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Inon Barnatan, pianist
Romantic Symmetries: Inon Barnatan in Recital
By Gary Lemco
WITH THE BRILLIANT conclusion to his one encore, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 of Felix Mendelssohn, Israeli-born piano virtuoso Inon Barnatan concluded a startlingly colorful survey of Romantic pianism that included Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann. Under the aegis of the Steinway Society the Bay Area, the March 24, 2013 recital at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto began by linking two potent works in C Minor: Beethoven’s 32 Variations, WoO 80 (1806) and Schubert’s mighty C Minor Piano Sonata, D. 958, (1828).
The Beethoven found a plastic and potent interpreter in Barnatan, whose virile approach to this bravura display piece might have reminded some auditors of another Israeli artist’s fondness for this alternately austere and spontaneous work, Mindru Katz. Barnatan took the original eight-bar motif and allowed its inherent capacity for transformation full throttle, in counterpoint, in explosive sforzati, in humorous dance gestures. We soon experienced exactly the same upward harmonic – and stress on the second beat - progression in Schubert’s grand C Minor Sonata from his fertile last year of life, 1828. Barnatan held a particularly taut line in the first movement Allegro, not relaxing that much for its secondary, solemn theme, given its “icy, uninviting, unsensual, and neurotic character,” to paraphrase Alfred Brendel. The sudden chromatic shifts intermittently destroy any sense of emotional security in the movement, and we came to feel that poetry alone proves insufficient to overcome life’s trials.
The sense of sturm und drang interrupts the A-flat Adagio movement, too, given its capacity to wander among exotic harmonies in the course of its intended gentle journey. Barnatan aligned this sadly passionate movement with the late Klavierstuecke, D. 946, which also express pious pantheism in five-part rondo form. Occasionally, as does Beethoven, Schubert flirts with much darker vistas of the personal abyss, barely held in check by Schubert’s innate penchant for Classicism. Lying somewhere between Menuetto and scherzo, this movement kept extending the phrase lengths by one measure, more asymmetry within a strict form. If the wit is meant as gallows-humor, Barnatan made its light and crisp applications palatable without our feeling morbid. The last movement Allegro had Barnatan at a fervent gallop, playing with elements reminiscent of the Erl-Koenig but marked by lithe crossing of hands in fecund digital dialogues. The rhythm suggests a saltarello or tarantella, a mocking totentanz under Barnatan that reminded us of the old oft-quoted Viennese quip, “Life is hopeless but not serious.”
The second half of the concert combined another pair of Romantic apostles, Chopin and Schumann. Chopin’s F Minor Ballade (1842) combines many rhetorical gestures, some from the fantasia, others from the nocturne. Ostensibly a musical response to the Adam Mickiewicz poem “The Three Budrys,” the piece captures the tragic spirit with remarkable invention and iconoclastic polyphony. The alternately brooding and propulsive, even convulsive, nature of the music Barnatan evoked with real sympathy for Chopin’s deep textures and pregnant silences. The passionate coda fff, juxtaposed with the long rest and five pp chords, made its drama intimate and resplendent, at once. As John Ogden once proclaimed, “It’s hard to believe the work lasts only twelve minutes, since it contains the drama of a lifetime.”
Lastly, Barnatan proffered Schumann’s glorious masked ball, his 1834 piano suite Carnaval, Op. 9. These “little scenes on four notes” manage to propel us into the interior world of the composer’s psychic and personal life as well as outwardly to the confrontational ethos of Beethoven, ending with a March of the Davids-League Against the Philistines, that is, the pseudo-intellectual mode of intellectual complacency. Aggressive, serene, flirtatious, virtuosic, bold, and retiring, the suite makes any number of allusions to Schumann’s romantic interests, Bach, and some of the stellar musical personalities of his time, not the least of which is the ubiquitous violin demon Paganini, whose bariolage and broken chords gave Barnatan, too, a run for his money. Nice gravitas from Barnatan for Chiarina, aka Clara Schumann, who would soon win the composer’s creative hand for a lifetime. Grand gestures and impassioned rhetoric characterized the entire cycle, whose innate tension did not sag during their artful transformations, appearing at last in a panoply of colors to triumph over all adversaries, digital and intellectually repressed. The spirit of youth had touched Barnatan’s brow, although a darker shadow had also illuminated the evening’s fearful symmetries. ♪♪♪
Dr. Gary R. Lemco is a regular contributor to Classical
Music Guide. He resides in California.
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