Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Inon Barnatan @ Wigmore Hall, London

7 June 2006

The Wigmore Hall seems to be doing well with young pianists this season.

First it was Grace Nikae, who dazzled with her brilliant flair – and now Inon Barnatan who captured listeners’ attention, whilst employing a different style altogether.

Barnatan took part in the Wigmore Hall’s ‘outstanding young musicians’ programme and although he didn’t play to a capacity audience, he received thunderous applause for his efforts.

The recital began with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major K.533/494. It was fitting to start with a contribution from the father of the piano sonata, although Barnatan’s playing was anything but paternal. Instead he encapsulated the youthful clarity and charming freshness that is required to do the young composer justice.

Barnatan made the complex texture of the first movement light and elegant. He brought out the thematic material, guiding the audience through Mozart’s harmonic acrobatics. His touch was delicate, but not at the expense of his unfaltering tonal precision.

The Andante‘s beautiful lyricism wound through Mozart’s warm harmonic modulations. It is a credit to the composer that it hinted at a syrupy Romantic flamboyancy without being allowed to wallow in it. Instead, at the last minute the mood changed as a new variation of the melody took over.

The Barber Piano Sonata Op. 26 (1949) was a wonderful contrast to the Mozart. This was apparent from its aggressively punchy opening to the trendy jazz-inspired closing fugue.

The Sonata is a wonderfully regal piece. It was commissioned by the American League of Composers to celebrate its 25th anniversary and is suitably dramatic. Barnatan made the most of Barber’s wide dynamic changes, undulating waves and furious stabbing motifs. Barber combines bare, sparse textures with the lush, luxurious sounds with which the composer is often associated.

The second movement, an Allegro vivace, was played with sprightly ease despite its virtuosic style. The Adagio was a further contrast as Barnatan bought out its mellifluous sadness.

The Sonata’s fugue is a fiendishly difficult display of the piano’s technical potential. However, not once did I get the sense that Barnatan felt frantic or out of control. The endings of each phrase were impressively placed and the final accelerando was thrilling to watch.

After the interval was a performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Major D.960 (1828). This sonata was written the year of Schubert’s death. It is therefore part of that elite group of works which possess the mature serenity that the composer acquired in the final years of his life.

Barnatan’s natural affinity with his instrument really came across in this performance. The first movement combines emotional Romantic lyricism and the strictures of sonata form to great effect. It opens with an unassuming beauty which sets the scene for a joyous interweaving of motivic subjects.

Surprisingly, one of the evening’s most memorable moments was the tranquil and gentle Andante sostenuto movement. It takes a real master to produce an awed response by holding back rather than by amazing an audience with virtuosic prowess. Instead we were almost lulled to sleep by the soft rocking of the left hand which alternated below and above the hymn-like chordal melody in the right.

The next treat was a charmingly light Scherzo allegro which was elevated from a youthful and frivolous fate thanks to its unexpectedly voluptuous modulations. The final movement combines Haydnesque purity with Schubert’s natural warmth of tone.

We were left wanting more and we got it in the form of a short tribute to Schumann, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. Barnatan delivered a beautifully presented and elegantly poised recital. He chose works appropriate to his own youth, but displayed maturity and intelligence in the way in which he played them. He’s most certainly one to watch out for.

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