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Kurtag's Ghosts

April 17, 2007

The Italian pianist Marino Formenti is in town this week giving a series of concerts entitled San Francisco Piano Trips at the de Young Museum's Koret Auditorium.

On Sunday evening, Formenti, a sought-after interpreter of the contemporary repertoire, took me on a musical journey far from today's San Francisco in time and place. It was quite a trip.

The program, entitled Kurtag's Ghosts, was a mercurial mish-mash of music ranging from frenetic snatches of a Bach prelude to the drawn-out, dissonant cadences of a Ligeti threnody. The premise of the concert was to demonstrate the link between the music of composer Gyorgy Kurtag (who was born in 1926 in Romania) and his manifold sonic influences.

Over the course of two hour-long sets, Formenti interspersed short works by Kurtag (whom the pianist dubs "one of the greatest living composers" in his program notes) with soundbytes by composers as long-dead as Machaut, Scarlatti, Haydn, and Purcell and as recently deceased (or not even) as Messiaen, Ligeti, and Boulez.

Formenti played with such such childlike intensity that I frequently didn't know if I was in the presence of a three-year-old or a grown man. Sometimes the pianist would hammer at the keys with the violence of a jackhammer cracking asphalt. At other times he caressed them like he was stroking the down of a newborn chick. Every now and again, he'd gaze at the Steinway Grand with wonder, as if seeing the marvelous object for the first time in his life. On these occasions, his wrists would often flop outwards at 90 degrees to his forearms, in a sort of effete gesture reminiscent of Elvis in all shook up mode.

The programing was self-indulgent in some ways, and his drilling through many of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic works appeared utilitarian more than artistic -- seemingly played to prove a point rather than create art. I also found it hard in places to keep up with the garbled medley (Formenti would pause for just a fraction of a second before barreling on with the next piece.) Nevertheless, there was also a divine, euphoric flow to the evening. And when I found myself able to hear a bit of Scarlatti in Kurtag's Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass or Schumann in Kurtag's Memoriam pieces, I felt a new world open up for me.

I don't think I would follow Formenti into a burning building as one critic of the pianist's work intimated in a recent review, but there's no denying that his playing consumes the listener like an inferno.

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