United Kingdom Schubert, Franck, Currier, Ravel, Inon Barnatan (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.5.2015 (RB)
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G, D894
Franck – Prélude Choral et Fugue
Sebastian Currier – Glow (world première)
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Israeli pianist, Inon Barnatan, is the first Artist in Association of the New York Philharmonic. He has received enthusiastic reviews for his recordings of Schubert (review ~ review) and of modern music (review) so I was pleased to see a Schubert sonata and a contemporary work on tonight’s wide ranging and varied programme.
I last heard Barnatan performing at the Wigmore Hall with the cellist Alisa Weilerstein (review). I was particularly impressed with their performance of Schubert’s late Fantasie for piano and cello and the opening work on tonight’s programme confirmed for me that Barnatan is a Schubert player to be reckoned with. Schubert’s G Major Sonata is a mature work and it was one of only three piano sonatas published in his lifetime. The opening movement is marked Molto moderato e cantabile and pianists have adopted a wide range of tempos in response to this instruction. I heard Richter perform the work in the Royal Festival Hall many years ago and he played the first movement extremely slowly although he still succeeded in captivating his audience. Barnatan adopted a faster tempo than Richter but the pulse was sufficiently restrained to reflect properly the molto moderato marking and seemed just right to me. Barnatan showed us all the ingredients of great Schubert playing in this movement – exceptional beauty of tone, a wide and finely calibrated range of dynamics, and an ability to make the piano sing. The slow movement opened in a simple and unaffected way but as the movement progressed Barntan captured brilliantly the wide and extreme shifts in mood moving from soft dreamy reverie to deeply personal anguish and soul searching. The scherzo had a vibrant rhythmic drive and bite while the trio seemed to retreat into a quiet private place that was very moving. The finale was playful and enchanting and the wonderful melody in the central section was hauntingly beautiful. There were a few very minor inaccuracies in this movement but I would much rather have playing of this calibre with the inaccuracies than some of the very safe playing one hears nowadays in the concert hall.
We moved from the early to the late Romantics with Franck’s Prélude Choral et Fugue which the composer wrote in the rich twilight of his career. Barnatan coaxed a wide range of textures and colours from his Steinway in the Choral from the soft grained arpeggio figurations of the opening to the highly expressive chromaticisms and organ sonorities. The Choral was rapt and seamless and there was a superb incremental build up in dynamics as the movement progressed but without loss of beauty of tone. Barnatan showed us his virtuoso credentials in the fugue and there was some very impressive articulation, imaginative sonorities and rugged, muscular playing at the climaxes to the piece. In the final section the voicing of the material was not always as clear as it could be but the final section with the pealing of bells in B major was rich and vibrant ending the movement in style.
The second half of the recital opened with Sebastian Currier’s Glow which was composed in 2012 specifically for Barnatan. Currier introduced Glow from the concert platform and explained that Barnatan had stipulated the new work should connect with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit which he was programming to play alongside it. The title of Ravel’s work is generally translated as ‘The Treasurer (or Jewel Keeper) of the Night’. Currier said that he imagined jewels gleaming from some narrow light source in the otherwise enshrouding darkness and this was this starting point for the composition. The work is in seven movements with the titles: ‘Moonlight’; ‘Sparks’; ‘Fireworks’; ‘Lighthouse’; ‘Strobe Light’; ‘Spiral Galaxy’ and ‘Ember’. The piece was an interesting mix of impressionistic tone painting and Bartókian savagery. It sounded extremely difficult and Barnatan played it in very committed and spirited way. It was an interesting experiment and reasonably engaging but it was not of the same calibre as the other three pieces in the programme and I do not envisage it entering the repertoire in spite of Barnatan’s valiant efforts.
Barnatan concluded the recital with Ravel’s highly virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit which is based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand. The best exponents of Gaspard must navigate the extreme technical difficulties in an effortless way while at the same time probing the multi-layered poetic nuances of the piece. The first thing to say is that Barnatan was completely on top of the technical demands. The shimmering right hand demi-semiquavers of ‘Ondine’ were played with a high degree of technical finish and Barnatan used the pedal sparingly. He seemed to strike just the right balance between the elements of seduction and threat and the mocking laughter at the end had a spine tingling effect. The tolling B flats were well controlled in ‘Le gibet’ and Barnatan sustained the line and injected human warmth into the piece. Bertrand’s poem is very shocking and macabre and I would have liked to hear more of the desolation in the piece and to have a greater sense of the grisly scenes being depicted. Barnatan’s performance of ‘Scarbo’ was a virtuoso tour de force – the repeated notes were played with scintillating brilliance and one could hear Ravel’s gnome pirouetting and dancing around the room. The section where Scarbo grows in stature was a highly charged and extremely virtuosic piece of playing and one could really hear the menace in the music. As in Bertrand’s poem, the performance ended with Scarbo being extinguished in a puff of smoke.
This was an outstanding recital that was warmly applauded by the Wigmore audience. Barnatan performed two encores including a transcription of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze.