Formenti’s Hands & “Kurtág’s Ghosts”

by Chris Vitiello on March 30, 2011

Chris Vitiello on Part I of Kurtág’s Ghosts:

Marino Formenti (photo: Betty Freeman)

Marino Formenti possesses the largest vocabulary of touch of any pianist I’ve seen, as if his hands were individual, sentient creatures. The program he played at Reynolds Theater on March 27, Kurtag’s Ghosts, required all of his formidable haptic repertoire. You can’t touch ghosts, but Formenti gave it a heroic try.

Kurtag’s Ghosts comprises 70 short compositions or fragments by 18 different composers. More than half of them are by the Hungarian modernist György Kurtág, and many of those are homages to other names on the program. The tributes come immediately before or after their honoree’s work, giving us a rare chance to hear Kurtág and his influences in close succession. Sometimes, the breaks between one piece and the next were too brief to register except as stylistic shifts, and so one had to decide whether to follow along in the program notes or listen to the entire set as one piece with many changes.

György Kurtág (photo: Andrea Felvegi)

This constant motion from composer to composer, leaping centuries in minutes, was pleasantly disorienting, like being lost in an interesting city when one knows the general direction back to familiar ground. At times, Formenti himself appeared lost in the program, leaning close over the keyboard and watching his hands as if they were unfamiliar to him. At other times he seemed to release his hands to their own devices while his mind went elsewhere, as if mulling over a difficult and longstanding problem.

For Guillaume de Machaut’s “Tres douce dame,” Formenti used the soft, cold touch of a scientist handling lab samples, careful not to compromise the integrity of the experiment. But he used an entirely different touch to play two of Kurtág’s “Hommage à Farkas Ferenc” around the de Machaut, more taut and durable. On Modest Mussorgsky’s “Catacombae,” Formenti switched to a careful slowness, as if disengaging from an embrace with a feverish child he’d rocked to sleep, and for Kurtág’s nine-second “Hommage à J. S. B.,” the pianist evoked the robotic scurrying of insects, running his hands at speed from the highest to the lowest notes. Maybe hands can’t be self-aware, but Formenti showed that they can be haunted.

Brian Howe on Part II of Kurtág’s Ghosts:

Sadly, it was already intermission when I made it to Reynolds. But such is the depth and intensity of Kurtág’s Ghosts that I left feeling like I’d gotten a full experience. As the lights dimmed, Formenti launched into the tuneful and highly familiar strains of Henry Purcell’s “Round O” before veering off into the obscurely menacing “Tears” by Kurtág, the chords decaying slowly in the air. At first I followed along in the program, but I soon put it away and gave myself over to the new narrative Formenti constructed—a thesis-bearing classical DJ mix with no crossfades.

Even so, it was seldom hard to recognize a Kurtág section. His music is supremely miasmic, an eerie haze of resonance lit from within by bright sparks. Moving from it into Chopin or Schumann was always bracing, like wandering out of a swamp and into a topiary garden. Formenti played with measured, ringing sustain; a silky right hand and an iron left. His style was sophisticated, but unafraid of blunt gestures, like the curt thunks shunted into Janáček’s “On an Overgrown Path, Book II.” No region of the piano’s dynamic range, from the murkiest blur to the starkest thunder, went unexplored. Formenti’s body contorted along the with music, as if he were the nexus of great forces that threatened to rend him apart.

Which, of course, he was. For the pianist, the physical and intellectual demands of Kurtág’s Ghosts are almost unimaginably severe. People struggle for whole lifetimes to get inside the spirits of individual composers—imagine knitting nearly 20 into an argument about the heritage of a difficult modernist, switching on a dime from one to the next. It resembled a séance more than a performance—as Chris mentioned, at times Formenti’s attention seemed focused on some metaphysical point only he could see, beyond the piano and the audience, where all his ghosts parlayed. As the full 20 seconds of stasis at the end of the performance indicated—one assumes Formenti waited to release the keys until the last glimmer of sound, inaudible from the audience, washed away—he was on a wavelength of his own.

Marino Formenti (photo: Gyula Fodor)

I thought it was an extremely fine performance, but I wonder how much of the audience agreed. It’s difficult to quantify, but the energy in the hall felt restless. In the extremely muted and meditative home stretch—which was marred by someone’s R2-D2 ringtone—I couldn’t tell if the audience was still with Formenti. There was a lot of rustling, and the ovation at the end came a little begrudgingly. This may not have been anyone’s fault in particular—this piece requires a very deep spell to be woven, and sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. Perhaps the stage needed to cool off after the Bad Plus set it aflame the night before, or it was just Sunday-night malaise in the half-full hall.

The other possible explanation for Formenti’s slightly cool reception is that Kurtág’s Ghosts may tell a story geared more toward academics than casual listeners. After all, each of these pieces of music originally told a story of its own. In this fragmented context, those stories give way to one that is entirely about music—a fascinating and erudite one, but lacking the sort of traditional emotional through-line you may expect from a piano recital. Then again, perhaps I just misread the energy in the hall—if you were there, why not share your thoughts in the comments box below?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

AndyHat March 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I absolutely loved it, as did the folks around me that I talked to. I think the delay in the ovation was just the result of the quiet somber tone of the last few pieces; I know I needed some time to mentally re-adjust to “applause” mode after that and was quite appreciative that the audience allowed a period of silence after the final notes.

I definitely hope we get to hear Mr. Formenti again in future years.

Reply

Brian Howe March 30, 2011 at 2:16 pm

That’s true Andy–perhaps what I perceived as ambivalence in some cases was stunned appreciation. Glad to hear you and your seatmates enjoyed it!

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: