“That piece comes straight from Mozart’s heart”

Pianist Francesco Piemontesi in conversation

Francesco Piemontesi
(Photo: Marco Borggreve)

The Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi played himself to the top of the world with his sophisticated, subtle and colourful performances. He is considered an outstanding Mozart interpreter and he is now making his debut as such with the Berliner Philharmoniker – together with conductor Lahav Shani, principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and, as of this season, music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, succeeding Zubin Mehta. In our interview, Francesco Piemontesi reveals what inspires him as a musician, what he loves about his instrument, and what this debut means to him.

Can you remember the event or the moment when you decided to become a professional musician?
Such an event never happened in my life. But one of my earliest childhood memories is a walk with my parents. Suddenly church bells started ringing and I started to cry. My parents thought the loud sound scared me and pulled me away, but I just cried harder. I liked the sound of the bell so much and was so fascinated that I immediately sat down at the piano at home to imitate it. The interest in recreating a sound drives me to this day. That’s why I became a musician.

And you chose the piano as your instrument. What do you love most about it?
I am fascinated by the tonal range of the instrument. So much is possible on it: a wide dynamic range, different timbres and very different types of touch, from delicate and sensitive to hard and brutal. In terms of its expressive possibilities, the piano comes very close to the orchestra.

Where do you get inspiration from for your artistic work?
I love listening to historical recordings where the great composers themselves sit at the piano: Brahms, Debussy, Bartók... I also love the recordings of Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and Alfred Cortot. What I admire about them is a style of music-making in which, despite respect for the musical score, one feels a great artistic freedom.

One of the great pianists of our time became your mentor and teacher: Alfred Brendel. What did he give you?
We immediately understood each other both on a personal and artistic level. We are united by an interest in the finer things in life such as good food and fine wine, but also by an obsession with sound. He has broadened my horizons enormously. With his help, I learned a completely different way of listening. He encouraged me to think more orchestrally on the piano: for example, he said, “When you hear this phrase, imagine that you are a cello...”. That was very helpful.

In 2015, you made your debut at Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation events with a piano recital. Now, for the first time, you will be a guest soloist with the orchestra, performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last piano concerto. What is the challenge of the piece for you?
Although it is Mozart’s last piano concerto, one should not mythologise it. Because I believe that when Mozart composed it, he did not think that it would be the last work of its kind. Nevertheless, it is a thoughtful, melancholy piece that comes straight from Mozart’s heart. I want to convey this idea to the audience. The piece must be very song-like, intimate and transparent.

What are you most looking forward to about your debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker?
I have known and loved the recordings of the Berliner Philharmoniker since my childhood. For myself to perform with this great orchestra now makes me very happy. Here I have the best conditions for the performance of the Mozart concerto. And I am very, very grateful to be able to perform with the Philharmoniker in these difficult times.

The conductor Lahav Shani is making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker – together with Francesco Piemontesi
(Photo: Marco Borggreve)