Inon Barnatan takes the Wigmore Hall by storm

Inon Barnatan at the Wigmore Hall
I had heard Inon Barnatan on the radio in a magical performance of Schubert G major sonata.And so I was very pleased to have the chance to hear him live in concert at last.
He has quite a reputation in America but judging by a less than half full Wigmore hall his reputation has yet to reach these shores.Who is Inon Bantanan? …….. like most of the programmes these days it does not tell you who he is or his formation but lists  the many prestigious engagements that he has coming up.This is what I was able to find out on the web though :

The Israeli pianist, Inon Barnatan, born in 1979 in Tel Aviv, started playing the piano at the age of 3 after his parents discovered he had perfect pitch, and he made his orchestral debut at 11. His studies connect him to some of the 20th century’s most illustrious pianists and teachers: he studied with Professor Victor Derevianko, who himself studied with the Russian master Heinrich Neuhaus, and in 1997 he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music with Maria Curcio – who was a student of the legendary Artur Schnabel – and with Christopher Elton. Leon Fleisher has also been an influential teacher and mentor. In 2006 Barnatan moved to New York City, where he currently resides in a converted warehouse in Harlem.!He regularly performs with cellist Alisa Weilerstein.In 2014 Barnatan became the first Artist in Association at the New York Philharmonicand The New York Times listed his album Darknesse Visible as one of the best classical recordings of 2012.He has received many awards, including an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009 and the Andrew Wolf Memorial Award.


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A programme of which the Schubert B flat Sonata was its crowning glory.
Prefaced by nine Mendelssohn Songs without Words and Ronald Stevenson’s remarkable Peter Grimes Fantasy ( or should one apply Grainger’s terminology of ‘ramble’ here?)
Concluding this prelude to the main course of the evening in true show business style with Gershwin’s sleezy second prelude and the amazingly energetic antics of Earl Wild’s reworking of ‘I Got Rhythm.’

Some commanding playing of such assurance both musical and technical.There was never a moment of doubt of what his intentions were.
Playing of complete conviction and intelligent musicianship that is rare indeed.
But it was exactly his total self assurance that precluded any discovery or feeling that anything could happen.
Etherial,magical,fantasy or kaleidoscopic sounds were not part of his vocabulary.Intellectual control,total command of the instrument and absolute respect for the score were.
Here was an artist that gave such perfect performances but one was left with the impression that our presence was superfluous!

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There are some artists these days that are so enormously gifted they can play perfectly all the works of Beethoven,Schubert,Mozart or even Busoni ,Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Even fly to Rome in the intervening period of complete cycles to perform the mammoth Busoni Piano Concerto.Or even give definitive performances of the Grosse Fuge for four hands in their spare time.
They are impeccabile and can and do give urtext performances of the entire piano repertoire.
But there is not a single memorable moment that one longs to cherish!

I heard just such a genius play the last three sonatas of Beethoven at 7.30 relayed live from the Wigmore Hall.I followed with the Urtext score at home and was very impressed by the perfection in every sense.There were so many people that wanted to attend he had to repeat the  performance half an hour later.A performance that was equally as perfect- maybe after a quick cup of tea!
Serkin or Arrau could never have done that!Not only they, but also the audience, would be so exhausted and overwhelmed with performances of towering commitment it would have been impossible to even contemplate a repeat.
Neither the audience or the performer could have possible sustained such a daunting prospect.

I heard Mitsuko Uchida playing the Schubert B flat in London and I then travelled thousands of miles to have the same experience in Perugia months later.In the hope to meet her and try to understand who the artist was that could create such magic and wield such power over me.
Of course I am thinking above of Igor Levit and Jeremy Denk.Inon Barnatan certainly joins their ranks……….they have a superhuman talent to play and to know so intimately such a vast repertoire but ultimately do not wield the same power as a Serkin or an Arrau.Image may contain: text

The nine Songs without Words were the most popular ones chosen from the 48 Songs in eight books.The Hunt is  one of the longest and it was played immediately with great rhythmic propulsion and shaped so beautifully it became a miniature tone poem that contrasted so well with the staccato/ legato song in F sharp that followed and was so much part of Horowitz and Ivan Davis’s repertoire.Marked leggiero with the beautiful legato melodic line added above its delicate accompaniment.It is a magical song that was played with great assurance and shape but already one became aware that he missed that lightness of touch and quicksilver sounds that can turn these well known works into real jewels that can be made to sparkle and shine.

