Barnatan displays exceptional artistry in Bach-inspired program

December 11, 2014 at 1:44 pm

By David Wright

Inon Barnatan made his Boston recital debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series.

If his performance Wednesday night at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall was any indication, there’s never a dull moment at an Inon Barnatan recital.

The Tel Aviv-born pianist demonstrated an exceptional range of touches, articulations, and tone colors, and the musical understanding to use them.  For most of the recital, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, it seemed as though virtually every bar of music contained some particular nugget of meaning for him, which he was able to communicate directly to the listener.

It was a performance to keep one on one’s toes, listening intently.  The playing was, in fact, so rewarding to hear from moment to moment that one could forget that, much of the time, no strong concept of the piece as a whole was at work.  Barnatan’s flair for high drama and stark contrast sometimes obscured the outlines of the piece instead of illuminating them.

The evening’s best-integrated performance was of the opening work, J.S. Bach’s Toccata in E minor, BWV 914.  Far from the throwaway Baroque opener still sometimes heard on recital programs, this compact, improvisatory piece in four connected sections sprang to life under Barnatan’s fingers.

The pianist adopted a tone that was firm enough in its center to acknowledge the harpsichord (for which the piece was written) without imitating it.  His style of phrasing, however, was unabashedly pianistic, with a discreet, unmannered rubato in the slow sections and lucid voice-leading in the faster fugues.

He savored the music’s moments of drama and caprice without exaggerating them.  The fast and furious final fugue took an almost Beethovenian glee in its surprises and spurting figures.

It was a performance that, while true to Bach, also reminded one that this composer was the father of almost everything that came after.  The next two pieces on the program, Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue and Barber’s Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26 (with its brilliant fugal finale), were plainly chosen to reinforce that point, and it was hardly necessary for the artist to introduce each piece with spoken remarks to that effect.  (Speaking from the stage can help build rapport with the audience, but in this case the pianist could have trusted his fingers to do the talking.)

Although Franck’s piece is one of the most overtly Bach-derived works in the Romantic repertoire, Barnatan chose to begin its preluding figuration in an impressionistic haze, as if to emphasize modernity over antiquity.  Later on, the pianist’s fondness for crashing Lisztian sonorities took the music in another direction that could be considered alien to the Belgian-born organist-composer’s conception.  But in general, Barnatan’s skill and conviction carried the day.

Barber’s fascinating Sonata bears the marks not just of Bach but of its diverse American paternity: commissioned in observance of the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, the new-music-promoting organization led by Aaron Copland, the piece was bankrolled by the Broadway giants Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers and introduced by the emigré über-virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz.

Barnatan’s dramatic performance seemed to touch base with all of these, but especially the last.  The first movement’s clanging dissonances recalled Copland’s own Piano Sonata, although the vaporous interludes sounded like something out of late Scriabin.  Barnatan’s fast but biting leggiero playing was breathtaking in the scherzo, and even the Rodgersian waltz episode had an aggressive edge.

The pianist’s fine sense of color and voicing showed to advantage in the Andante mesto, where he could throw a snatch of melody into any of many different degrees of relief; in that subtle context, the movement’s fortissimo climax sounded somewhat overinflated.

Barber’s finale is not so much a fugue in the Bach and Franck sense as a brilliant toccata with a catchy “rocket” theme and some nifty imitative counterpoint.  Here again, Barnatan did not resist the urge to throw the bomb in every virtuoso passage, and the piece seemed to end about five times before it actually did end, but too much of a good thing can still be a pretty good thing, as the audience enthusiastically acknowledged at the end.

The intermission was welcome at this point, if only to press the reset button for a piece with no overt references to Bach or Horowitz, Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959.  Barnatan did not exactly reset his own volatile style of interpretation for this piece, but he did create a clear Schubertian atmosphere in which one could appreciate his careful attention to voicing between the hands and his unerring sense of when to linger slightly over a phrase and when to press ahead.

Unafraid of Schubert’s “heavenly length,” the pianist repeated the first movement’s exposition, subtly highlighting different aspects of the music the second time around.  Thanks to his imagination in linking and relating phrases, this episodic music seemed always to be going somewhere, even if the ultimate destination (a coda in Barnatan’s vaporous style) couldn’t be guessed.

The sonata’s middle movements were oriented for maximum contrast, the Andantino a soft, despondent song interrupted by a surge of harmony-smashing rage, and the Scherzo a flighty flibbertigibbet of a piece.  In the latter, Barnatan’s remarkable ability to flit about the keyboard in leggiero chords began to seem more the point of the performance than the content of the music itself.

The leisurely rondo finales of Beethoven and Schubert pose twin interpretive challenges to the pianist: how to sustain their unpretentious charm over their considerable length while at the same time creating a satisfying last act to a dramatic sonata.  On Wednesday, Barnatan’s energy and imagination seemed to flag at this point, or perhaps the limitations of his bar-by-bar approach were becoming apparent.  In any case, for the first time that evening, the music wandered, and so did this listener’s attention.

The encore, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, exhibited the pianist’s dexterity, leggiero, and roaring fortissimos one more time.  The audience applauded this added item, but did not demand another.

The next presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, 8 p.m. Jan. 16 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.  celebrityseries.org; (617) 482-6661.

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