Inon Barnatan, a 35-year-old pianist and a native of Israel, played a big program for the Celebrity Series last night at Edward Pickman Hall at the Longy School, explaining interestingly how each piece on the first half was organized around Bach and his spiritual descendants.
Whether for organ or for harpsichord, Bach’s toccatas are always designed as collections of short declarative episodes, recitative-like portions alternating with lyrical imitative passages that sound as though they’ll turn into fugues, but don’t quite; some then ultimately conclude with a complete fugue. His E Minor Toccata, BWV 914 was wonderfully lively and intricate as Barnatan’s fingers carried it off with complete smoothness and energy.
César Franck’s great late-Romantic Prelude, Chorale and Fugue has lately become something of a rarity. The composer’s chromatic idiom in this work is inspired equally by Bach and by Franz Liszt (who heard Franck improvise at Ste. Clotilde in Paris and was astounded, indeed comparing Franck’s virtuosity to Bach’s). Some writers have remarked that the Chorale melody derives from the bells in Wagner’s Parsifal, but I think this resemblance (just four notes) is fortuitous. (My mother remembered hearing Arthur Rubinstein play this in Sanders Theater, probably in the early 1940s; reaching the left hand over the right to play the octave doubling of the melody, Rubinstein hit six wrong notes in succession, showing that even the greatest have their off days.) Barnatan was as admirably sensible as he was sensitive, with a fine pianissimo in the delicate arpeggios of the Prelude, and a careful expressive outlining of the Chorale melody; in the Fugue he had a tendency to overstress the melodic line, and this was a complaint I would have registered elsewhere in the program.
Samuel Barber’s Sonata of 1950, commissioned by the League of Composers and premiered by Vladimir Horowitz concluded the first half. (A delightful note in the score’s preface says that Barber said, “I would have made it harder if they had given me more money.”) Certainly this Sonata is still considered a milestone in the history of American piano music, but it has formal problems that Barber never resolved, notably the weird imbalance between Romantic tonality and 1950s atonality in the first movement. Inon Barnatan was hardly bothered by these, however, and his performance scintillated with power and sure-fingeredness. He pushed these to extremes in the second movement, Allegro vivace e leggero, which he played at almost twice the indicated tempo, and it was hard to understand what the music was about; but the bell-like ostinato of the Adagio mesto that followed was convincing and even lovely in sound. According to Barnatan, Horowitz expressed vexation with the first three movements as Barber gave them to him, and in response, Barber composed the Fugue finale in just a day – but I hardly believe the story. This finale is grandiose and as a fugue it sounds inescapably contrived in places; Barnatan was wise to break it up into digestible sections, alternately Stravinskyan, scherzando-jazzy, or with folk-like simplicity, never sparing the relentlessness. This was a mighty performance, with plenty of volume but without excess noise.
The second half of the program was a single work, Schubert’s A Major Sonata, D 959, the middle of three composed during 1828, the last year of his life. Along with the C Major String Quintet, D 956 from the same year, these pieces are expansive, reminding listeners of Schumann’s remark about Schubert’s “heavenly length,” but the A major sonata is also the most wide-ranging and progressive in tonality, especially in the first movement. The second movement, a calm, rocking song in its outer sections, has a stormy drama in its middle section, which Barnatan suggested shows Schubert verging on madness in his last months. I felt that Barnatan overemphasized the dynamic differences in the Scherzo movement, with too much forte and accentuation when the style is better served by more lightheartedness. But in the leisurely rondo Finale, all was forgiven in his execution of Schubert’s lyricism. (I’m surely not the first to notice a resemblance of the main melody to Schubert’s song” Ganymed, D 544,” composed in 1817. Others have pointed out that the final chords of the Finale are almost an exact retrograde of the opening progression in the first movement.)
For an encore Inon Barnatan offered Mendelssohn’s beloved Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with gossamer lightness in the filigree sections and splendid power in the octaves of the coda—a thoroughly exciting performance, fully in keeping with the rest of the program.