Francesco Piemontesi, Juanjo Mena — Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
Haydn / Liszt / Bartók / Kodály

KKL, Lucerne, 2019-11-13

4-star rating

2019-11-18 — Original posting

Eine begeisternde Darbietung von Liszt’s A-dur Klavierkonzert im “ungarischen Kontext” — Zusammenfassung

Das Programm des vom Katalanen Juanjo Mena geleiteten Luzerner Sinfonieorchesters stand unter dem Titel “Ungarn — Klänge der Heimat”. Es wandte sich als erstes der Klassik, dem Hof der Familie Esterházy zu: Joseph Haydns Sinfonie Nr.88 in G-dur erklang in einer etwas glatten, eher harmlosen Interpretation, welche Haydns Sinn für Humor und derbe Späße kaum gerecht wurde.

Im zweiten Klavierkonzert von Franz Liszt hingegen waren Dirigent und Orchester dem souveränen Solisten Francesco Piemontesi eine ideale, kongeniale Begleitung: eine begeisternde Interpretation, brilliant, doch ohne unnötige Show-Effekte.

Nach der Pause war das Divertimento von Béla Bartók schon eher eine Herausforderung für das Orchester, vor allem im rhythmisch vertrackten ersten Satz. Die abschließenden Variationen über das Volkslied “Der Pfau flog auf” von Zoltán Kodály—in einer untadeligen Aufführung—boten eine reiche Palette an Klangfarben, Charakteren, ein wahres Kaleidoskop von Höreindrücken.

Table of Contents

Introduction & Artists

Back in the White Hall of the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL), this time for an orchestral concert. It was an event with and organized by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra (see also Wikipedia). For this concert, the orchestra—allegedly the oldest one in Switzerland, founded 1806—wasn’t under the direction of its chief conductor, James Gaffigan (*1979). Rather, the conductor was Juanjo Mena (*1965 in the Basque Country, Spain, see also Wikipedia)—my first encounter with this artist.

Solist in this concert was the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (*1983 in Locarno, see also Wikipedia). Piemontesi is an artist whose international career has been skyrocketing over the recent years. I have witnessed his playing twice before (see these links for additional information and details on the artist’s biography):


This concert’s program ran under the title “Ungarn, Klänge der Heimat” (“Hungary, Sounds of Home”):

For the pieces after the intermission, the link to Hungary is obvious, through the Hungarian composers. The Haydn symphony was written for the orchestra of Esterháza, while the composer was residing in Hungary. Franz Liszt has Hungarian ancestors and kept some Hungarian ties through most of his life. When he wrote his second piano concerto, however, he had long moved to Paris.

Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (© Vera Hartmann)
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (© Vera Hartmann)

Setting, etc.

I witnessed this concert from the fourth balcony. In other words: high up in the hall, though at least from the first row, so there was good visibility. The acoustics in this venue are excellent from virtually all seats. My seat on the left side also gave a clear view onto the pianist’s hands. Without binoculars, though, following the artist’s pedaling was impossible.

Concert & Review

Haydn: Symphony No.88 in G major, Hob.I:88

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote well over 100 symphonies. His Symphony No.88 in G major, Hob.I:88 premiered in 1787 at the court of Esterháza. It features four movements:

  1. Adagio — Allegro
  2. Largo
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto
  4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

The Performance

For the Haydn symphony, the orchestra performed in a mid-size formation, with 10 + 8 violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos, and 2 double basses (assuming my counting is correct).

I. Adagio — Allegro

A festive, stately opening and greeting to the audience! Already these first 16 bars showed a homogeneous, velvety string sound, devoid of roughness. Juanjo Mena and the orchestra used appropriately short articulation, carefully followed Haydn’s dynamic annotations.

