Pianist Barnatan delivers revelatory Schubert at Ravinia

Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 2:46 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Pianist Inon Barnatan performed a wide-ranging recital Sunday night at Ravinia.

Having attended Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute from 2000-03 and having appeared on the festival’s Rising Stars series in 2002, Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan was making a homecoming of sorts with his official Ravinia debut Sunday evening with a recital in Bennett-Gordon Hall.

The program began with a surprisingly cool but transparent rendition of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque that was sometimes overplayed, particularly in the opening Prelude. Barnatan telegraphed every rhythm and every gesture rather than allowing the music to hang in space in an ethereal manner, an overemphatic approach that was especially distracting in the Suite’s most popular piece, “Clair de lune.”

Barnatan managed to effectively bring off a wider variety of moods with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, whether it was the gentle arpeggio-laden seductive mermaid in “Online” or the devilish frenzy of the tormenting imp of “Scarbo,” a virtuosic tour de force played with immense clarity.  

Most persuasive was the middle movement “Le gibet” where Barnatan exquisitely painted a picturesque aural portrait of the setting sun’s pulsating red rays on the corpse of a hanged man swinging gently with church bells in the distance.         

Two smaller paraphrase pieces of and by British composers were used as interludes. The first was Ronald Stevens’ Peter Grimes Fantasy, which takes themes from the Benjamin Britten opera, its prologue and sea interludes and cobbles them into a mini-pianistic fantasy in the Liszt tradition, at times calling on the pianist to percussively pluck piano strings while holding down specific notes.

The second was Thomas Adès’ Darknesse Visible, which subjects Renaissance master John Dowland’s 1610 song In darknesse let me dwelle to a series of permutations that seek to shed light on its musical skeleton, so to speak.          

Through the use of transformed placement, register shifts, dynamic contrast, melodic omissions and juxtaposed tremolos, Dowland’s original melody — which is not revealed in recognizable fashion until the end of the piece — takes on a curiously abstract character, Schenkerian analysis set to music, as it were.  

Schubert is a composer associated with Barnatan, his debut recording having spotlighted his music. It was Leon Fleisher’s invitation to study and perform Schubert sonatas at a Carnegie Hall workshop that prompted Barnatan’s move from London to New York to be near his mentor.  

Barnatan’s performance of Schubert’s penultimate Sonata in A Major, D. 959 was a revelation on a variety of levels. As is true with so many young virtuoso pianists, Barnatan was able to toss off this difficult music like child’s play.

But what made this performance a significant cut above many interpretations of Schubert were the imaginative choices that Barnatan made, all of which were illuminating and each completely at the service of the music rather than the pianist.

Rather than present late Schubert merely as expansive Classicism, Barnatan appreciates Schubert as a precursor to modern music as well. Choosing not only to emphasize Classical structure run amok, this is Schubert shown as pushing Romanticism to the limit.

This was particularly evident in Barnatan’s traversal of the Andantino, which contrasted the lyrical and pulsating outer sections with a wild and frantic development section. The ensuing Scherzo was delightfully playful with its devilish crosshand section before Barnatan unleashed a dramatic and passionate finale, which sounded so fresh even this familiar music came across as unpredictably adventurous.

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