Liszt has had a recent run here in New York, not because of an anniversary or anything, but as a feature of two different new music concert series. Yes, you read that correctly: Franz Liszt, who was born over 200 years ago, was a feature of both David Lang’s collected stories and, more recently, the New York Phil’s Biennial. The composer, pedagogue, traveling virtuoso pianist and heartthrob was nothing if not an “advocate for modernity”, as pointed out by Marino Formenti – himself a virtuoso pianist – at Lincoln Center on Wednesday evening. Mr Formenti only briefly introduced his eclectic whirlwind recital, “Liszt Inspections”, before calling out “Good luck!” and diving into one of the most attention-grabbing sequences of music that I’ve ever witnessed.

Marino Formenti © Gyula Fodor
Marino Formenti
© Gyula Fodor

For around an hour and a half, Mr Formenti volleyed between loudly hammered pieces and pieces so soft that, if it hadn’t been for his fingers pressing the keys before my eyes, I might not have realized there were notes happening at all. He transitioned seamlessly from earlier Liszt to later Liszt, from Liszt to 20th century composers, from 21st century compositions back to Liszt. In so doing, every ambiguity and every dissonance of this 202-year-old composer became much more clearly heard. As the marathon of works (18 in all, plus an encore) wore on, the lines between generations and nationalities became less and less distinguished, blurring into a run-on sentence exploring the piano’s possibilities for sounds, storytelling, and good ole-fashioned showing off.

 The opening piece, Hungarian Folksong no. 5 in F minor, was a dreamy and delicate example of Liszt’s thoughtful, folk-tinged output, and it was followed by the similarly dreamy and delicate Knabenschwermut (“Youthful Melancholy”) by Viennese composer Friedrich Cerha, before a return to Liszt with the Klavierstück no. 2 in A-flat major and then an introduction of the first distinct dissonances with György Kurtág’s 1997 ...waiting for Susan, in which the keys were pressed ever-so-softly and sometimes merely caressed or glided over with the pads of the fingers, and then we rewound a century, to 1885 and Liszt’s Bagatelle ohne Tonart (“Atonal Bagatelle”), which skittered crazily around our ears before finally skedaddling off in a lovely upward phrase and then landing on Ligeti’s Etude no. 3 Touches bloquées (“Blocked Keys”), one of the highlights with its intimidating rhythms and interlocking harmonies, the exact opposite of the next piece, Speech of Clouds by Gérard Pesson, an almost pointillistic venture into the ethereal and painfully quiet, the harmonies dabbled out as opposed to abrasively banged out, which happened during Wolfgang Rihm’s Klavierstück no. 6 (“Bagatellen”) and Klavierstück no. 7, two veritably ear-shattering works composed from 1977 to 1980 that were considerably longer than the rest of the program and that both sounded quite Lisztian in their wide range of dynamics and high levels of virtuosity (accompanied by red pencil markings scrawled all over the massive scores); these were followed by another later Liszt composition, the funereal Michael Mosonyi, in which the departures from conventional tonality were much more pronounced, and an earlier Liszt composition, Funérailles of 1849, featuring roving left hand octaves and a much more ostentatious (but equally funereal) musical language, though any pensive mood was completely extinguished by Galina Ustvolstaka’s Piano Sonata no. 6, composed mainly of tone clusters punched by Mr Formenti’s fists along every section of the keyboard, alternating with the occasional palm or elbow, and after a briefly “melodic” middle section returning to the violence of the beginning, with the pedal sustaining and distorting the final clusters, but afterwards everything became much more peaceful, with Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt lending its idyllic evocation of water, though perhaps interpreted a bit too metronomically for my taste, Berio’s Wasserklavier (“Water Piano”) of 1965 providing an intricate and pleasurable depiction of fluidity, and John Adams’ China Gates offering a pure and gorgeous take on precipitation; these three water-themed works were followed by three short and moving not quite lullabies – Liszt’s Wiegenlied (“Cradle Song”), Morton Feldman’s exquisite Piano Piece of 1964, and Liszt’s Resignazione, a quiet and interrogative bit of music – and their eventual resolution, in the form of a sweetly-played Brian Eno encore.

Pausing to draw breath, I was not altogether convinced by Mr Formenti’s technique, which felt a bit too shallow for most of the Liszt works themselves. At times it seemed that his fingers were skimming across keys that should have been played with accuracy or, alternatively, not at all. However, I was impressed by the cohesion of his recital: the way each piece flowed so naturally out of the piece before, and how the nineteen pieces blended so palatably into a portrait not just of Liszt, but of the piano.

***11