Pianist Inon Barnatan’s intelligence, musicality impress at Kennedy Center

October 14, 2012

Washingtonians have had several opportunities to hear pianist Inon Barnatan in chamber music the past few years. Even so, he did not have enough name recognition to draw a full house to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon for his first solo recital there, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society. Although there was firecracker technique on display, it was Barnatan’s intelligence, musicality and story-telling ability that most impressed.

The highlights were the two best pieces from Barnatan’s new CD, on the Avie label, beginning with the Lisztian “Peter Grimes Fantasy” composed by Ronald Stevenson in 1971. Barnatan drew together the broad range of melodic material culled from Benjamin Britten’s opera, with an ear toward orchestral vastness: the wispy right hand of the foam-flecked sea music, the tempestuous storm and the closing music, with a fragile melody picked out directly on the strings in the piano case. Equally moving was the piece that gave the new CD its title, “Darknesse Visible,” Thomas Adès’s note-by-note atomization of a lute song by Dowland, as if “exploded into space,” as Barnatan put it.

With the rest of the program, it was harder for Barnatan to break free of the pack, especially with Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” which young pianists use all too often to make a mark. I have heard Louis Schwizgebel-Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor play it at the Kennedy Center this year alone. But there was much to admire in the suave control of the piano’s soft register in Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque,” the delicate touch and graceful tempi in Schubert’s Sonata in A, D. 959, and especially the horror-movie shocks of Ravel’s “Scarbo” movement. Occasional tightness in the right hand, if one was looking for nits to pick, undermined some of the rapid passages in the Schubert and Ravel, but there was no doubting the musical achievement .

Downey is a freelance writer.

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