Keying success

08.13.09
Inon Barnatan
The Critical Ear

By Craig Smith

Keyboard was king at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival last week, with good solo performances on piano and harpsichord in St. Francis Auditorium. It was instructive to see how differently each sold, though: the noon piano concert on July 30 was very full, while the 5 p.m. Bach Plus program on Aug. 1 was, at my guess, at least half empty. It’s always hard to judge how Santa Fe audiences will respond to concert opportunities, especially in chancy economic times.

There was certainly nothing chancy about Inon Barnatan’s work on the 30th. The Israel-born pianist, now living in the U.S., showed himself to be not only a confident and very well-schooled player, but an insightful artist who beautifully mixes imagination and technique. Barnatan is but 30, and if he keeps honing the interpretative skills he showed here, I have no doubt he can ascend any career peak he wants to. The fact that he loves chamber music and collaborative work with instrumentalists as much as solo recitals and concerto appearances is in his favor. Adaptability mixed with ability is a good recipe for success.

Barnatan opened his 90-minute recital with Thomas Adès’ Darkness Visible, a sonically wandering piece built around the air by John Dowland, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell.” It’s interesting, but to my mind way too over-intellectual to work really well as music; it’s a philosophical fantasy given notes.

Fantasy was certainly the spiritual keynote in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which was inspired by the poems of Aloysius Bertrand. The three magnificent tone-paintings portray the water-sprite “Ondine,” a hanged body dangling from “Le gibet,” and the demonic night-stalking dwarf “Scarbo,” and all are pure Ravel: terribly difficult to play, they must sound effortless. Barnatan was magnificent throughout, moving calmly between the mist-delicate sounds of the nymph’s splashing, the tolling bell ringing near the gibbet, and the frenzied clangor of Scarbo’s clashing teeth and creaking bones. Only in the fast repeated notes of the bracketing outer movements did the sound seem inchoate and less than exact.

Barnatan moved from fantasy to nobility for Schubert’s big-scaled Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, giving us a performance full of light and shade as well as majesty. He quite rightly played as if he were invoking voices rather than hammers striking strings, so that even in the scampering Scherzo and the Presto finale, lyricism was key. This was a recital and a performer to remember—and to keep a keen eye out for.

Harpsichordist David Schrader’s Aug. 1 concert began with Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major, which ends with the theme and variations known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” It went fairly well but not perfectly: Schrader, who is usually a marvelous player, seemed not quite at ease with the piece, perhaps because he was playing from the notes. The next work, Bach’s towering Overture in the French Style, which Schrader has recorded, was played from memory and was much better. The many B-Minor dance movements unfolded gracefully, a bit solemnly, and with lovely inevitability. I was unable to stay for the closing Rameau suite.