The Allegro theme started off at least p, if not pp, fluent, delicate, elegant, smooth, playful. I felt that occasionally, slurred semiquavers had a slight tendency towards superficiality, were a bit blurred. Was the tempo challenging the orchestra’s coordination? That may also just be my personal view and due to the distance to the orchestra (in orchestral performances, the distance defeats some of the spatial resolution in the soundscape, which certainly is better for the stall seats).

Overall, the interpretation in this movement felt light, careful, pleasant (in the positive sense), truthful to the notation (thanks for repeating the exposition!). Sure, one would not call this “historically informed” (HIP) in the strict sense, not just because of the modern instruments. Certainly, it was not revolutionary, devoid of surprises, but a sound, joyful performance.

II. Largo

Warm singing in the oboes. In general, very careful in the articulation, particularly in the dynamics. The sf accents were all present with the appropriate emphasis, but harmoniously fitting into the gentle, serene, peaceful context. Sure, the sudden ff outbreaks (bars 41/43, 76-81, 91-93, finally again 107/109) were setting a stark contrast. If Haydn wanted to surprise and scare his audiences (merely for fun, presumably), he certainly didn’t do so here. Except for the last instance, which seemed surprisingly strong / acute.. However, even that did not come across as a joke. Overall, the movement seemed somewhat harmless, though fitting into the overall context (I’m not complaining!).

My only little quibble: the demisemiquaver scales in bars 65 and 67 sounded almost legato, certainly not staccato as requested per score. Maybe that’s doable with small orchestras only? It definitely would be inappropriate to choose an even slower pace just because of these two bars (note that all other demisemiquaver figures in the movement are slurred).

III. Menuetto: Allegretto

Haydn’s Menuetto has the annotation Allegretto (presumably faster than a typical Minuet). Yet, the score clearly indicates a rather solid dance. I felt that tempo and character were perfectly appropriate, with clearly marked staccato accents, moving forward, without feeling too “military” (maybe even a bit harmless in the attitude).

The Trio offers a nice contrast, with its drone tones from viola and bassoon: nice sonority, though not even close to the joke / caricature that Haydn may have intended: the drones could have been more prominent! If at all, the sf accents and syncopes near the end were mildly joking. To some degree, a missed entertainment opportunity: Haydn was far more than the often depicted, well-behaved “Papa Haydn”!

Was it just my impression, or was the Da capo instance of the Menuetto indeed notably faster than the initial one?

IV. Finale: Allegro con spirito

Juanjo Mena selected a rather fluent pace, just so that the orchestra could still articulate the semiquaver motifs. The orchestra managed the tempo really well, played technically clean, also here with careful, diligent dynamics, especially in the soft (p, pp) passages. However, in line with the previous movement, the music remained somewhat of a harmless showpiece, devoid of real fun and jokes. There certainly is plenty of humor in this music. It didn’t help that Juanjo Mena once was dancing on one leg, swinging the other as if this were a can-can!

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Liszt: Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wrote two piano concertos. His Piano Concerto No.2 in A major, S.125 is a creation from the years 1830 – 1839. 1849, 1853, 1857, with final changes added in 1861. The concerto features six major segments (tempo annotations), all of which follow each other without interruption (as also in Liszt’s first concerto):

Adagio sostenuto assai – Allegro agitato assai – Allegro moderato – Allegro deciso – Marziale un poco meno allegro – Allegro animato

The Performance

Francesco Piemontesi’s stage appearance felt open, friendly, natural, devoid of stage anxiety / nervousness. Throughout the performance, he kept close visual contact with the conductor, often playing without even looking at his hands. This changed in moments of strong emphasis / emotionality, or, for example, during the extended solo at Un poco più mosso (after B), when he definitely turned his head towards the keyboard, looking into the piano, or onto his hands.

Adagio sostenuto assai

As indicated above, the cooperation between solo and conductor was excellent. I instantly had the impression that Juanjo Mena felt much more “at home” here than in the Haydn symphony! And Francesco Piemontesi’s playing? I would describe it as effortless, yet emphatic—and certainly anything but superficial virtuosity. In the solo after B, the semiquaver chains were smooth, clear and very clean, yet controlled and shaped.

