Francesco Piemontesi,***** / Connolly, Guimaraes, OAE, Cohen, ****

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

At 29, the Swiss-Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi is still at the beginning of his career, but his recitals and recordings attest an artistry which is world-class in its mature refinement. His training with the distinguished pianist Cecile Ousset is reflected in the way he moves his hands and arms with a relaxed awareness of their weight; Alfred Brendel has taught him, he says, ‘to love the detail of things’.

And it was very much in that spirit that he launched into Mozart’s early ‘Sonata in D major K 284’ at the QEH, using a light, springy touch to bring out the first movement’s orchestral variety of tone; the variations of the finale were vividly characterised.

Piemontesi has described his approach to Schubert’s sonatas as a form of cartography, and the early ‘Sonata in A minor D 537’ clearly benefited from that. He presented its first movement less as a formal structure than as a tapestry of moods, and gave the slow movement an improvisatory feel. After a finely-calibrated performance of Chopin’s ‘Barcarolle’ came Debussy’s ‘Preludes Book 2’, and there his playing took the breath away. He combined the black and white notes of ‘Brouillards’ to create soft grey tonalities, and went on to dazzle us with a wonderful range of effects in which a flawless technique was put to the service of some very original interpretations.

The next night saw the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment matching mezzo Sarah Connolly with the young Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimaraes in a medley by Charpentier, Rameau, and Purcell. Matched, however, was hardly the word, since there was no comparison between these singers.

His voice may be sweet but it’s very small, and he over-compensates with a ferocious amount of mugging; he has no beauty of line, there’s an awkward disconnect between the top and bottom of his register, and breathing is obviously a problem.

Connolly’s singing, on the other hand, is as natural as breathing, and her sense of line is impeccable; the way she sang it, Dido’s Lament had both transcendent beauty and a heart-stopping sadness, which became almost unbearable when carried on by the strings as an echoing chorus. And what an orchestra this is: under Jonathan Cohen’s direction the multi-instrumentalist wind players blew merry storms, while the strings achieved ravishing purity.