Music by KURTÁG, MACHAUT, STOCKHAUSEN, MESSIAEN, BOULEZ, MUSSORGSKY, D. SCARLATTI, BACH, HAYDN, SCHUBERT, BARTÓK, BEETHOVEN, PURCELL, SCHUMANN, JANÁ?EK, CHOPIN, LIGETI, LISZT
I have often been struck how frequently composers paradoxically reach back in time for inspiration when they are attempting something truly radical. Beethoven was especially fond of thisRead more route, as his String Quartet No. 15 and other works demonstrate.
Among recent composers no one channels the gods of Western music past with greater effectiveness and insistency than György Kurtág. And yet his references go far beyond mere stylistic pastiche or verbatim quotations. Nor does he simply ignore a century of innovation, as many of today’s most commissioned composers do. Pianist Marino Formenti employs an ingenious strategy for teasing out this most essential aspect of the great Hungarian composer. In 71 short tracks on two discs, he roughly alternates between the composer’s shorter works with movements by other composers, often the ones referenced in his corresponding homages.
It’s hard to know where to begin to describe the depths of the pleasures and surprises in Formenti’s remarkable venture, though I’m certain that some may object to hearing their favorite short piano works juxtaposed abruptly (even rudely) with music so bracingly contemporary. Among other things, his recital serves notice that our way of constructing programs, whether on disc or in concert halls, is in dire need of fresh operating principals.
His assemblage begins simply, with two medieval works of Machaut alternating with two movements of Hommage á Farkas Ferenc. The first three are delicate, faint, and thinly textured, the span of over six centuries seemingly inconsequential in this intimate conversation. It might seem like an impossibly steep climb from there to Stockhausen, but his Klavierstück No. 2 assigns a similar urgency to individual pitches and gestures. Finally, on the seventh track, the pianist dives into an incendiary pyrotechnical display with Messiaen’s Île de feu 1, a far more tightly structured and dense construction. Kurtág’s nearly inaudible, wafer-thin . . . humble regard sur Olivier Messiaen . . . slams the door on the aural onslaught. The high decibel profusion continues with knockout performances of Boulez’s Notations 10 and 12, but not before we hear a riveting account of Kurtág’s salute to the Frenchman.
It is entirely possible that the context within which Formenti places older works colors his interpretation of standard repertoire. Scarlatti’s B-Minor Sonata is played in a hushed, almost lethargic fashion, perhaps better to dovetail into the dreamscape of Kurtág’s bewitching Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass. Or was Formenti aiming for maximum contrast with the previous piece, the deliriously vehement Sirens of the Deluge? A few of his choices are diminished when excised from their original setting. Mussorgsky’s “Catacombs” from Pictures at an Exhibition loses much of its impact divorced from context. Not so for First Punishment, which has a nightmarish quality that is only amplified by its inclusion before Kurtág’s stark and brutal Hommage à Muszorgszkij.
So how should a listener best approach this program? Listening in one fell swoop is ideal (and a bracing exercise in concentration), but I also found that choosing segments of consecutive tracks is a good alternative. If your listening environment comes with even the slightest risk of sonic intrusion, a quality pair of noise-isolating headphones is the best option.
Not surprisingly for someone of his background, Formenti’s strength lies in music of the last half century. His readings of Bach and Scarlatti don’t quite scale the heights of the best Baroque specialists, missing a measure of textural clarity due in part to a slight excess of pedal. Classical works in the disc are also a bit heavy-handed at times, though they do come with a compensating measure of rhetorical vividness and structural integrity. On the other hand, Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie, D 817, gets everything right, traced as it is with tender, understated lyricism. No matter the era, Formenti makes his intentions clearly and often provocatively. Aside from his obvious affection for the music he plays, Formenti is also telling us that context matters. He has succeeded not only in presenting gripping performances of some of the finest piano music in recent decades, but he has also drawn provocative lines of dialogue that many would have thought unworkable. For one who has long grown weary of the massive single composer surveys that have dominated the recording industry, this disc comes as welcome antidote.