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Pictures from the Time-Traveler

New York
Katonah (Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, Venetian Theater)
06/26/2022 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914
George Frideric Handel: Allemande from Suite for Harpsichord in E Major, HWV 430
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Courante from Suite in A Minor
François Couperin: L’Atalante from Pièces de clavecin, 12e Ordre
Maurice Ravel: Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin
Thomas Adès: Blanca Variations
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Toccata
Samuel Barber: Allegro con spirito from Piano Sonata in E‑flat Minor, Op. 26
Johannes Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Inon Barnatan (Pianist)

I. Barnatan (© Marco Borggreve)

I quite often collaborate with the dead.
Thomas Adès

I sometimes ponder on variation form and it seems to me it ought to be more restrained, purer.
Johannes Brahms

One major difference marks Jeremy Denk’s six‑century piano‑music chronology from Machaut to Ligeti performed six years ago, and Inon Barnatan’s four‑century “Time Traveler’s Suite”, at Caramoor yesterday afternoon. No, not the difference between the megalithic grey architecture of Carnegie Hall versus the shimmering flowers and trees surrounding the Venetian Theatre at Caramoor. And no, not challenging the brilliance share by both artists.

Rather, Jeremy Denk’s similar program was a tour de force, a parade of representative piano eras showing the timeline of styles. At the end, one understood history though the affect was cold, distanced.

The great Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, on the other hand, offered centuries zigzagging on top of each other, he offered countries of origin hopping from Bach to France to England to America to Germany and back again. Less a chronology introduction of eight short works and the final Brahms Handel Variations, he gave the joy a five‑star gourmet meal with the most meticulous appetizers, followed by an immaculately prepared main course.

The other difference was the word “Suite” in “Time Traveler’s Suite”. Not suite as a continuation, but the historical musical suite of dances and dance rhythms, of meters archaic and contemporary, of fugues and fugues within fugues. The dances were mainly 18th Century, yet with only a few exceptions, the works showed a volition, a set of speedy challenges more for Mr. Barnatan’s digits than the enraptured audience.

Each Inon Barnatan concert I’ve attended is marked with joy. He doesn’t allow the piano to sing itself: he makes the effort to uncover the notes. He doesn’t swing through the difficulties to show his accomplishment, but offers an emotional thrust, a feeling that the inspirational thrust is spontaneous.

His program yesterday did range from the hugely difficult to the picturesque. But even in the most arduous moments, his face and body radiated a delight in the playing itself.

The first four works were written by Baroque composers born within a decade of each other, and were played with the same mastery and sensitivity. Granted, the Venetian Theater gave notes resounding volume more than could have been conceived in Versailles or Thuringia. Yet one soon forgot the notes of an ancient keyboard or harpsichord. Mr. Barnatan whizzed through the Bach fugue and the fiery runs of Couperin’s imagic L’Atalante, but one never thought of his wizardly: rather it was the clarity, the lucidity of the music.

Mr. Barnatan jumped ahead three centuries–in theory–but the next four works were based on older forms writ with modern clothes. I recently read a quote by Maurice Ravel, “Perhaps not the music but I myself am artificial.” One never felt that in an explosive Rigaudon and the explosive Toccata by the now almost forgotten Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. How could he be forgotten? This, with the five‑minute near‑cadenza by Samuel Barber at his least Adagio schmaltz were played with all the verve they deserved.

Did Thomas Adès fit into the Baroque with the six‑minute Blanca Variations? In two ways yes. Blanca was taken from a Ladino melody–an ancient Sephardic Jewish/Spanish work. More important. Mr. Adès had created a piece for virtuosos (for a piano competition), but where each variation took on the guise, for a few bars, from some kind of Baroque style. Not consciously, but with that Adès genius of interpolating past and present in a seamless whole.

After a one‑minute intermission and a short illustrated talk, Mr. Barnatan launched into the tumultuous Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Inon Barnatan’s performance could have been smooth and polished, perhaps an adjunct of the early Baroque works. But no, he played with the sudden changes of emotion, the jumps from fervor to fluidity to a fugue whose mastery summed up the entire concert.

Thought not quite an ending. His encore was the time‑honored Petri arrangement of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, so delicately painted that one expected to find a flock of ewes wandering the verdant lawns of Caramoor itself.

Harry Rolnick



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