“I always hated the Diabelli Variations,” writes Marino Formenti. Coming from any other pianist, this would sound like a confession.
Marino Formenti is not “any other pianist.”
The Italian-born musician only began studying Beethoven’s meandering piano work at the recent request of Dean Corey, President and Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The organization is in the midst of presenting all of Beethoven’s late works, and Mr. Corey is very familiar with Mr. Formenti’s ouvre, going back to the late lamented Eclectic Orange Festival. By bringing the new music specialist to Segerstrom Concert Hall to play this particular touchstone of Beethoven’s late period, Mr. Corey was clearly going for something a bit unexpected.
In the program notes, Mr. Formenti explained that his opinion of the work was colored by the fact that “all the interpretations were way too ‘respectful,’ not to Beethoven’s incredible genius, but to the monumental, inhuman ideal we have made of him throughout generations, throughout centuries.” He continues:
There is a trend to shift the great artists of the past and their expressions into an unearthly heaven . . . maybe because we are afraid that we don’t really understand them anymore because of the huge cultural differences between our time and theirs, or maybe because we need idols in a difficult world where a real God can be difficult to perceive.
. . . The Variations are a gigantic reflection of the entire world, the past, history, collective memory has the central place. . . . The past is there, but the future is not missing.
Whatever your pre-conceived notions of how the Diabelli Variations were supposed to be performed, what Mr. Formenti played Saturday night was almost certainly not it. His approach to Anton Diabelli’s opening theme sounded like equal parts homage and parody of a classical waltz, the way the movie Bring It On masterfully laughs at the world of cheerleading while simultaneously showcasing it. The subsequent variations were more of the same, going beyond even Alfred Brendel’s concept of the work as something intended to be taken humorously. At the same time, Mr. Formenti seemingly approached the thirty-three variations as separate works, each in their own microcosm of time and space. They were brutal, thought-provoking, tender, punchy — you name it, you’d find it eventually. Sometimes a variation sounded like Chopin, another like Bartok. On very few occasions did it sound like the kind of noble, grand, and brooding Beethoven you’d expect from, say, a Pollini or a Schiff. It was never the purely flamboyant Beethoven you’d get from an Ashkenazy or Barenboim. If academics and early music specialists try to peel away layers of shellack off of Beethoven to give us a different view, this was like Diabelli Variations shoved through an MRI machine, allowing us to peer at layers from the inside out. It was unabashedly, unapologetically post-modern in approach, and uniquely Formenti.
The overall effect was arresting. You never knew what you were going to get, and that kept you on the edge of your seat. It was fascinating seeing/hearing how he phrased and colored various passages, breathing here, stomping there (both literally and figuratively). It was most effective in the slower, quieter moments; faster passages could occasionally sound clotted, and there was a moment or two when the formidable pianist seemed to struggle. While it wasn’t a performance easy to love, it was definitely both intellectually and viscerally stimulating.
The concert opened with two contemporary works for piano — more or less. George Benjamin’s Shadowlines was the more conventional of the two, a series of “six canonic preludes for piano” written originally for Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Moments of wildness were interspersed with an uneasy mellowness. Mr. Formenti gave it a compelling reading, attacking and caressing it into submission. It was a piece worth hearing again.
Also on the dockett was the U.S. Premiere of Variations on a Theme by John Cage for Piano and Live Electronics by the thirty-three year-old composer, Evan Gardner. He used Cage’s iconic 4’33” as a starting point for a study in how recorded silence played back, rerecorcded, and played back again in continuing cycles can create unique sounds. The pianist is asked to wear special gloves and make various hand gestures over the piano keyboard without actually touching it; a midi damper pedal, a laptop computer, and various electronics, microphones, and speakers rounded out the tools. At it the work’s beginning, you find yourself initially drawn in, trying to discern what kind of sounds (if any) the soloist’s karate-chop gestures were creating. As the performance progressed, you get the impression that Mr. Formenti was playing something akin to a malfunctioning theremin; rhythmic pops and buzzes ebbed and flowed has his hands sliced and cupped the air. Unfortunately, the variations evolved from interesting to tedious as the sounds grew louder and more frequent; eventually, any sense of connection between soloist’s motions and the sound being created was lost, and at some point, Mr. Formenti’s presence seemed to be superfluous. A worthwhile concept, but the execution ultimately left me ambivalent.
Random other thoughts
- Being a page turner for a musician is kind of like being a long-snapper on a football team: no one notices or cares about you unless something goes amiss. It certainly is not as easy as it usually looks — you have to be able to not only read music, but anticipate when the soloist actually wants their page turned (some prefer it early, others right as they play the last note). This task is even more challenging when the music is rhythmically complex. This was most in evidence during Mr. Formenti’s performance of Shadowlines, as he and his helper were sometimes, well, literally not quite on the same page. It added some extra tension to the performance; one could sympathize.
- It was a somewhat restless crowd Saturday night, and the machinations of Gardner’s work especially caused some discomfort, causing some to giggle or snicker, while others simply walked out. Interestingly enough, I counted more people getting up and leaving in the middle of the Beethoven performance than had done during either of the two contemporary works. The crowd that remained was attentive and appreciative, offering healthy, though perhaps not-quite-enthusiastic, applause. The buzz leaving the hall was positive, and the many folks I passed by sounded duly impressed and satisfied.
- Mr. Formenti did not play an encore.
Marino Formenti, piano
Benjamin: Shadowlines – 6 Canonic preludes for piano
Gardner: Variations on a Theme by John Cage for Piano and Live Electronics (U.S. Premiere)
Beethoven: Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120
Photo credit: Alessandro Cavana