A Vancouver Recital Society presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Sunday, October 3
The Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, who now lives in New York, has played for the Vancouver Recital Society before, and it’s always an event when he returns, as he did Sunday afternoon at the Vancouver Playhouse. At 31, he’s one of the great reliables, and he put together a brilliant program: a transcendent sonata by Franz Schubert, a shocker by Maurice Ravel, an unexpected joy by Ludwig van Beethoven, and a little-known work by Benjamin Britten.
A pianist friend of mine rightly adores Barnatan, having been stunned by his performance of a late Schubert sonata, the C Minor, D. 958, not the one he played on Sunday.
This was the A Major, D. 959, one of three great sonatas written shortly before Schubert’s death. It is a strangely lyrical work, considering that it was composed in his darkest final months, but it has a remarkable movement that is anything but lyrical. The middle section of the Andantino is a violent explosion of trills, low rumbles, and register breaks. It is absolutely chaotic, a chromatic nightmare and the wildest music that Schubert ever wrote, without a key and without structure. At last, the music returns to its opening resignation, though that’s not the word. The mood is subtly changed from what it was, as if mortally affected by that bizarre irruption, like the victim of a stroke.
It takes a born Schubertian like Barnatan to get at the heart of this incredible music. He speaks Schubert every bit as fluently as another musician by the name of Alain Planí¨s, a Frenchman. He’s also a poet of finger weights.
As the writer and piano expert David Dubal notes, Ravel’s La Valse comes off best when there’s an illusion of lack of control to this phantasmagoric abstraction of a Viennese waltz gone berserk. It’s a very frightening piece, all but a graph of the First World War years. Barnatan gave it just the stuttering frenzy it needs, and it was hard to believe that he played the whole thing from memory, as he did the entire program.
The paraphrase of music from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, put together by Ronald Stevenson, was a gutsy thing to play, and it takes a virtuoso pianist to pull it off. In fact, the entire program was evidence of a virtuosic presence at the keyboard, and that included the performance of the Beethoven Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3. This piece is an absolute charmer, probably among the least played of Beethoven’s sonatas, though who knows why? Barnatan was as if made to order. You could sense Beethoven smiling: he’d surely have loved it—speeds taken to the limit, wit at every turn.
Barnatan got a wild standing ovation. If he ever comes back, don’t miss him.