Monday, December 07, 2009

Formenti Plays Messiaen

Aspects of the Divine
Messiaen: Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus
Marino Formenti, Piano
Saturday, December 5, 5pm
St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley

I found the setting for this particular recital to be severe. My concert companion looked up at the plain crucifix hung on a concrete column & pronounced it "brutal." When the lights came down, it became very dark except for a bright spot on the piano. Marino Formenti, followed by the page turner, entered down the aisle, sat at the piano & fidgeted as he adjusted the bench several times. For the next 2 hours I could not take my eyes off his large head or allow my attention to wander. Mr. Formenti is as much a performance artist as a pianist. Each Regard was an exploration of a state of mind, & his playing went to extremes. He made me think of both demons & saintly ascetics. He could be quiet, calm & measured, playing with even, legato chords. In the next moment he would explode into cascades of pounding runs that pushed me back in my pew & made me grit my teeth. He wailed on that piano, often snorting like a bull. I would have been terrified to be his page turner. Sometimes he threatened to end up in her lap. About a third of the way through, I started worrying about his hands. Does he put them in ice after each performance?

I'm not especially a fan a Messiaen, but Mr. Formenti sold me on this music completely. Highlights included X. Regard de l'Espirit de joie, full of joyous singing & sounding like an explosion in Gershwin's head. I liked that Mr. Formenti let it be schmaltzy. I also liked the soothing & meditative XIX. Je dors, mais non coeur veille, played with effusive romantic gestures. Mr. Formenti ended his recital with a flourish at the low end of the keyboard that brought him right up to his feet. It was impossible not to want to cheer. Mr. Formenti is disarmingly modest, though, & he held up Messiaen's score to us when he returned for another bow.

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