Kurtag's Ghosts sees pianist and Klangforum Wien member Marino Formenti attempting a bold performance-compositional synthesis: to stage musical history as if spoken by one voice (the piano), conceived by one mind (the Hungarian composer Kurtag's), and transcribed and performed by another (Formenti's). The project was released as a double disc recording on the Kairos label in early 2009, since then being revisited periodically in live shows such as that offered tonight at the Wigmore Hall.
This is musical history flattened out, dissolved into one chaotic jumble with little sense of cadence or progress. It is a history we recognise from postmodernism of all stripes, but it must be said that in contrast to, say, the vacuous re-presentations of older styles and classical modes of consumption that dominate today's culture, Formenti's is a critical, or at least interrogatory, presentation of that history.
Using Kurtag's preoccupation with the past in his own music, whether that be in the spectral memory of sound itself within the works, in the stylistic re-coordination of older approaches in his series of hommages (and otherwise) to key composers featured here such as Schumann, Ligeti, Schubert, Scarlatti, and Boulez, or in his conjuring of actual persons in other of those hommages, Formenti dramatises the principle, making it explicit by carving out various elisions and breaks in musical history and expressing them in the form of a sort of tissue, a meta-work that stages difference only as an interruption of sameness.
It is an audacious conceit that can only partially be successful: Formenti will not succeed in creating a new musical history (nor would he desire it admittedly), and he will little please purists of either older repertoires or of new music. Much of his shall we say 'compositional' choices here are musically and conceptually sound; shorter tributes to composers are often followed by a sympathetic or revealing piece by that composer and/or related composers (as with the Hommage Ó Stockhausen-Stockhausen KlavierstŘck No. 2-Messiaen ╬le de Feu 1 sequence near the start), whilst chains of stylistically similar works (the bestiary of dances from Bartok, Kurtag and Beethoven that close the first half takes some beating for punch, dexterity, and stunning sleight-of-hand), and subtle interjections (the sole Schumann amongst five Kurtag fragments at the close), fill out the rest of the programme compellingly. But Formenti's fundamental gesture of elision is contentious; extracting works such as, say, the D Minor Prelude from Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier, from its original context will be indefensible to some.
But this is where the project is at its most interesting, producing relations between works previously distant, revealing each anew by the juxtaposition whilst attempting to hold on to the individuality of each at the same time. Kurtag forced resonances in Mussorgsky previously unheard, whilst Janacek, later, brought out a sense of ambiguity in an already-congruent Kurtag. In the sequences mentioned above this production of relations is convincing, moving beyond mere parlour trick into the realm of true creativity. Crowning these productions, for me, was the invigorating and frankly hilarious protracted journey through Mussorgsky, Kurtag, Scarlatti, Kurtag, Bach, Kurtag, and Hadyn (never sounding more like Liszt!) at the heart of the first half. The point was not that these composers were all made to sound like each other here but rather, winningly, that we could hear them in the same way. This hearing was a sight of seduction perpetrated by the bald wildness of Formenti's performance style at least as much as it was by the compositional and aesthetic paths of sympathy we could trace across the works.
That performance style, as it was on the prior release (though if anything the intensity is amped up in person), was dramatic, charged, vigorous, imposing, and vivid. Composite and multifarious passagework in Boulez produced vibrant shifts and variances of tone-colour, whilst, later, baroque rhythms jumped across staves as they telescoped in and out of modernist post-echoes in Kurtag's re-visioning. Elsewhere, the bald wildness mentioned above produced leaden weight in Schumann in the second half, for example, whilst it reversed into pent-up and a little ruffled cantabile at the head, in Machaut (perhaps the boldest inclusion here, though the fragmented nature of his music of course was highly germane). Generally, however, discharge of the head-spinning programme was carried out with a proper sense of drama and an overriding musicality that worked to dispel doubts about the value of the endeavour.
In a sense Formenti is doing little different with Kurtag's Ghosts to what programmers of conventional concerts and CDs habitually seek to do anyway, but such is the audacity here that some of the most fundamental questions of aesthetic experience are called into question: how should we listen to music? Who gets to assign value to pieces of music, and composers, and who creates canonical groupings out of those composers, and why? What is musical history anyway? My colleague Liam Cagney, in his review of the CD release, suggested that Formenti's is a fundamentally Romantic project, a seeking of a synthesis in musical history, even if that synthesis is formed from fragments obscurely linked. I would agree with this assessment, underlining however that the particular mode of synthesis being attempted here - a bird's eye view from the top down, musical history apparently having ended - is an endemically postmodern one.
Musical history is a dynamic, mobile phenomenon. It is yet in the process of being made, and will continue to be long into the future. Formenti's project is one of the more interesting of the primarily musical attempts to grapple with and re-order an element of that history that I've heard, even if the manner of its execution was highly inimitable.
Photo: Marino Formenti