Soon after C (L’istesso tempo), he started accelerating. Despite the very fluent pace the demisemiquaver upbeats in triple-octaves were so fast and slick that they seemed to flow into / become part of the subsequent note. That section / movement ends with two frightening, chromatic triple-octave downward scales—and even these seemed effortless!

Allegro agitato assai

Throughout the concerto, I noted Francesco Piemontesi’s ability to perform smooth, naturally-feeling, harmonious transitions, such as from the highly virtuosic triple-octave staccato into the short, very dreamy and delicate cadenza (Tempo del Andante) and on, into the following “movement”. That cadenza was a truly serene moment—it appeared to last a little eternity!

Allegro moderato

In the beginning of this section, from G up to the fermata, the orchestra picked up the spirit of the cadenza. The fermata bar in the solo was highly reflective, lyrical. From there, the solo cello takes over, and for a few bars, the piano is mere (but very delicate) accompaniment. The piano and the cello then enter an extended dialogue, in which the piano keeps the control, with very narrative, expressive excursions, little cadenzas, fiorituras, highly artful, delicately ornamented by the composer. Gradually, the expression in the solo intensified (H) in waves—idyllic, but clear, and always technically excellent, including the blazingly fast runs in the cadenza transition.

Allegro deciso

Shouldn’t this annotation read Marziale already? A rather grandiose segment, with its ascending chord figures. It was an opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate steadiness and power, the ability to exploit the full sonority of the Steinway D-274 concert grand. Soloist and conductor / orchestra built up volume and emotion to a very impressive, highly dramatic, glorious climax that seamlessly leads into the next movement:

Marziale un poco meno allegro

After the opening fanfares, further build-up seemed impossible (the sound was filling the hall). However, instead of adding volume, Liszt returned to mf, but switched to a faster tempo (Un poco animato), again building up to a fermata (O).

The composer declared the lyrical insert, marked Un poco meno mosso, tempo rubato, appassionato (from O to P and leading into the final segment) as optional. Gladly, the artists did not skip this section with its expressive melodies in the orchestra and the accompaniment with glittering figures in the pianist’s right hand. Even though it temporarily disrupts the structure of the movement, it would be missed—be it only to allow listeners to catch some breath prior to the final part. A little window into a different universe, or a world beyond?

Allegro animato

Even in the most virtuosic moments, Francesco Piemontesi’s performance appeared unpretentious. He remained technically flawless, if not brilliant throughout. Clearly, he has “internalized” this concerto, lives with the performance. Did he even sweat? I don’t think so! However, Liszt’s music certainly makes him catch fire emotionally. However, he kept his playing under control, avoided exaggerations and unnecessary show effects.

Conductor and orchestra proved to be ideal, matching partners for this soloist: a performance out of a single mold!

If there was any show element in this concerto, it is in Liszt’s score, in the Stretto (molto accelerando) ending. To today’s ears, this sounds a bit too glittery (if not cheap), with its cymbals and the shiny brass, the up-and-down glissandi over the entire keyboard, the excess in theatrical, grand gestures. Of course, we can’t blame the artists for this!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Encore — Debussy: Images, Book II, L.111 — 3. Poissons d’or

Understandably, the applause was frenetic (and well-deserved). So, Francesco Piemontesi sat down at the keyboard again. Without further ado, he started an encore. Too bad he didn’t announce it: I’m sure that this left major parts of the audience clueless, in the dark about this music. More Liszt? Anything related to Hungary, the topic of the evening? Rather—didn’t it sound French??? And if so, why? See below for some more thoughts on this.

Indeed, the soloist abandoned the topic of the concert, switching to a French composer, to a piece by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). From Debussy’s Images, 2ième série, L.111, Piemontesi selected the No.3, Poissons d’or. The Wikipedia article states that this “may have been inspired by a [fish in] Chinese lacquer artwork”, while other related it to an actual goldfish swimming in a bowl. Note that Poissons d’or means “golden fishes”, not goldfish, which in French would be poisson rouge (“red fish).

