A Gifted Young Pianist Offers Much Beauty and a Touch of Disappointment


Handel, Schubert, Ligeti, Brahms: Inon Barnatan (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.5.2017. (BJ)

Handel – Chaconne in G major, HWV435

Schubert – Sonata in C minor, D.958

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata

Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24

Having in two earlier reviews found occasion to hail Inon Barnatan as a superb musician showing promise of developing a major career, I went to this cleverly programmed Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital with high expectations.

There were indeed many beautiful touches to be enjoyed in the course of the evening. The young Israeli showed himself especially adept in the vivid realization of the rapid flights of short notes that dominate much of the texture in Handel’s attractive Chaconne, and that return as tiny decorations at the ends of four-measure phrases in the Handel theme varied by Brahms. Barnatan also paid due attention the life-giving dynamic and rhythmic distinction Brahms draws between the third beat and the other three beats in his final variation, though it could be felt that a slightly more moderate tempo and lighter pedaling might have made the difference still clearer.

Tempo was also an issue in the work’s concluding fugue. I love musicians who take risks and eschew respectable moderation, but under the pianist’s immensely capable hands, this monumental movement perhaps sacrificed a degree of its majesty to his insistent stress on forward-moving excitement. Meanwhile, in the penultimate variation – the one with rapidly rising crescendo scales in the lower reaches of the keyboard and violent offbeat chords higher up – the notes were clearly articulated, but the effect lacked the volcanic power I have heard in other performances.

The evening’s semi-contemporary piece, Ligeti’s 1953 Musica Ricercata, was projected with skill and evident conviction, making the most of its alternations between mystery and forceful rhetoric. As for Schubert’s C-minor Sonata, this darkest of the composer’s final three works in the genre was given the most uncompromisingly saturnine interpretation I have ever heard of it. The sheer concentrated inwardness of the thing was undeniably powerful. But I felt that a little more give, a little more relaxation, at such junctures as the idyllic second subject of the first movement would have added valuable contrast; and it need not have damaged the dramatic effect of what was certainly a valid approach to a masterpiece that, like all great music, can admit of widely divergent interpretative views.

I had my reservations, then. But Barnatan still strikes me as a musician of exceptional talent, and I shall continue to attend his performances with the liveliest anticipation of pleasure and enlightenment.

Bernard Jacobson

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