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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptus, D. 935 (1827) [36:33]
Sonata in B-flat, D.960 (1828) [37.36]
Inon Barnatan (piano)
rec. New York, Sept. 2005
BRIDGE 9197 [74:52]

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“What makes these pieces great also made them some of the most recorded pieces in the piano repertoire. Why yet another recording, when there are such great performances by Lupu, Schnabel, Fleisher and others?”
The words are not mine but those of the pianist in the notes for his debut CD. It is a good question. He goes on to answer it by suggesting that he is not out to compete with other recorded performances but seeks to reveal facets of a work that derive from his own love and study of it. Different actors may reveal different faces of Hamlet’s character but it is still Shakespeare’s work. So it is with Schubert’s B Flat Sonata.
Inon Barnatan may not want to compete with other recorded performances but he has nevertheless put his own up for sale in a challenging market and the question for punters is, “do I buy?”.
I will say straightaway that if you like your Schubert played thoughtfully with the pathos coming through from behind the beauty and the dance rhythms, you need to hear these performances. The Four Impromptus are treated to a combination of such singing beauty, steady rhythmic control, delicacy and gravitas that the pianist makes them sound more serious and musically intellectual than the title “impromptu” might suggest. Having said that, there are some people, Schumann among them, who have thought that at their inception, Schubert intended them to be a sonata. They are after all collectively as long as the B Flat Sonata masterpiece that follows on the disc.
It is clear from Barnatan’s notes that he takes the Sonata very seriously indeed, quoting Schubert’s remark made at Beethoven’s death, “who can do anything after Beethoven”. He cites this work, written 18 months after the great man’s death, as a positive answer to the question and in his playing sets out to prove it. The work is about travel from darkness to light, he says, and in this he takes a long term view, not just of each movement but of the work as a whole. He does it in the first movement by, for example, starting the long first melody in subdued fashion and refusing to speed up significantly as it decoratively develops. Then when the tune is repeated loudly he does not overdo the decibels. I have heard many a pianist hammer this passage out in such a way as to commit a classic case of peaking too early even before the two minute point has been reached. Barnatan steadily unfolds the narrative in a way that eschews any pianistic showing off.
The slow movement I have always thought one of the finest evocations of stillness – maybe stasis is a better word – in music. To get this effect it is not necessary to play the music, which is marked andante, as if it were an adagio. I have heard Sviatoslav Richter take the stasis idea to such extremes that he makes the music sound as if it about to grind to a stop, one of those eccentricities that mar what is otherwise much admired Schubert playing. Barnatan does take it on the slow side, slower than another great Schubert player, Alfred Brendel; but like Brendel he both keeps the music steadily under control and achieves moments of magical pianissimo.
In the fast final two movements Barnatan dances delicately but also ominously shades those darker sides in order to emphasise the light. Nothing is exaggerated and as a result I think the music gains strength. Another aspect of the playing is a subtle approach to texture, as if the pianist is delicately orchestrating the music. One way this manifests itself is the way he gently brings out some inner parts in a way that gives an illusion of illuminating the music from within.
There will be those who may wish that Barnatan let rip more in those passages that would allow. I can understand that but if he did, the vision and integrity of his interpretations would be unbalanced. I heard the 75 year old Brendel live the other day playing another late Schubert sonata and I overheard similar comment about his playing (see review). Nevertheless, I would far rather hear Brendel playing Schubert than most others, and I will now confidently say the same about Barnatan. The pianist may be nearly half a century younger than Brendel but these performances are of a distinction and maturity that I am sure would gain the admiration of the veteran master.
John Leeman


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