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Inon Barnatan, poet, intellectual virtuoso

11.05.14
Inon Barnatan
Chicago Tribune

By Alan G. Artner

When cellist Alisa Weilerstein made her Chicago recital debut two years ago, the playing of her partner, Israeli-born New York pianist Inon Barnatan, was so sensitive that you often wondered how it might sound in a program of solo piano music.

That program finally occurred in Chicago Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, confirming that Barnatan is one of the rarest things nowadays, an intellectual virtuoso who is also a poet.

His intellect shone in spoken remarks and the way he built the first half of the program by tracing the contrapuntal influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on 19th and 20th Century masterworks by Cesar Franck and Samuel Barber.

Virtuosity was there throughout, which is to say, from the opening Bach E-minor Toccata through the lone encore, Felix Mendelssohn's Andante and Rondo capriccioso. Its most forceful display was in Barber's thunderously difficult Sonata, and the most beguiling came in Franz Schubert's late Sonata in A major, which after intermission gave a change of pace.

What made the demonstrations of intellect and virtuosity special was Barnatan's variety of touch that conveyed both the piety and perfume of Franck's "Prelude, Choral et Fugue" in addition to the ache at the heart of the essentially sunny Schubert.

Pianist Clifford Curzon once was said to have 20 different shades of pianissimo. Barnatan commanded nearly as many, all employed to bring outward gestures inward by softening, shading and tinting a modern drive toward clarity. Not a note smeared, yet there was a complete absence of mechanical rat-a-tat-tat and analytical coldness.

Anyone with the music in front of them would have seen not only Barnatan's meticulous observance of tempo and dynamic markings but also commands such as "with much fire" and "songlike, without too much sweetness." Seldom did contrasts of mood or speed draw attention to themselves, though the composers intended several to be extreme. Only the Bach showed at points a fussy, art-for-art's-sake sculpting.

Accounts of the two big sonatas were special, particularly in the slow movements. But Barnatan also brought great neurotic clangor to the Barber and fantasy to the Schubert. The latter was so poetic, in fact, that it made you wish Barnatan had taken the first movement repeat. The opportunity to hear him in more Schubert – the "Trout" Quintet at the Harris on Nov. 17 – should not be missed.