To me, the “lacquer artwork” is impossible, given the dramatic, glittering and highly virtuosic figures that not only seemed to reflect the erratic movements of a living fish, but (to me) also the flickering reflexes of sunlight in the moving waters of a pond. But whatever pictures this music evokes: Francesco Piemontesi’s interpretation was not only highly virtuosic, but—as already the concerto—blazingly smooth, compelling, impressive. Congrats and thanks!

Rating: ★★★★½

Concert @ KKL, Lucerne, 2019-11-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Concert @ KKL, Lucerne, 2019-11-13 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz.113 / BB 118

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) wrote his Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz.113 / BB 118 in 1939. It is the last work commissioned by and written for the Swiss patron and conductor Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999). The composition has three movements:

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Molto Adagio
  3. Allegro assai

The Performance

For Bartók’s Divertimento, the orchestra was slightly larger: 10 + 8 violins, 6 violas, 5 cellos, and 3 double basses.

I. Allegro non troppo

Besides the (moderately) dissonant outbreaks, lots of this movement (especially the segments with the motoric triplet movement) sounds “folksy”. Most likely is indeed derived from Hungarian folk music. However, Bartók is frequently changing between 6/8 and 9/8 meters—sometimes with every other barline. Not only on the part of the listener, this may be confusing, but also in the orchestra, this constantly requires extra attention.

I think that Juanjo Mena captured the spirit of Bartók’s music. However, could it be that the folksy atmosphere made the orchestra take this too lightly? I found that in this movement, the orchestra did not perform at the same level as in the rest of the concert. The articulation seemed relatively broad, the rhythmic accuracy / poignancy degraded, especially around transitions. With the lack of clarity and poignancy, the listener hardly noted the intricate rhythmic progression, the switching between meters. In addition, the homogeneity of the voices did not reach the same level as prior to the intermission.

On the other hand, the orchestra retained its warm, full sound. Especially with the numerous solo passages (sometimes also a duet, or a string quartet), the performance retained aspects of chamber music. And these solo voices all exhibited really beautiful, warm sonority.

II. Molto Adagio

This movement fully restored my faith into orchestra and conductor: careful, excellent dynamic control in the delicate beginning (pp, ppp, con sordino), very atmospheric, mysterious. Big, broad breath at the Molto sostenuto, never losing tension, suspense, throughout the controlled build-up (in tempo and dynamics) towards the climax.

III. Allegro assai

A folksy beginning, full of drive, sometimes with baroque-like fugato textures. The movement alternated between big symphonic sound and chamber music-like segments, when only two violins and a cello were playing (often just momentarily). Sure, the voices were still not quite as homogeneous and coherent as in the initial Haydn symphony. However, what counted here was the drive, the spirit of Bartók’s music.

The solo violin (Gregory Ahss) is carrying the melody over large parts of the movement, while the accompaniment in the other voices switches from motoric to emphatic, turns polyphonic, then switches to rapid triplet movement that sounded like a swarm of bumblebees. In the center of the movement, the romantic and emphatic, pentatonic violin cadenza offered a moment of reflection. Prior to the accelerating coda (Vivace — Vivacissimo), Bartók inserted a short, surprising Grazioso, scherzando, poco rubato. It is all pizzicato in violins and bass and demonstrated excellent coordination through the acceleration towards the coda. Overall, a fascinating, enthralling and often sparkling movement, full of life!

