POETIC BRAHMS FROM INON BARNATAN IN THE VSO OPENER
Inon Barnatan, piano; VSO/ Bramwell Tovey; Works by Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Murphy, Orpheum, September 27, 2014
One cannot accuse Music Director Bramwell Tovey and the VSO of starting their 96th season timidly, as two demanding works were featured in its opener: the Brahms First Piano Concerto and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Pianist Inon Barnatan made his third Vancouver appearance, fresh off his appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s first-ever Artist-in Association. The pianist sparkled in Vancouver’s Brahms chamber music festival last March.
It is an interesting observation these days that, while up-and-coming violinists virtually line up to play the Brahms Violin Concerto, few young pianists seemingly want to venture towards the piano concertos. This was much less apparent fifty years ago, where young (and now legendary) pianists such as Leon Fleisher, Daniel Barenboim, and Julius Katchen took it a matter of routine to play the Brahms concertos, usually arm-in-arm with the Beethoven. While Stephen Kovacevich and Krystian Zimmerman perpetuated this practice, it has been exceedingly difficult to find remnants of the tradition over the past two decades. Perhaps only Hélène Grimaud’s name comes to mind. This makes Inon Barnatan’s venture more important than one might otherwise think, and perhaps it is not just a matter of coincidence that one of his early teachers was Leon Fleisher.
While there is always a temptation to play up the majestic power in the Brahms First Concerto, this performance simply let the work unfold. Maestro Tovey gave ample lyrical breadth to the orchestral opening, so that the pianist’s first entries could easily relax into an unforced poetic flow. The tempos were very deliberate but the pianist’s shaping of phrases caught the wistfulness, intimacy, and indeed the ‘love’ in this music very successfully. Everything was naturally in place and moved in an unmistakably Brahmsian way. While I have witnessed Barnatan’s virtuosity and insight before, I have really never seen him so sensitive and so much at one with the spirit of the music. The powerful piano proclamations that punctuate the lyrical flow of the opening movement were rightfully pointed and strong, though here one might have asked for even more Brahmsian weight. The following two movements maintained the concentration. The pianism in the Adagio was quite ravishing, distilled and focused, full of thoughtful repose, building to a very fine emotional outpouring in collaboration with the orchestra. The Rondo finale ushered in a lighter and more buoyant mood but found many sparkling twists and turns on the way to its lovely conclusion. Fresh off its summer break, the orchestra played remarkably well. And I have seldom seen Maestro Tovey so relaxed and lyrical in his conducting. Certainly, one could find little imbalances and executional inaccuracies here and there, but they really did not matter. The soloist and conductor always ensured an entrancing direction and flow.
Also Sprach Zarathustra was also given an interesting treatment, perhaps more vivid than usual. The double basses after the opening fanfare were given a stronger, almost macabre, projection rather than creating a very soft, musing haze. While some of the fire and feeling here might be regarded as a little ‘out front’, the first parts of the work did move extremely well, generating an almost-cinematic tapestry. The massed strings produced a lovely surge and sensuality at the right points. The later parts of the work are trickier, since the musical content is undeniably thinner. Nonetheless, the waltz sequences again went splendidly, having considerable point and verve, and featuring excellent orchestral execution. The only reservation was the quiet ending. It seemed to arrive too abruptly, with both the flute and the orchestra too loud and too quick to capture the lingering indeterminacy that intrigued the composer so much. Here I think that the failure to generate the very soft, ‘man arising from the ashes’ feeling in the lower strings early on did make it difficult to hint back to this similarly-remote posture at the end.
With the concert opening with Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy’s brilliant A Thousand Natural Shocks – a work commissioned in celebration of Maestro Tovey’s initial appointment with the VSO -- the evening turned out to be pretty extended. But very enjoyable it all was. The orchestra played well, the standard of music-making was high and the almost-sold out house thoroughly appreciated it.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014