Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Damian Thompson

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Damian Thompson

Article excerpt

Credit: Damian Thompson

Can you tell how intelligent a musician is by listening to him play? Last year I discovered a recording of Schumann's Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, a sprawling and spidery work that can fall apart even under the nimblest fingers. Not this time. Francesco Piemontesi, a young Swiss-Italian pianist, totally nails it.

Believe me, it takes some nailing. In the opening Allegro brillante and the final Prestissimo possibile , Schumann stretches lyrical melodies across madcap scales and arpeggios that dart in every direction. The rhythms are insistently dotted: Schumann at his most obsessive-compulsive. There are lots of crunching gear changes and scampering pianissimo passages that turn to mush if the pianist seeks safety in the sustaining pedal.

This is where Piemontesi, on the Claves label, makes you catch your breath. Not even Horowitz -- one of very few great names to have tackled the Third Sonata -- achieves such pinprick delicacy. But his real achievement is to gather all Schumann's wayward thoughts into an argument. And it left me thinking: first, this is a masterpiece; second, most virtuoso pianists of Piemontesi's generation (he was born in 1983) wouldn't have a clue how to approach it.

The Third Sonata appeared in 1836 as a 'Concerto without Orchestra' -- a label slapped on it by the publishers, who didn't know what to make of it. Schumann revised the work at the end of his life, but in both versions there's a sense of an apprentice composer whose head is bursting with more ideas than he can find room for.

This inspired messiness means that, to pull it off, you need not only stunning technique but also the intellectual capacity to knit together those ideas. With a few exceptions, today's aspiring concert pianists don't have that capacity. They're too busy practising.

Compared with 50 years ago, an astonishing number of conservatoire students can play Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit . They hack away at it until their fingers bleed, but they get there. Jagged polyrhythms, feather-light glissandi , the blur of crossed hands: all present and correct. This is arguably the most 'difficult' piano piece ever written -- yet, in my experience, quite stupid pianists can dazzle in it.

Listen to the same pianists play Schubert's far less technically demanding G major Sonata, however, and you'll soon be checking your watch. Unlike Ravel, Schubert leaves the performer to work out his own solutions. His piano music requires a feel for architecture; he's like Bruckner in that respect. …

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