Inon Barnaten, piano; Works by Beethoven, Ravel and Schubert, Vancouver Playhouse; October 3, 2010

Inon Barnatan, piano

Inon Barnatan, piano

As an ‘appetizer’ to their main concert series at the Chan, The Vancouver Recital Society featured the return of the exciting 31-year old Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan to play this season’s opener. He is certainly a pianist to be reckoned with! He has vast technical and tonal resources, and a commanding intensity. But he has an extremely fertile mind too and, in this concert, you could almost see him dissect and intellectually evaluate each aspect of the work he was playing. What emerged was a fascinating set of ‘experiments’, of which I review three. 

1. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, Op. 31, No 3 is an attractive, buoyant, middle-period composition, which welds short, contrasting musical fragments into what is typically a smiling, playful whole. The contrasts are often sharp and punctuated. The pianist seemingly aimed to show how making these contrasts more intense and dynamic could make for a deeper experience. Even in the first few minutes, the number of different emphases, contrasts between very loud and very soft, etc. was bewildering. But as the work progressed through all these carefully-crafted ‘bits’ of insight, I began to wonder whether I really knew this sonata! Verdict: A challenging idea, but the pianist stopped the natural flow of this work by his consistent highlighting of detail. The contrasts cannot be taken so seriously as to rob the work of its playful momentum. 

2. Ravel’s La Valse is a soft gentle waltz that ends up exploding in a ‘dance of death’. Towards the end, most interpreters bend the rhythms with a demonic swagger, and increase the sensuality of the phrasing. Mr. Barnatan instead kept things fairly metrical until the very end where he then increased the dynamics dramatically. The contrast between the wonderfully-controlled soft playing to begin and the final explosion was indeed stunning. Verdict: This is a very interesting approach to the work but possibly too cool and analytical for some listeners. 

3. Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D. 959 is one of the triad of his greatest, and final, piano works. It is a most beautiful composition, starting from a memorable opening statement, and after ‘heavenly lengths’ of drama and deeply-felt lyricism, coming back full circle to its initial motif. The first movement was played most elegantly, but all I could think of is how closely its design resembled Rudolph Serkin’s (c.1970) CBS recording. With the older pianist at his most uncompromising, there were often ‘sparks’ set off at dramatic peaks, but not here; this was safer and more yielding. The second movement’s tread also started somewhat statically, so that the fugal onslaught later (possibly the high point of the work) turned out to be just a little tame. The final movement has such a clean natural flow that it can almost play itself. But here the pianist’s innovation was to introduce expressive pauses and further beautifications in phrasing. Verdict: Much wonderful playing but this is a difficult work for a young pianist to command over its full length. The self-consciousness indicates ‘over-thought’ on the artist’s part. I do not dissent from the Gramophone’s view that he is ‘a born Schubertian’, just not a fully ‘natural’ one as of yet. 

All the above commentary indicates is that Inon Barnaten is still a ‘young’ pianist; some experiments succeed, others fail. But a truly exciting artist to watch for; he has both outstanding technical capabilities and a mind of his own. Indeed, a reviewer’s delight! 

© Geoffrey Newman 2010