Francesco Piemontesi, Wigmore Hall

Click to follow

It’s quite something for a piano recital to include a work by Janacek which is not ‘In the mists’ or ‘On an overgrown path’, though when Francesco Piemontesi launched into Janacek’s one surviving piano sonata, it felt as though we were in same sound-world as those much-played works. Here were the same harmonies and turns of phrase, the same winsome-wistful mood.

But this sonata, subtitled ‘I.X.1905, From the Street’, had a very different origin, purpose, and destiny. It was inspired by the fate of Frantizek Pavlik, a young Czech worker who was bayoneted to death after the German authorities in Brno called in troops to break up a demonstration for the establishment of a Czech university in Moravia. This was the region where Janacek was born, and where, as a staunch patriot, he devotedly collected folk music. The date in the sonata’s title was when Pavlik died.

Musicologist Gerald Larner thinks it was for strictly musical reasons that Janacek destroyed the manuscript of the third movement before it had been heard in public; after two performances of the first two movements, he threw the rest of the score into the Vltava, but luckily the pianist had made a copy of those movements, which Janacek eventually agreed to see published.

Whatever the third movement was like, the first two held up very well in Piemontesi’s reading. A dramatic six-note theme, signifying Death, pervades everything, sometimes in extended form, at others compacted; the tone becomes increasingly elegiac as the work progresses, until, after a sequence of passionately hammered chords, the final muted minor stands like a tombstone.

Since Piemontesi used pedal constantly throughout this work, it mattered a lot that the Steinway’s damping mechanism was on the blink, and it mattered almost as much with Beethoven’s Sonata in A Opus 101, which followed. Transcending the limitations of his instrument, Piemontesi brilliantly caught this work’s obliquely poetic character, with a pervasively warm cantabile in the first movement, a velvet-pawed second-movement march, and a muscular fugue in the finale. Concluding with Guido Agosti’s flamboyant arrangement of three movements of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’, and giving as an encore an exquisitely ornamented Handel minuet, this young Swiss virtuoso forcefully reminded us why his country is so proud of him.