Inon Barnatan was born in Tel Aviv in 1979 and has lived in
New York since 2006. He has played in major NY venues (Carnegie
Hall, Metropolitan Museum, Alice Tully Hall) and with leading
US orchestras (Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco).
He has chosen here – and presents in his booklet notes – a programme
based around the concept of darkness. The piece by Thomas Adès
which gives the disc its name combines Milton’s image of “darkness
visible” with the archaic spelling of Dowland’s “In darknesse
let me dwell”, on which the piece is based.
While some pianists go for bell-like clarity in the opening
figuration of Ravel’s “Ondine”, Barnatan’s performance is dominated
by a glistening, liquid loveliness. The music seems to have
all the time in the world to unfold and, indeed, he takes about
a minute longer than Gieseking, a quarter of a minute longer
than Monique Haas. The result is warm and involving, never heavy.
In “Le Gibet” the tolling bell is kept well separated from the
luminous chords, which never lose their richness or their eerie
calm as things get complicated about halfway through. “Scarbo”
is an electrifying display of darting malignance, realized in
pianistic terms by many passages of scary, unpedalled clarity.
What worries me a little is that in some of these latter the
Durand score, presumably following Ravel’s wishes, actually
marks some fairly generous pedalling. However, we know that
Ravel prized clarity and so would surely have applauded rather
than criticized, especially when the results are wholly convincing.
I am sure that Barnatan’s wide range of colouring is wholly
beneficial to the piece by Adès, which takes the notes of Dowland’s
song one by one, sounding them out with a ringing tone and separating
them by much flurried activity. I am obviously aware that Adès
has acquired a reputation and a following not easily achieved
by a “classical” contemporary composer, but I have been out
of the UK for many years and this is my first encounter with
him. Maybe it was not a good introduction, since it merely reiterates
the sort of pointless doodling that used to pass for contemporary
music in the 1970s. I might as well never have been away.
Barnatan makes slightly heavy weather of “Suite bergamasque”.
He underlines each harmonic change in the “Prélude” whereas
Noriko Ogawa points the changes just as well without disrupting
the flow. She also manages longer lines in “Clair de lune” and
a more tripping innocence in the two dance movements. Quite
rightly, Barnatan notes that “Debussy brings nostalgia and a
tinge of melancholy even to these light-hearted dances – a quality
he shares with Schubert, who often smiles through tears”. At
this point in his career, however, he is not quite so effective
as Ogawa in bringing out this quality.
Ronald Stevenson’s “Fantasy on Peter Grimes” created
some interest in my university days when a number of us were
looking for a suitable piece to play in the contemporary section
of the Edinburgh Competitive Festival, the brief being “a published
work by a composer born or resident in Scotland”. Stevenson’s
“Grimes Fantasy” had just been announced but had not yet appeared
in print. One of my colleagues actually wrote to Stevenson and
received a photocopy of the manuscript in return, which he eventually
performed, though maybe not in the competition.
I recollect thinking it a rather drab work. It certainly has
abundant colour here. That doesn’t seem to resolve the central
problem of how it is possible to take, and recognizably use,
themes from one of the most potent, atmospheric and involving
operas of the 20th century, and make them say nothing
“La Valse” is, quite simply, stunning. Barnatan’s control of
texture, rhythm, rubato and overall structure combine to create
an overwhelming effect. The final catastrophe has an awesome
power that has to be heard to be believed. I haven’t always
been convinced by the piano version of this piece. Yet now I
think that, the next time I want to listen to it for pure pleasure,
I may well choose Barnatan ahead of the several excellent orchestral
recordings on my shelves.
This latter clinches the value of the record for me. Up till
then I was wondering who it was really aimed at. Excellent “Gaspard”,
but most people will have an excellent “Gaspard” already. If
you want Adès or Stevenson, wouldn’t you want more of each or
both, or other contemporary repertoire? Debussy good, but better
can be found. Then “La Valse”. At this point I had to conclude
that Barnatan was not just a good, or even excellent, pianist.
Anyone who can give a performance of “La Valse” like this one
is, at least potentially, a great pianist. So go and get it.
Even if you buy the disc just for this, it’s a performance without