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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata D 958 (1828) [31:33]
Piano Sonata D 959 in A major (1828) [42:37]
Piano Sonata D 960 in B flat major (1828) [42:23]
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
rec. 2018, Salle de musique in La Chaux-de Fonds
PENTATONE PTC5186742 [74:12 + 42:37]

Francesco Piemontesi has impressed with his recordings of Liszt and other Romantic repertoire, and while full of subtleties and lightness of touch this is reflected in Schubert sonatas that are symphonic in scale and sonic pallet in these fine recordings.

My immediate thought about this rich and hard-hitting approach was that it reminded me somewhat of Paul Lewis, whose recordings on Harmonia Mundi are always a good reference if you find a big-boned style attractive (review). Going back to Lewis with D 958 and it’s clear that Piemontesi is taking Schubert to even greater extremes. With dynamics, chord weighting and pedalling he shows where Schubert was forward-looking in technique as well as musical imagination, paving the way for the likes of Liszt and others. This is not to say that his Schubert is unidiomatic, but the stormy nature of numerous passages in this movement take us as far away from image many of us have of that lyrical song-writing composer as one could imagine.

Piemontesi is nicely poetic in the slow movements and is fairly uncontroversial when it comes to tempi. His timings in D 958 are as close to Lewis as makes little difference, but the character of that second Adagio movement is quite a contrast. Lewis is exploratory and communicates a narrative feel here, but after that prayer-like opening Piemontesi is positively operatic, building climaxes and texture in a more full and orchestral way.

Without detailing every movement, this sets the tone for this whole set. The opening Allegro of D 959 is full of power and heft, throwing the delicacy of Schubert’s lyrical moments into the sharpest contrast. Piemontesi teases the rhythms here and there a little like Alfred Brendel (review), but pushes the left hand to deliver greater impact at moments of fuller volume, again developing resonances that evoke that later Romantic sound. The left hand in the second movement Andantino is more pointillist, with more pedal reserved for the more intense progressions. Fireworks sparkle in the air with the Menuetto, Piemontesi throwing us all over the keyboard with fearless abandon, crackling with energy but keeping things transparent. He is slower than some in the central Trio section, finding secrets in the music that are all too often overlooked. The homecoming of the final Rondo is both delicious and strong in its variations, the road always moving towards victory but not without perils along the way.

A new D 960 should always be a special treat and I wasn’t disappointed here. This is a live recording where the previous two sonatas were ‘studio’, but there is good consistency between the sessions, and the audience is quiet. Piemontesi projects with concert weight for all these performances, and he has played all of these pieces as a cycle many times before. The first movement is played with full repeats and comes in at 20:13, the big transition picked out in detail almost to a fault. Piemontesi can examine certain moments with forensic attentiveness, but the underlying tempo is not too slow, and momentum is maintained throughout. One of my top favourites in this work has been Maria Joćo Pires on Deutsche Grammophon (review) and her Andante sostenuto in this sonata is striking and memorable. Piemontesi is more conventional, but the impact comes as a result of the arc of the movement as a whole. You only realise your earth is being, has been shaken as the climax is reached and the descent toward the end begins, and it is a genuinely emotional experience. The Scherzo is another firework-crackling and colourful flight, and the final Allegro trips along merrily with no new secrets being revealed, but completing a terrific performance.

Superbly recorded in a nicely resonant acoustic, this is a very fine set of Schubert’s remarkable last three sonatas. Piemontesi’s D 960 doesn’t quite knock Pires off top spot, but equals that of Krystian Zimerman (review), and in any case has enough fine qualities to make it a worthwhile addition to your collection. Piemontesi’s approach to all of these sonatas is distinctive enough to make them worthy of anyone’s attention, and his clear passion for this music is reflected in performances that have the quality of lifting them away from the composer and pushing them towards that future in he was never able to participate.

Dominy Clements

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