The still young Israeli born pianist Inon Barnatan, a former recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009, has recently raised his profile here in New York. In his second season as the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Artist-in-Association, he seems ubiquitous not only as soloist in several Philharmonic concerts but also as recitalist and chamber musician performing at different locations throughout the city.

Inon Barnatan © Marco Borggreve
Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

The pianist has always knowingly planned his recitals and the most recent one, at the 92nd Street Y, part of the venue’s renowned "Masters of the Keyboard" series, has been no exception. Each of the two parts was anchored by a pièce de résistance preceded by a lesser known composition. Barnatan started the evening with Brahms’ Piano Study no. 5 for the left hand which is not much more than an oddity: a transcription for the middle piano register of the “Chaconne” from Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2, BWV1004. His playing was noble, carefully underlying the melodic lines but he made a little too much use of the pedal.

The second half commenced with György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, a collection of 11 small pieces composed in the early 1950s when Ligeti was still struggling to define his own idiom. As much as the individual segments are varied in terms of rhythm and intensity, the entire set is rigorously constructed by adding exactly one new pitch class from movement to movement until employing all twelve chromatic pitches in “Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi”, the last of them. Barnatan emphasized the references to musical history that permeate this remarkable composition full of strange sound explorations. He did the same in the final work on the program, the Variations and fugue on a theme by Handel, another Brahms homage to Baroque music. Blending lyricism and structural rigorousness, the set of 25 variations followed by a fugue is one of the most demanding, but at the same time popular, pieces in the Romantic repertoire. Barnatan was able to bring forward, taking advantage of his immaculate technique, the mood switches, the Schumannesque, dreamlike character of such variations as the ones numbered 6, 11 or 21. As striking as the Ligeti-Brahms pairing was, it did make sense not so much for the occasional references to Hungarian folk tunes in both compositions but mostly for the shared aspiration for renewal from within the framework of pre-existing “architectural” forms.

Inon Barnatan is renowned for his Schubert interpretations and his recordings of the last three of the composer’s sonatas. For this particular evening he picked the G Major (D894) sonata, one of the few published during Schubert’s life. It was a meritorious but not an exceptional performance, at times lacking the Lied-like quality of Schubert’s piano music that should be always palpable, even in the larger structures of a classical sonata form.

For me, the recital’s apex was by far Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, an exquisitely rendered 20th century musical jewel, alas still too rarely played.