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Architect of sublime resignation

Inon Barnatan
The New Mexican

By Craig Smith

With all Inon Barnatan’s success, it’s interesting to note  that he is as much—perhaps more—a partnering player than he is a me-first type of soloist. The Israeli pianist has a fast-moving and sizable career that many a senior musician might envy. He performs solo recitals and concertos around the world, including in Austria, China, France, Italy, Norway, Portugal, the U.K., and even on Reunion Island, off the east coast of Africa. He is curator of the Schubert Project, which presents performances by young musicians of major works from Schubert’s tremendously productive final year. And he just won a $25,000 Avery Fisher Career Grant, one of classical music’s notable prizes.

Yet he devotes a big chunk of his time to collaborative work, including recent or upcoming gigs on two continents with cellist AlisaWeilerstein, chamber music at Colorado’s Aspen and Vail Valley music festivals, and concerts at the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival in New York and the Bay Chamber Concerts in Maine.

Sure, he makes his Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival debut this week with a solo concert of works by Schubert, Thomas Adès, and Ravel at noon on Thursday, July 30. But after that, he collaborates with fellow artists in Brahms’ G-Minor piano quartet on Aug. 2 and 3 and Mozart’s E-flat piano quintet Aug. 4.

The scope and demands of Barnatan’s career, plus the extensive repertoire it involves, show he’s not afraid to work hard. Born in 1979 in Tel Aviv, where he initially studied and made his concert debut, Barnatan moved to London in 1997 for further study at the Royal Academy of Music. He relocated to New York in 2006 and made his U.S. concert debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 2007. He has worked extensively with legendary pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher.

“I’ve always been very adamant that in order to be a good soloist in either recital or concerto, it’s very beneficial —and I find it extremely important—to do a lot of chamber music and collaboration,” Barnatan said in a phone interview from his home in New York. “First of all, the listening experience is so important. How to hear other instruments, how to interact with them. You bring that out in concertos as much as chamber music. For me, a Mozart concerto is a piece of chamber music.”

There’s balance on the other side of the ledger, too.

“To be a good chamber musician, you must have the experience of playing solo,” he said, “because so much chamber music requires equal partnership. I’ve always been inclined to do all of them [musical forms], because they enrich each other.”

Especially when it comes to deeply investigating a composer. “To really have insight into a composer, you can’t limit yourself to one aspect. If you look at just one year, like we do one year of Schubert’s life in the Schubert Project, there’s so much interaction between different pieces and different genres. You don’t get sonatas without getting songs, without getting chamber music.

“There is so much interaction between sounds, different sounds, in Schubert. He writes so much voice into his piano music and the chamber pieces. That’s another reason for me that it is both fun and important to do all these different things. I always think a pianist that thinks only about the sound of the piano when he plays, or she plays, is limiting his or her palette.”

Barnatan’s noon recital covers quite a wide palette on its own. It consists of Schubert’s final sonata, the immense B-flat Major; Adès’ probing Darkness Visible; and Ravel’s technically daunting, spooky Gaspard de la nuit, inspired by poems by the Romantic symbolist Aloysius Bertrand. That’s enough for any soloist to take on—that is, take on and expect to do as well as this pianist means to.

Barnatan became enamored of the Schubert in 2004, when he was invited by Fleisher and Carnegie Hall to be one of four artists who each studied and performed one of Schubert’s four final sonatas. “It had a profound impact on me — the encounter with the sonata and Mr. Fleisher,” Barnatan said. “I find there are very few examples like the B-flat for lyricism, very few pieces in which that is so apparent. The first two movements are almost an uninterrupted song or hymn or lament, depending on where you focus, for what, 30 minutes? It’s really quite remarkable.

He turns the piano into something so much more than one instrument and really manages to transcend it to new heights.

“One of the reasons I love that sonata so much is it encapsulates so beautifully—even within the first few bars, but throughout the piece — where he was at the time, his struggle with his own upcoming death, this fascinating transition from darkness into light.”

To interpret such concentrated emotion requires technique as well as thought and feeling, but as Barnatan stressed, “I always, only, think of technique as service to whatever it is one does in music. Especially in a piece like that, where the technique takes such a second chair to the feelings. But I find it very important to know what I’m doing physically. The real challenge of this piece is to get it to work on different pianos! It changes with every instrument you play. It’s so reliant on pure sound. It’s so naked. The ability of the piano to sing is so important. There’s a lot of adjustment one needs to do”—when moving from place to place, hall to hall, and instrument to instrument.

The Schubertian darkness is thematically reflected in the other recital works, Barnatan said. “You can apply it, apply the concept, to all three pieces in completely different ways. The title of the Adès is Darkness Visible, and it is the most obvious, because it’s basically the Dowland song ‘In darkness let me dwell.’ The song itself becomes visible through the mists of whatever Adès does musically, which is fascinating.”

The three fantasy pictures of the Ravel—“Ondine”, a water sprite; “Le Gibet”, the gibbet; and “Scarbo”, a scuttling, frightening dream-dwarf—“are darkness of a very different kind —Edgar Allan Poe,” he said.
Returning to the Schubert sonata, Barnatan referenced a comment Fleisher once made that has stayed with and inspired him. “It struck me as being so concise: he called it ‘sublime resignation.’ That’s obviously a theme that runs very much through the sonata.

“I have a copy of the facsimile of the last three sonatas, working copies. One wonders when he had time to write a working copy! What is most interesting to me about that is — when you see how he revised from the working copy —more often than not, almost every time, he would expand rather than edit. He would add a couple of bars. I found that very interesting. Where people edit by taking away, he edited by adding. I think he had a very strong sense of architecture.”