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Barnatan’s Piano Overturns the Orchestra, A Preview


Symphonics to duos being one matter, Rockport Music will see compressed orchestral works of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, even Rameau’s Suite in G Major from Nouvelles Suites de Piéces de Clavacin, finding their ways to a Steinway concert grand; also, on the French side of the program, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Thursday evening, pianist/transcriber Inon Barnatan will solo before summering folk no doubt filling Shalin Liu Performance Center, given the performer and program.

Inevitably, with more concertizing pianists on the scene, there are necessarily more transcriptions of a finite mainstream repertoire to follow. Neither transcriptions nor disclaimers from purists are anything new. Most probably, those attending Barnatan’s recital will take the stance such as that made tunefully in Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano.” 

Bypassing pre-piano, the clavacin (French for harpsichord) in particular, Barnatan, one could say, might hammer home the Suite in G Major of Jean-Philipp Rameau from his Nouvelles Suites de Piéces de Clavacin from three centuries past. High velocity strikes on a single key and over sequences of keys may very well come through “sensitively,” a description often appearing in reviews of the Israeli-American’s playing.

Rameau’s Menuet I-Menuet II may hint of Barnatan’s vigilantly dance-directed selections that follow: Ravel’s Valses, Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

Maurice Ravel’s piano composition predates by a year his own orchestration of the eight waltzes. Ravishing in both media, choosing one over the other is more likely a toss-up.

Newer to many is the Stravinsky/Agosti Three Movements from the Firebird, the Italian transcriber a pianist himself. Encountering this Stravinsky keyboard recast—as with any other—simply cannot recreate the supernatural force carried by the composer’s ingenious original orchestral casting. Ears, especially those of pianists, pinned to keys mapping melody and harmony, may “see through” to the underside of the composition. For Irving Berliners, this representation should give way to the piano as a veritable stand-in.

Sergei Rachmaninoff drafted Fantastic Dances at the piano, soon thereafter scoring and renaming it Symphonic Dances. Both a piano duo and a solo piano recording by the composer exist. Now add to them Inon Barnatan’s very own solo transcription. And what about those unfamiliar with the orchestral “original,” or those who have heard one of the several duo versions? How does the leap from orchestra to piano, here, compare to that of “I Love a Piano” sung by Kermit the Frog?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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