Music review: Marino Formenti tackles the ‘Diabelli’ Variations

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After 19 years, finally a boo.

Philharmonic Society president and artistic director Dean Corey reacted with delight during intermission of Marino Formenti’s recital Saturday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The booing was in response to the U.S. premiere of Evan Gardner’s “Variations on a Theme by John Cage.” The feisty Italian pianist chose this piece for piano and live electronics as prelude to his astonishingly visceral performance of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

Known as a rivetingly physical, virtuosic and now and then wayward specialist in new music, Formenti was Corey’s offbeat choice to participate in the society’s ongoing survey of Beethoven’s most audacious late chamber music. The “Diabelli” -- 33 formidable variations lasting nearly 45 minutes -- was not in Formenti’s repertory. Corey’s terms were that if he learned the variations, the pianist could program anything else he wanted, with the expectation of reminding us that Beethoven was once avant-garde too.


Formenti began the concert with the Modernist British composer George Benjamin’s “Shadowlines,” crystalline miniatures played with beautiful delicacy and flickering immediacy. For Gardner’s new piece, Formenti put on special electronic sensor gloves, which he waved in the air to create feedback on a loudspeaker. Beethoven was reserved for the second half.

That was not all. Formenti included a short essay, “I Always Hated the Diabelli,” in the program book.

“While the cars and planes drive faster, the air gets dirtier, and the stock markets are on a roller coaster,” he wrote, “we sit in a classical concert … and expect a kind of detached sublimity that has nothing much to do with real life.”

There can, of course, be pitfalls involved with connecting Beethoven to real life. You might end up with Moisés Kaufman’s melodramatic “33 Variations.” The Broadway play, seen recently at the Ahmanson, starred Jane Fonda as a dying musicologist puzzling over why Beethoven based the “Diabelli” -- which Alfred Brendel has called the greatest of all piano pieces -- on a trivial waltz theme by a Viennese music publisher.

Gardner, a young American composer living in Germany, provided the obvious answer. A function of art is to illuminate the quotidian, to draw our attention to what we miss that is all around us. His Cage theme was that of “4’33”,” namely silence. But unlike Cage, who instructed the pianist to sit at the keyboard and make no intentional sound, Gardner had the pianist control “silence” with the feedback gloves. Not everyone, we’ve seen, approved, but this electronically enhanced “silence” was richly textured, and nothing like the ear-splitting feedback squeal we are used to when a microphone gets too close to a speaker.

Formenti’s “Diabelli” then asked an interesting question. Has Beethoven been too monumentalized? The pianist’s method was to offer a tour of Beethoven’s messy mind. “We can see old Ludwig laughing like crazy,” Formenti wrote in his essay. “I am laughing myself every day like crazy.”

The performance began with defiance, as Formenti wildly attacked Diabelli’s waltz even before completely sitting down on the piano bench. He embodied old Ludwig laughing like crazy -- funny, exaggerated, full of irrepressible spirit. From there, ideas gleefully and preternaturally leapt left and right as the variations became the dances of neurons firing.

Formenti has a lyrical side that is the embodiment of sweetness. He can, when he wants to (and that isn’t always), articulate with great clarity. He is a highly strung pianist, zealously pedaling with his right foot while his left nervously jitters. He lunges like a rattlesnake striking the keys.

Fast variations tumbled into each other, Beethoven getting away from himself. But Formenti also stopped to smell the roses. He took a long pause before the 20th variation, which is all slow chords, and he made those slow chords so slow, so infused with the piano’s sonorities, that harmonic motion all but ceased and we entered into a sonic glow as modern as Gardner’s electronics. If Formenti’s impulsiveness meant revelation followed revelation, it also meant that every so often the pianist got into a little trouble, losing the line or muddying up textures. But the dazzling variations were truly dazzling. The cosmic ones were as cosmic as tomorrow’s space exploration. And the comic ones were outrageous. The sense of adventure never wavered.

Old Ludwig would not have recognized anything about this recital, not the modern instrument, not the modern hall and certainly not our impulse to institutionalize his music. But I’d like to think Old Ludwig would have, along with Formenti, laughed like crazy.


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-- Mark Swed