The approach to the keyboard of Inon Barnatan with his wonderfully assured fingers gripping the keys like limpets does not allow for a more etherial touch that barely dusts the keys.

It is the so called Russian school that has reminded us of the value of being able to modulate so infinately not the sounds from mf to ff necessarily but the sounds from mp to pppp.When I first heard Richter it was how quietly he could play and with what control that took us all by surprise.Generally the beauty of the hand movements and the flexibility of the wrist allow the music to be shaped with such colour and naturalness.The shape of the hand movement could almost be the same shape as the music on the page or like a  conductor painting the music in the air like a  painter would with a brush on the canvas.Image may contain: 1 person, standing, shoes, suit and indoor

Inon Barnatan has a different type of approach that somewhat limits his choice of colour.In these pieces by Mendelssohn in particular they could sound a little colourless  and  as one of the public said rather hard and without charm.Nevertheless it was remarkable playing of great assurance and of a musician of great intelligence.There were many things to admire from the passionate outpourings of the B minor op 30 n.4 to the beautifully shaped ‘Shepherd’s Lament.’The extreme beauty of op 62.n.1 ‘Maidufte’- a  song spun with great expression that excluded any sentimentality.The imperious march of op 62 n.3 ‘Trauermarsch’that dissolved so magically was contrasted with the ‘Bee’s wedding’played with such clarity and assurance but lacking in that last ounce of charm and wicked sparkle that can be so persuasive as it was in Rubinstein’s hands. There were beautiful sonorous sounds in the ‘Venetian Gondola Song’with a crystal clear melodic line of such melancholy and sadness.The ‘Elegie’ was played with a glorious outpouring of melody contrasting so well with the final joyous dance of op 62.n.2.These were fine musicianly performances but just missing that ultimate touch of  magic because of a lack of a full  kaleidoscopic range of sounds.

The bleak and bare world of Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy was ideal territory for him and there were suddenly some magical colours and transcendental playing of great conviction.Magical pedal effects and even some plucking of strings as a whole fantasy world of sound was suddenly opened up.The final chains of rising and falling thirds were pure magic and created the atmosphere that Britten had conjured up with his masterpiece of Grimes. The work that created such a stir just three months before the end of the second world war when it was premiered in London at Sadlers Wells in June 1945(the war finished in September).Image may contain: 1 person, on stage, standing, shoes, living room and indoor

The sleezy Prelude n.2 in C sharp minor missed that wonderful fluidity that  real jazz pianist’s have up their sleeve.Talking of which it was his no holes barred performance – elbows at the ready-of Earl Wild’s  ‘I got rhythm’that  brought the first part to a glorious show busy end. His transcendental rhythmic command, total assurance and evident ‘joie de vivre’  was intoxicating indeed.

After the interval the last of Schuberts great trilogy written just a few months before his death.Here he found a much more fluid sound and there was a great outpouring of emotion and passion.His very solid musicianship gave great architectural shape and weight and it was in many ways a remarkable performance.

But it was a Schubert with his feet very much on the ground.Etherial,magical and subtle phrasing were not for him.This was a more intellectual approach of great involvement like I remember from Serkin.

One is searching for that elusive unknown world and the other lives in a established world of certainty .The difference between a believer and non believer one might say.Both are valid when played by artists that are convinced and can be convincing.The search though is more memorable than that of the arrival.I am surprised he did not play the repeat in the first movement that for an intellectual musician of his stature I would have thought a necessity.The slow movement was monumental indeed played with masculine sentiment that excluded any sentimentality of falseness.The scherzo was played with a very smooth legato and with great rhythmic energy.The last movement was played with almost pastoral calm that contrasted so well with the passionate outbursts that dissolved into the seemless song which seemed to pour from Schuberts pen with such spontaneity.

In many ways a great performance of one of the masterpieces of the piano repertoire.

The transcription of Bach’s ‘ Sheep may safely graze’  was offered as an encore after much insistence from a small but very enthusastic audience. It was here that he revealed some of the magic that had eluded him earlier.The final whispered confession  floated into the auditorium and held us all spellbound long after the final notes had resounded.

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