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Kodály: Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (“Peacock Variations”)

Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) wrote Variations on the Hungarian folk song Fölszállott a páva (Fly, Peacock) in 1939, in response to a commission by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary. The theme with Hungarian and possibly older / other roots allegedly goes back well over 1000 years. The composition features 16 variations and a Finale, all of which are performed attacca:

  1. Moderato
  2. Var.1: Con brio
  3. Var.2
  4. Var.3: Più mosso
  5. Var.4: Poco calmato
  6. Var.5: Appassionato
  7. Var.6: Tempo (calmato)
  8. Var.7: Vivo
  9. Var.8: Più vivo
  10. Var.9
  11. Var.10: Molto vivo
  12. Var.11: Andante espressivo
  13. Var.12: Adagio
  14. Var.13: Tempo de Marcia funebre
  15. Var.14: Andante, poco rubato
  16. Var.15: Allegro giocoso
  17. Var.16: Maestoso
  18. Finale: Vivace

The Performance

The (re-)added woodwinds and brass instruments created a colorful soundscape. Yet, the string voices retained a strong, remarkable presence, even luminosity in the violins. And again, I noted Juanjo Mena’s careful, diligent and detailed dynamics. Kodály’s composition is a very nice and colorful post-romantic sound painting, highly multifaceted, almost like a kaleidoscope. As the variations follow each other almost seamlessly, it is hard for the listener to follow the course of the performance, to identify variations even when looking at the above list. On the other hand, the frequent changes in atmosphere and character made sure the listener did not lose interest and attention. In fact, throughout the variations, I didn’t note any periods where the tension was sagging.

I experienced the performance as harmonious, often virtuosic, especially in the excellent woodwinds. It also was emphatic through the gradual and controlled build-ups, the waves in dynamics and tempo. Juanjo Mena knew how to control the pace also in the slow, holding perdiosa, such as the funeral march (variation #13). After that, there is a variation that seems to quote Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune—French impressionism! To me, the Maestoso variation (as a composition) was a bit too pithy, reminding of film music. The same could be said about the (excessively?) grandiose Finale. Maybe that impression also is a sign of exhaustion after the seemingly relentless sequence of changes in atmosphere? Still, within the boundaries of the composition, the performance was coherent, compelling, and technically very convincing.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Addendum: Should Encores be Announced?

Rather than reflecting on the concert performance, let me add a few personal thoughts on encore announcements here.

I don’t always recognize the encore. An artist may be intimately familiar with a vast array of pieces in the immense piano repertoire. However, even for the experienced listener it is impossible to keep substantial parts of it in mind at all times. It’s much worse for the occasional, less experienced concertgoer. If the artist does not announce the encore, this must make such listeners puzzled, very likely also somewhat annoyed. If it’s unknown music, would it be nice, even useful to know what that piece is? Isn’t this an opportunity to expand one’s musical mind? Without knowledge about the composer & work, it seems to me that such an encore isn’t worth much more than background music in a shopping mall. It may be nice, but will be forgotten about instantly.


More than that, an unannounced encore may leave the aftertaste of snobbiness, or the impression of a compulsory exercise. Of course, there is no moral or other obligation for an artist to make announcements. Except maybe through the fact that people in the audience pay a fair price for a ticket. Hereby, they contribute to the financial outcome of the concert, including the artist’s salary / compensation. Only very, very few performers can live off CD sales. Unless they are also a teachers, concerts are typically the artists’ main source of income.

Concerts are a give and take (a tit for tat, if you want). Through tickets, the audience pays for a concert experience. In exchange for the performance, an artist not only can make a living, but in addition may gain extra reputation and further concert engagements. And if audience members are satisfied, they may attend the next concert, and both parties can continue their relationship, mutually profitable for both sides. That’s enough for both parties to treat each other nicely.

Moreover, almost universally, announcements (if possible loud, slow, and understandable) give a performance a nice, personal touch. They satisfy the curiosity of the listeners in the audience. And they expand people’s knowledge!

Sure, there are other, prominent performers who don’t announce their encores—on the other hand, there are also plenty of high-ranking artists who did (think of Artur Rubinstein!) and still do. It’s not a question of following prominent examples in one or the other camp, but merely one of common sense.

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