This past September 11, the Vienna-based KAIROS label released the latest solo recording conceived by pianist Marino Formenti and co-produced with Deutschlandradio Kultur. The title of the album is Liszt Inspections; and any discussion deserves a bit of context, particularly for those unfamiliar with Formenti’s approach to repertoire. Formenti made his San Francisco debut in 2007 by giving a series of three solo recitals, which were jointly titled The San Francisco Piano Trips. In retrospect this title could be taken as implying that it was possible to prepare a program for a recital that the attentive listener could treat as a journey. In this context it is worth observing that, when András Schiff performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria in recital as part of his six-concert Bach Project, the extensive notes he prepared for the program book took a similar approach, describing the traversal of the full set of variations as a journey.
The first of Formenti’s “trips” was given the title Kurtág’s Ghosts. The title drew attention to the rich extent to which Kurtág’s music reflected the influences of others, particularly composers from the past but also occasionally his contemporaries. Formenti thus prepared a generous collection of Kurtág’s miniatures, interleaving them with equally short compositions that reflected his influences (the “ghosts” of the title). KAIROS released a two-CD album of that program, under the same title, in June of 2009.
Liszt Inspections takes a similar approach, relating a single composer to a wide variety of other composers. This time, however, the composer is Franz Liszt; and none of the other composers are his predecessors. Rather, the interleaving pieces on the album were all written between 1951 and 2006. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that any of these pieces reflect the influence of Liszt.
Rather, Formenti decided to focus his attention on some of Liszt’s final compositions, demonstrating the many ways in which they departed significantly from his preceding works. The crystalline brevity is particularly important, as is Liszt’s abandoning most of the flamboyant virtuosity from which he made his reputation. Even more interesting, however, is the extent to which several of these key works strive (and sometimes succeed) towards abandoning a sense of a tonal center. Liszt, after all, outlived Richard Wagner and clearly appreciated the extent to which Wagner could use dissonance to impose ambiguity on the very nature of a harmonic progression.
Nevertheless, the album is not so much about how (or even whether) those late pieces had an impact on more recent generations of composers. Instead, Formenti seems to have prepared a program through which the attentive listener can reflect on how much happened between the death of Liszt and the death of Anton Webern, who is a far more likely “influence candidate” for some of the composers on this recording, such as György Ligeti. At the same time Formenti brings our attention to those composers, who, themselves, chose to depart from Webern, such as Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Galina Ustvolskaya. Finally, as one might guess, Kurtág also shows up over the course of this new “journey” recording.
The real question, however, is whether this strategy of interleaving late Liszt with radically more recent selections may have an impact on how we “inspect” Liszt’s music, particularly with regard to his late period. In that respect the logic behind Liszt Inspections is at least a bit more tenuous that Formenti’s plan for Kurtág’s Ghosts. Nevertheless, each of the 29 selections on this new album has much to attract the attention of the serious listener. Those who approach it with an open mind will probably find the experience both satisfying and (at least on a few, if not more, occasions) genuinely exciting.