Francesco Piemontesi

The Swiss-Italian pianist, who performs Schubert on this month's cover CD, talks about recording Schumann and Dvořák's Piano Concertos for his new disc on Naïve

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Why did you decide to pair these Piano Concertos by Schumann and Dvořák?
First of all, both Concertos are written in the big Romantic tradition and have the same kind of feeling in a general sense. And in both there are many folk music elements. In the Schumann, for instance, you can hear the wedding march element in the third movement - it's almost Shakespearean and there's a sense of animals and nature. And Dvořák uses a lot of folk tunes from his own country. I also wanted to perform the Dvořák because I knew I would be working with Jiří Bělohlávek, one of the experts of Czech music. And I think it's a more original coupling than Schumann/Grieg or Schumann/Tchaikovsky. And then of course I've performed both pieces quite a lot, which is important to me. I never go into the recording studio if I haven't performed a piece many times.

And it struck me that Beethoven is a figure that connects these two composers, and wondered if you agreed?
Yes. This is also a very important thing. Beethoven is clearly in everything Schumann did. In the Fantasy Op. 17, for instance, he includes a complete quote from the Moonlight Sonata. Dvořák in general quotes Beethoven less in his oeuvre but in the case of the Dvořák Concerto there are lots of connections with Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, starting with the choice of key. The Beethoven is in G major, the Dvořák is in G minor. Dvořák uses exactly the same writing as the first piano entry in the Beethoven, and in the orchestral introduction and throughout the Concerto he plays a lot with the relationship of a third between the notes G and B. That's the same as in the Beethoven, where the piano starts in this wonderful expressive G major and the orchestra answers in B major. And there are many other similarities throughout the Concerto.

Yet despite these similarities, Dvořák manages not to be derivative…
Exactly, but this is what happens with the great composers. Think of Schubert’s C minor Sonata, D958. There is so much from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in there. The second movement is almost a complete quote. Or in Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto there are something like 95 quotes in 20 minutes and still you don’t feel them unless you really look for them. I think great minds manage to rearrange what they want in an ingenious way.

How do the two composers' approaches to writing for the piano compare?
Schumann is a very pianistic composer. Just take the first 20 opuses he wrote - all for piano. By the time he reached Op. 54, the Concerto, he had completley mastered piano writing. The same cannot be said of Dvořák. His Concerto has awfully awkward piano writing, the most awkward I’ve encountered. It can be quite disheartening because you practise like crazy, but in the end not many people notice because it sounds easy - it must sound easy. I think that’s why so many of my colleagues don’t want to play it, and it's been neglected.

You've been described by The Daily Telegraph as being 'as much a poet of the pedals as […] of the keyboard'. Is the pedalling something you spend a lot of time on?
Pedalling is one of the most important parts of piano playing, and I’m completely obsessed by it. It’s something which has been central in my daily practice for so many years. When I start working on a piece, on fingering and articulation and so on, I also note down every pedal I want to make, when I want to change and release the pedal.

It can be used in a very subtle way, it’s not like a button that is on or off. It can be released very slowly to create a diminuendo effect or it can be depressed very carefully to create a crescendo effect. Vladimir Horowitz was a master of this pedal crescendo. He played a chord, then slightly later he pressed the pedal so that the strings started to vibrate and all the overtones started to vibrate, so on one single chord you hear a crescendo which is actually otherwise impossible.

The Dvořák is more straightforward I must say as he wrote down a lot of the pedaling he wanted, but the Schumann really needs a lot of careful pedal. Every time I take it back into my repertoire and play it in concert, I am so full of doubts as there’s so much in it and the pedalling is so subtle. I could change my opinion on the pedalling 40,000 times. And also there's the question of where I should leave passages without pedal, leaving a kind of icy feeling. This is advice Chopin gave about his Third Sonata to a student. If you release the pedal you create a cold atmosphere. The decisions are time-consuming but exciting.

Picture credits: Marco Borggreve, Eleanor Banks

Francesco Piemontesi's new disc of Schumann and Dvořák Piano Concertos is out on 3 June on Naïve

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