Friendship and communication come up a lot in conversation with Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi. Friendship is at the base of his longtime collaboration with conductor Thomas Søndergård, and he has played many times with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, where Søndergård is music director.
“This is wonderful, because music collaboration, even in works with the orchestra, should always retain something of the spirit of chamber music, not in musical gesture or sound, but in the way we work together as musicians,” said Piemontesi who will make his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut Dec. 1-6 under Søndergård, performing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. ”We should always keep that perspective in mind, and that’s why I like making music with friends.”
Communication with the audience is also very important, and Piemontesi sees it as a way to engage with a variety of communities and share his taste and sensibility as a performer, something that he also tries to do with his programming. That’s the reason behind his choice of the relatively subdued Second Piano Concerto instead of one of the flashier Beethoven concertos, such as the Emperor or the Third.
“I grew up listening to a lot of recordings of the CSO, particularly those under the baton of Georg Solti and James Levine. What Solti did with the orchestra, particularly in Wagner and the Russian repertoire, is very special,” he said. “There is a recording I love of the Second Piano Concerto with Levine and Alfred Brendel, done around 1983. Brendel has been one of my mentors, and when I was choosing the program for this concert, I thought that could be the link. I also wanted to balance the rest of the evening’s program, which is devoted to heftier, more modern repertoire, and I wanted to offer something lighter and classically proportioned.”
There are many things Piemontesi likes about this concerto: “I love the youthful character of the first and third movements; they have the ebullience of a good glass of champagne. By contrast, the central slow movement is very pure but also very deep and atmospheric. Toward the end of the movement, the piano plays a solo melody almost in recitativo style, and the orchestra answers in pianissimo. This is perhaps the most beautiful and touching moment in the piece and the one to which the audience responds more viscerally, as they often tell me afterward.”
“I love the youthful character of the first and third movements; they have the ebullience of a good glass of champagne.” — Francesco Piemontesi on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Piemontesi also likes playing the big cadenza at the end of the first movement. “Beethoven wrote the cadenza himself, but he wrote it more than 10 years after the composition of the concerto, at the time of the Fifth Piano Concerto,” he said. “Many things changed in that time period, including the range of the keyboard; there is an extra octave at the top in the cadenza, and at the bottom, the music goes down by a fifth. The first movement is so classical and measured, and then this huge cadenza arrives and destroys all the established proportions. I like the juxtaposition of the movement’s structural formality and the final cadenza gesture, almost like an eruption.”
Having Brendel, one of the most important interpreters of Beethoven, as one of his mentors means that Piemontesi certainly looks at him for inspiration. He is also influenced by his first teacher, Cécile Ousset, who performed often with the CSO in the 1980s, and by Alexis Weissenberg, another of his early teachers.
He enjoys listening to Beethoven performed on original instruments, on the fortepiano. On the modern piano, he listens to recordings by German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, and more recent ones by the American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, another of his mentors. He’s especially fond of Kovacevich’s recording of the piano concertos with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, in which he conducts from the keyboard.
In the end, however, the more he works on a piece, the less relevant recordings are. “Recordings are always about different times, other people who were at different points in their career. For me, it’s really about my own relation with the piece: what is the composer trying to tell me, what does the piece mean and what is the right atmosphere for this music.”
Piemontesi has performed with many American orchestras, starting with the Cleveland Orchestra about 10 years ago. He is very eager to play now with the CSO, which he has never had the occasion to hear live, and experience the orchestra’s sound when they are in the same hall. He will have a friend on the podium next to him, and that will make all the difference.