Life and Death in Schubert’s D959: Francesco Piemontesi’s Verbier Performance

By Sofia Lin

Photo by Marco Borggreve via The Telegraph

      Verbier is a village located in the beautiful Swiss Alps. It is a place where one can see both lush summer greens and snowy mountain peaks. This summer, it welcomed one of the most celebrated pianists of this generation – Francesco Piemontesi. In the late morning, people started to make their way towards the Èglise, where the Swiss Italian pianist was to give a recital of Les Cloches de Genève, from the Suisse section of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, as well as Schubert’s piano sonata D959.

I heard the name Piemontesi when I was in my very late teens, and have listened to his D959 live concert recorded at Greenwich, UK inside out. So when I walked into the concert hall, I knew his playing style quite well and was surprised to find myself being completely enthralled by his lyricism and poetic rendering of D959.

The piano sonata of D959 is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was written between the spring and autumn of 1828, three months before his death. It is a piece filled with the rare depth of emotional expression, and has a chamber music texture to it.

Unlike other pianists, Piemontesi opened the piece with gentle chords that were delicate and intimate. His playing had a nostalgic quality which mesmerized the audience and allowed them to recall their past. The clean and transparent sound of the piano combined with Piemontesi’s gentle touch comforted the audience. The movement then ended with serene arpeggios that were fitting for the setting, a town surrounded by snow mountain peaks and lush greens.

The Andantino section of D959 was filled with lamenting and poignant tunes. Piemontesi approached the section with delicately rippling melodies that were rich in texture and tonal language. There were some real dark moments in the section, where the musician conveyed the feeling of being powerless. Piemontesi’s playing brought out rare, painful emotions that are seldom felt or sensed in a piano concert. The weighty chords lead to self-introspection and reasoning. The melodies were deeply searching, with an overspill of emotions. His exquisite playing of the slow, tormented legato and the movement itself stopped breaths.

Piemontesi then turned to play the Scherzo with much warmth, intimacy, and exquisiteness, a much-needed break from the tormented Andantino. The melodies were comforting and sensitive. The movement then ended on a nonchalant graceful tone.

The Rondo was certainly the highlight of the entire performance. Piemontesi mastered those flowing triplet movements with poetic lyricism. The Sonata finally concluded with a dashing evocation of the opening measures with electrifying ascending arpeggios that were radiant with energy, and a sense of boldness striving forward. The surge of emotions brought out in the finale exhilarated the audience, and opened the audiences’ eyes to a universe filled with bright possibilities.

The brilliance of this concert was that there was a real sense of drama present within the performance. Piemontesi presented a life and death struggle occurring within Schubert himself. One side of the struggle is that there is Schubert, a depressed soul seeking a way out, needing comfort and reassurance. Piemontesi delivered these emotions with astounding technical brilliance.  The other side of the struggle is that within Schubert’s soul, there is such a strong will to live, which Piemontesi encouraged with gentleness. Piemontesi’s D959 recital captured the true spirit of Schubert in his last months, which can be aptly described as a “life of resistance.”  In his recital, Schubert’s divided soul is finally reunited triumphantly, which is an unparalleled feat for any pianist.

But there is so much more to Piemontesi’s playing than simply offering another interpretation of Schubert’s story. His playing remoulds D959 into a piece that centers on acceptance and rejection. The Allegro is filled with deep passion and the urge to be understood, but such emotions and urges only gradually roll in at the end of the movement. However, as reflected by the mood of the Andantino, such passions and the urge to be understood are not returned, constituting a rejection. Such rejection is painful and leads to self-doubt. Piemontesi’s riveting treatment of the modulatory patterns and the recitative section reflects the hesitant, and self-doubting nature of the section. He then embraces these emotions with tenderness and warmth. The struggle to be accepted is heart-wrenching, yet Piemontesi’s playing constantly reminds audiences of the positives of life.

Simply put, this is a rare performance that reveals the genius of this multifaceted composition. Piemontesi’s masterful rendition of Schubert’s D959 is epic in that it is performed with poetic lyricism, and depth of emotional intensity in a way that is unequaled by any other pianist.

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