I first came across Francesco Piemontesi at the Wigmore Hall in 2016. The Swiss pianist, who was thirty-three years old at the time, played Mozart with such precision and sensitivity that I was first in the queue to purchase his CD post-concert. The simply named, Mozart, probably gets the most play in my car. That Brendel had some part to play in Piemontesi’s musical education, was of no surprise – it was palpable in his play.
Several years later Piemontesi’s live-streamed Schubert Impromptus at the Wigmore Hall also impressed.
With his latest recording, Bach Nostalgia, Piemontesi turns his attentions to Bach and Busoni and what a feast the album is, but more of that later.
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) is a fascinating character and one which I discovered relatively recently. He is one of the forgotten men of twentieth-century music. Now his name seems to crop up everywhere in the classical world. Busoni is hard to pin down. In his time, he was an eminent pianist (likened to Liszt), a respected music theoretician, poet, philosopher and composer. His writings are long forgotten it seems and well, he is sadly not around to display his virtuosity. He is best known for his transcriptions of Bach’s works for the piano.
Busoni had an objective as far as Bach was concerned – to make him more accessible to the audiences he was playing to.
The album opens with Busoni’s Bach Prelude in E-flat major, originally an organ work. For the purposes of this review, and to understand what was involved in the transcription, I listened to both the original work on the organ, and Busoni’s version on piano and loved both. But there are marked differences of course. The sustained organ chords in the original Bach, in Busoni’s piano version have become individual notes played simultaneously. In Piemontesi’s hands they acquire a bell-like ringing quality, injecting the music with its own spiritual joy. With the piano pedals, Piemontesi creates different textures and layers of meaning. It’s all in the dynamics. This work improves on multiple hearings.
The Lutheran choral works which follow are stunning especially Nun komm der Heiden Heiland which exudes peace and Wachtet auf, ruft uns die Stimme which starts off simply but gradually builds up to a wonderful fanning out of glorious sound.
Busoni’s transcription of JS Bach’s Italian Concerto is a joy, especially the dainty Allegro and the reflective and meditative Andante. In both Piemontesi excels – his play so exact and the balance of both hands so perfect.
I loved the Flute Sonata, transcribed by William Kempff this time, its delicate bitter-sweet melody and the pianist hands in conversation.
New to me was Toccata which Busoni composed in 1921. A waterfall of cascading sound leaps out at you. With Toccata, we are really thrust into the 20th century and the dissonant avant-garde. Meanwhile the writing is also lisztian and romantic (Busoni never could break away completely from his romantic roots). A whirling wheel of notes makes a slow progression up the keyboard then morphs into an impressionistic Debussy-like passage. Toccata may seem over the top at times, but its energy and unpredictability make it exciting to listen to – especially in Piemontesi’s hands.
The CD wraps up beautifully with the beautifully smooth Fugue in E flat-major.
Highly recommended recording for Bach and Busoni lovers and one where Piemontesi is on top form.
Bach Nostalghia out on Pentatone 2nd April 2021