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Schubert Ascending II: Inon Barnatan (piano), Liza Ferschtman (violin), Randall Scarlata (baritone). Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 8.11.2009 (JE)

Inon Barnatan
MusicWeb International

By Jeffrey Edelstein

Der Winterabend, D. 938
Herbst, D. 945
Bei dir allein from Vier Refrainlieder, D. 866
Die Sterne, D. 939
Des Fischers Liebesglück, D. 933
Vor meiner Wiege, D. 927
Die Taubenpost, D. 965a
Fantasy in C major for Violin and Piano, D. 934, Op. 159
Sonata in B-flat major for Piano, D. 960

When we inherit something precious and delicate—fine old crystal stemware, say—it feels proper to secure it from the hazards of daily handling, the incomprehension of children, and the rambunctious family dog. Thus most of us would turn exquisite glassware into something looked at more often than used. Sometimes we do the same thing to music. We protect elusive and unfathomable beauty from exposure to everyday aesthetic experience, and place such music—late Schubert is an example—slightly out of reach, revered by old and wise musicians more often than ingenuously touched by young performers.

In a rewarding effort, Inon Barnatan, an impressive young pianist and curator of the three-concert series “Schubert Ascending” devoted to music from the composer’s last year, unlocks the sideboard and hands the fine crystal to his guests. In the series’ second concert, Mr. Barnatan decants aerated songs and a chamber work, and a solo with colleagues— all in their late twenties and early thirties, nearly the same age as the composer was when he wrote these pieces, 31—who perform with an ease resembling casualness. The relaxed approach of these musicians intensifies the joy, fervor, strangeness, and graduated momentum frequently obscured by an insistence that this music convey unrelenting heartache and prefigured hopelessness.

The skillfully balanced program began with seven lieder calibrated by Mr. Barnatan and baritone Randall Scarlata to underscore the pensive, withdrawn quality of the music with tenderness and refreshing vigor. Mr. Scarlata enlarged loss and longing, for instance, in Herbst and Vor meiner Wiege with restrained, but sensuous coloration. Mr. Barnatan tempered joy and transcendence in Bei dir allein and Des fischers Liebesglück with nuanced phrasing and dynamics. Their collaboration in Die Taubenpost exposed piercing simplicity in Schubert’s yearning.

If the songs were something akin to drinking different vintages, then the Fantasy which followed was the scintillating sensation of alcohol taking effect. Violinist Liza Ferschtman joined Mr. Barnatan in a thrilling rendition (construed as seven sections, including variations on Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrüsst) that recapitulates the poignant narratives as musical abstraction, trills, scales, and arpeggios. In the Fantasy Schubert plays like a child—in, among, and with these rudimentary building blocks of musical composition. Ms. Ferschtman drew the melodic contours strikingly, avoiding sentimentality by subtly coarsening intonation when necessary to diverge from Mr. Barnatan’s calm brilliance in recurrent passagework.

After intermission, Mr. Barnatan played the Sonata in B-flat, which renders time’s passing audible; repeated notes, portentive trills, and mesmeric silences granulate its texture. The music passes by bits, the way we measure time, and perhaps this is why some listeners hear the anticipation of grief. But much of Schubert’s early music feels this way, too, with its movement between discontinuity and continuity, though rarely are the melodies so successfully ecstatic as throughout this ravishing work. Mr. Barnatan’s cultivated tempos, dynamics, and lyricism articulated the whole without attenuating the discrete parts—a disquisition on the mystery of time and eternity. His performance commented graciously on the inclination to lock away our precious and delicate inheritance—like fine stemware—rather than drink from it wholeheartedly among friends.