Concert Review: Pianist Inon Barnatan — In a Class By Himself

Pianist Inon Barnatan’s Celebrity Series recital felt like a tremendous occasion. In fact, it communicated a sense of joy, of invigorating discovery, which is rather rare.

Pianist Inon Barnatan --

Pianist Inon Barnatan — his performance was suffused with disarming charm, intelligence, and eloquence.

By Susan Miron

Expectations were high when pianist Inon Barnatan walked on stage at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall on Wednesday evening. He had previously impressed on the Celebrity Series with cellist Alisa Wallerstein, and many who heard them hoped he would be given all-solo program. But even those who expected a high level of excellence were stunned by the phenomenal playing of this 35-year-old pianist, the first performer ever to be designated a New York Philharmonic “Artist in Association,” a three-season appointment that includes multiple concerto and chamber music performances with the orchestra. Here’s the bottom line: The Celebrity Series Debut Series has showcased some superb performers — but Barnatan proved that he is in a class by himself.

I don’t generally like musicians who talk from the stage, but Barnatan, who was born in Israel in 1979 and moved to New York in 2006, addressed the audience with disarming charm, intelligence, and eloquence. It should come as no surprise that these qualities also characterized his performance. He began his unusual – and unusually challenging – first half with J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 (c. 1710). Originally composed for harpsichord, this virtuosic piece was one of a number that Bach wrote for organ and harpsichord when he was at Weimar. Barnatan’s approach to Bach sounded strikingly improvisatory at times: it was a stunning performance, filled with exquisite colors. The next two pieces, the pianist explained, were composed in the shadow of Bach, by people who knew the composer’s counterpoint well.

César Franck’s (1822-1890) Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue (1884), a favorite of the late pianist Artur Rubinstein, combines the seductive beauty of French Romanticism with an unmistakable nod to Bach and the keyboard music of the Baroque. What struck this listener throughout the evening was Barnatan’s beguilingly varied touch – he nimbly jumped from the thunderously loud to the gentlest of pianissimos. His phrasing was always expressive, often poetic.

The unquestionable highlight of the first half was Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) Piano Sonata (1926). Barnatan believes that this dauntingly difficult piece isn’t just a great American composition: it is one of the great 20th century works for piano, period. Written with Vladimir Horowitz in mind – a pianist with no technical limitations – the piece has been championed by some of the most admired super-virtuosi of our time, including Evgeny Kissin, Earl Wild, John Browning, and Marc-André Hamelin. A fellow critic (and composer) at the recital mentioned to me that, for him, Barber’s Piano Sonata never really cohered. That is, until this powerhouse performance, which, like every other piece that evening, came off as spellbinding, dazzling, full of raw power as well as lyrical delicacy. The audience went wild; my skeptical critic/composer friend said that it was the first time the piece had ever made satisfying sense. I hope Barnatan will get around to recording it. This was a thoughtful, shattering, and thrilling experience. It was followed by an equally impressive performance of Schubert after the intermission. Barnatan has excelled in, and twice recorded, the music of Franz Schubert. He chose, for this concert, to play the A Major Sonata, one of the three last sonatas the composer wrote shortly before his death in 1828.

For his encore, the pianist chose something exuberant yet seriously virtuosic — Felix Mendelssohn’s “Andante and Rondo capriccioso. It was an apt capstone to a celebratory performance; a recital that felt like a tremendous occasion. In fact, the concert communicated a sense of joy, of invigorating discovery, which is rather rare. Barnatan’s next appearance in Boston will also be on the Celebrity Series with his duo partner, cellist Alisa Wallerstein, on Friday, May 1, 2015 at Jordan Hall. Need I tell you that it shouldn’t be missed.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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