

He makes no secret of his admiration for Czech music – in interviews he has said that Rudolf Firkušný’s performance of the Dvořák Piano Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic is one of his favourite recordings. He recorded the Dvořák Piano Concerto with Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and with the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Manfred Honeck three years ago he played Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. We also find a reference to Czech music in his answer to a question from the British newspaper The Guardian: “Imagine you’re a festival director in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme – or commission – for your opening event?”. Piemontesi answered: “Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Arnold Schönberg’s oratorio Jacob’s Ladder, completed by the young Czech composer Ondřej Adamek.”

Programme note

The oeuvre of eminent German composer HELMUT LACHENMANN (b. 1935), a pupil of Luigi Nono, is characterised by the specific organisation of sounds, which he, himself, described as “musique concrète instrumentale”. However, his Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert from 1956 do not reflect any of these approaches; this was his first published composition, still written in the traditional manner. After a quotation of Schubert’s Waltz in C sharp minor we hear detailed treatment of harmony using serial techniques (in this case the isolation of certain rhythmical idioms so that they are individually highlighted) and sharp contrasts. Schubert’s lightness and boundless lyricism here acquire new sound colours and a new context. The dynamic culmination comes with the third and fourth variations, after which follows a soft, minimalist close.

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828) regarded the piano as an essential part of everyday life. Although no virtuoso, as soon as he sat down to the instrument, he would let out a flow of melodies and rhythms with graceful ease. Schubert’s fingers deftly wove spontaneous ideas into musical minutiae for the pleasure of his friends, only rarely recording them in notation. Schubert also enjoyed these moments, as he had lacked a proper instrument for many years. This helps explain the numerous abandoned sketches and sonata fragments from 1815–1825, which also testify to his experimentation and search for a distinctive approach to this established musical form, which he achieved in the last three years of his life.

Piano Sonata in G major D 894 was written in October 1826. It was published the following year by the Viennese company of Tobias Haslinger, who deliberately removed the word sonata from the title and instead called it Fantaisie, Andante, Menuetto et Allegretto for business reasons, claiming that this was the only way the composition might attract the attention of “musical dilettantes”. Haslinger’s impression of the work was merited. Robert Schumann also described it as being “in form and spirit” a perfect “fantasy sonata”, and similar understanding was expressed by Franz Liszt. The composition was only given back its title of sonata in the 1888 edition by Breitkopf & Härtel.

The cyclical sonata form is preserved, but that is merely the external aspect of structure. The melancholic, as if hesitant beginning of the first movement and the second theme it gives rise to truly resemble a slowly unfolding fantasy, which alternately expands and falls back into musings. The two themes clash in the development, augmented by Schubert’s oft-applied polarity of major and minor tonalities. Similarly contrasted are the simply lyrical and intensely dramatic sections of the slow movement. The minuet also evinces a dual approach – a brooding minor base, which is opposed by a delightful ländleresque trio. The composition is finally resolved by the unambiguously joyful, even boisterously dance-like mood of the concluding rondo.

Sonata in B minor S 178 by FRANZ LISZT (1811–1886) is akin to a drama of several acts, it represents a colourful piano symphony and requires from the performer breathtaking virtuosity in all aspects. Liszt completed the work in 1853 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann, who by then was hospitalised in a psychiatric asylum and unfortunately never heard the piece. The public premiere was held four years later, performed by Hans von Bülow. The work was not well received by the audience, the critics saw it as being in contradiction to natural and logical order, and the critic Eduard Hanslick, an admirer of Liszt’s skills at the piano, declared at the time: “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Despite the fact that Liszt – in his own way – continued Beethoven’s legacy, he was clearly also inspired by Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy D 760, he radically disrupted the sonata form structure (to this day experts are in dispute over its formal arrangement), and he dismantled the themes in such a way that the experience was, in short, too much for the contemporary audience. There were attempts to associate the work with non-musical subject matter, with Goethe’s Faust or with the Bible, yet the composer was silent regarding its interpretation. Even as late as the 20th century, Béla Bartók admitted that the piece had initially seemed to him to be “cold and empty”, while leading performer of Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, also endeavoured to find a way to embrace it. It was not until after the Second World War that the sonata finally established its place on concert platforms.

The piece flows along without interruption in one mighty surge. It grows up from a group of three themes which we hear right at the start, one after the other: a descending sequence of notes in a slow tempo, and then two allegro themes (a dotted rhythm with triplets in a higher register, and a terse ostinato in the bass). There then comes a distinctive melody in D major (Grandioso) with a solid chordal accompaniment in triple metre. After another dramatic section we find ourselves in the “celestial” key of F sharp major (Andante sostenuto) in triple time. An acerbic fugato follows, giving way to an abbreviated recapitulation ending in conciliatory, temperate dynamics in B major. It is as if Liszt has drawn the curtain: the first theme is heard once more, the major key is repeated in chords and, after 759 bars, the composer quietly takes his leave of us with a solitary bass B note.

Dina Šnejdarová / Vlasta Reittererová (Franz Schubert)

English translation by Karolina Hughes / Adam Prentis (Franz Schubert)