Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) wrapped up both its three-concert Discovery Series and its entire 2018–2019 season. The “discovered” artist, making his San Francisco debut, was the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi, a former student of Alfred Brendel. The program he prepared was ingeniously conceived, but his delivery left much to be desired.
The high point of the evening came after the intermission, with his performance of the three moderately short pieces that Claude Debussy collected in the second book he entitled Images. Each of the pieces has its own visually evocative title: “Cloches á travers les feuilles” (bells heard through leaves), “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (and the moon descends over the temple that was), and “Poissons d’or” (goldfish). Piemontesi clearly understood the visual inspirations behind each of these pieces and knew how to parse the richly interleaved passages in Debussy’s score pages to realize those inspirations. He also had a keen sense of how Debussy mapped out the passing of time in service to his descriptions, attaching as much significance to the flow of the moments as to the moments themselves. Those who know their Debussy know how many of his compositions arise from visual foundations, and Piemontesi clearly knew how to honor such visual infrastructure.
In the absence of such background, however, his foreground left much to be desired. Why he decided to play the original (1913) version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) piano sonata in B-flat minor is a bit of a mystery. Rachmaninoff, himself, knew the work was problematic. He revised it in 1931, but the results were still not to his liking. Vladimir Horowitz prepared his own performing version with the composer’s approval; and, thanks to Horowitz’ reputation, this tends to be the version that receives the most attention.
However, if there were shortcomings in the 1913 score, they took a back seat to Piemontesi’s heavy-handed approach to performance. His execution galumphed its way through the sonata’s three movements (played without interruption) with little sense of value attached to either the thematic vocabulary or the composer’s capacity for embellishment and development. It was as if all that mattered was the need to take an intensely physical stance with little grasp of the motivation behind that stance.
If Piemontesi’s “brute force” approach to Rachmaninoff was disappointing, taking that approach to Bach was downright depressing. The conception of the first half of the program was an ingenious one. The plan seemed to have been inspired by the third of the collections that Johann Sebastian Bach published under the title Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). This is the volume that is framed by the BWV 552 organ prelude and fugue in E-flat major, performed last night in the arrangement for piano prepared by Ferruccio Busoni.
Clavier-Übung III is often known as the German Organ Mass due the the abundance of chorales, many based on the Mass text, that intervene between the prelude and the fugue. Piemontesi performed Busoni’s arrangements of chorale preludes from two other sources, the BWV 659 setting of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (now come, Savior of the heathens), one of the eighteen “Leipzig” chorales, and the chorale movement from the BWV 140 cantata “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (awake, calls the voice to us). He then shifted to the Clavier-Übung II collection to play the BWV 552 “Italian” concerto. Finally, before closing out with the BWV 552 fugue, he played Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of the Siciliano movement from the BWV 1031 flute sonata in E-flat major.
This would have made for ingenious programming had Piemontesi taken the trouble to honor the expressiveness of Bach, Busoni, and Kempff, each in his own proper place. Unfortunately, the prevailing aesthetic of this half of the program involved little more than energetic pounding. To be fair, Busoni himself could be an aggressive virtuoso; but there is no questioning the deep respect he held for Bach. His arrangement of BWV 552 is a major achievement, particularly when it comes to teasing out all of the fugal elements that reside in the prelude.
This transcription was not about trying to make a piano sound like an organ. Rather, it was about allowing a pianist to take pleasure in all of those structural details that Bach conceived for organists. Sadly, Piemontesi seemed more interested in extroverted bombast than in the pleasures Busoni had in mind. Indeed, that bombast resulted in more than a fair share of missed notes, almost enough to suggested that Busoni and Bach were being short-changed in equal measure.
Piemontesi did not announce his encore selection. In all likelihood it came from one of the many collections compiled by either François Couperin or Jean-Philippe Rameau. Piemontesi’s execution showed respect for embellishment without overplaying his hand, but the brevity of the occasion was much appreciated.