Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [23:29]
Thomas ADÈS (b.1971)
Darknesse Visible (1992) [7:42]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Suite bergamasque (1890) [16:52]
Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928)
Fantasy on Peter Grimes (1971) [8:59]
La Valse (1919-20) [12:02]
Inon Barnatan (piano)
rec. 8-10 February 2010, The Performing Arts Center, SUNY Purchase, New York City
AVIE AV2256 [69:27]
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 at all.
“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 price.
Anyone who can give a performance of “La Valse” like this one is, at least potentially, a great pianist.