When Ravel appears alongside Mussorgsky on concert programmes, it’s usually the dapper Frenchman’s lavish orchestration of the Russian’s Pictures at an Exhibition. For his immaculately tailored International Piano Series debut, Inon Barnatan maintained this pairing, preceding Pictures with a collection of Ravel’s solo piano works, most of which are more often encountered wearing full orchestral garb. This keyboard tour of the originals – barring La Valse which began life as a poème chorégraphique pour orchestre, later transcribed for piano – was a fascinating insight into these composers’ colour palettes when restricted to just black and white.

Inon Barnatan © Marco Borggreve
Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

Barnatan’s Ravel was chic and polished, without always expressing much character. Each note of Jeux d’eau was perfectly placed, fingers rippling with great fluidity. Hunched low, occasionally raising his left leg for balance as crossed hands took him into the Steinway’s upper extremities, his playing was as neat as a pin.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917, its six movements each dedicated to the memory of a friend who had died fighting in the Great War. Rather than memorial lamentations, they are Ravel’s hommage not just to François Couperin, but to 18th-century style. Barnatan’s rendition had a degree of French lacquer, smoothing out the Prélude’s bustle but maintaining poised balance between left and right hands in the Forlane. Everything ticked along with clockwork precision, including Ravel’s studious Fugue (one of the two movements – the other being the closing Toccata – Ravel chose not to orchestrate a few years later). Barnatan never overplayed the dynamics, although he brought welcome brusqueness to the vigorous Rigaudon.

Adopting a much stiffer back, Barnatan’s account of the Pavane pour une infante défunte was most elegant, always keeping the stately dance on the move. Ravel shrugged off questions about the work’s title by explaining “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c'est tout.” Nevertheless, the piece is wreathed in a sad nostalgia, which the American-Israeli pianist caught most tenderly.

La Valse also has its nostalgia, but it dances and whirls in a suffocating postwar atmosphere reeking of decay and destruction. Originally intended as a work for the Ballets Russes, it was rejected by Sergei Diaghilev, whose stinging reaction – "It’s not a ballet. It's a portrait of ballet" – hits the nail on the head. Barnatan captured the air of disquiet right from the grumbling bass stutters, wisps of a waltz emerging as if remembrances through thick mists. A few stomps from his left foot signalled the pianist getting caught up in the giddy, perfumed ballroom as a maelstrom of notes nearly burst the keyboard’s banks. Ravel’s transcription for two pianos is terrifying enough, but Barnatan stormed through this solo version with a sense of bravura.  

Mussorgsky’s Pictures were well characterised without straying into caricature. Gnomus, for example, lacked malevolence and I’ve heard more extreme portraits of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. They were linked by rather purposeful Promenades, as if keen to move on to the next section of the gallery. I had a few quibbles with some of Barnatan’s interpretations – Bydło ploughed on at too quick a pace – but each picture was boldly drawn, from the nagging children in the Tuileries Gardens to the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, teetering and tottering, always threatening to tumble over one another. Occasionally, one missed Ravel's orchestral colours, such as the saxophone smokiness of The Old Castle, but Mussorgsky's original is far from a charcoal sketch. Appropriately, considering the date, the fearsome with Baba-Yaga ground her way across the Halloween skies before Barnatan closed with a dignified, distinguished Great Gate of Kiev.