Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan's star seems to be ascendant. His most recent Wigmore Hall recital was much better-attended than the last I saw, in 2013, and was being broadcast nationwide by Radio 3. No surprise, really; this is a pianist who combines a passion for contemporary music – the recital featured the world première of Sebastian Currier's Glow – with simply the most astonishing lyrical gift. Vladimir Horowitz is supposed to have spent hours imitating the bel canto style, making melodies really sing from one note to the next, in defiance of the percussive piano's natural decay after the start of each note. Barnatan is one of the few pianists I've yet heard to achieve this, with an all-consuming attention to the direction of melodies, to how one note ought to relate to the next.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Franck's Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue is a grand, grandiose, and certainly grandiloquent work. Full of scrunchy, organist's harmonies, the language is often too clever by half, and can come to sound rather like hearing bad news on a rainy day from someone you strongly dislike. Barnatan's tendency to overdo fortes unfortunately added to this impression, and though it was certainly an exciting ride, many of the details were somewhat covered. He certainly conveyed well the improvisatory spirit of the work, though, capturing a Schumannesque fantasy in the hallucinatory first movement, and a Lisztian brilliance in the transition to the Fugue.

Sebastian Currier's Glow left wholly the opposite impression. Written in 2012, Barnatan had asked the American to write a piece 'somehow connected' to Gaspard de la nuit, with the intention of programming them together. Taking one of the title's translations, 'Jewel Keeper of the Night', Currier imagines the ways various light sources relate to the blackness of night, indulging a 'simple synaesthesia' where darkness = silence, and light = sound, the brighter the louder.

A nice idea, but simplistically handled; each of its seven movements represents a light source, and the music effectively delivers a silent-film piano accompaniment to a clip of each. So, the lighthouse movement has some motion and then silence, motion, silence, motion... because the light appears and disappears. The spark, a brief but intense illumination, has some quiet music, followed by modernist hellraising, then more quiet music. There's good material here, with development and logic, even if the harmony is somewhat bland. However, the programme cheapens it, making it resemble a soundtrack without a film rather than a concert piece.

Where the Franck was an unrestrained emotional outpouring, Schubert's great 'fantasy' G Major sonata is a masterpiece of restraint and release. Barnatan has a reputation for Schubert, and it's easy to see why. Although his fairly flowing tempo may have sacrificed some of the first movement's meditative qualities, it was the first time I've heard the long, broken-up phrases sound logical and connected in a true cantabile. Particularly effective were the thunderclaps of rage that open the development, which actually had melodic direction and shape. I've never been as convinced by the other movements of this sonata, and though Barnatan couldn't wholly convince me of their merit, I couldn't fault his imagination. Repeats were a treat; no two airings of the same phrase were the same, the music self-aware and growing all the time.

Written partly to outdo Balakirev's Islamey in sheer technical difficulty, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is, in concert, possibly as close as classical music comes to bloodsport. Scarbo, the final movement, is the toccata to end all toccatas, Le Gibet an exercise in total tonal control, and Ondine a piece of masochistic self-effacement, as monstrous flurries of hundreds of notes must make just slightly more than no impression beneath the noble melody.

Noble it was, too, with Barnatan's gift for long lines fully in evidence. Ondine's treacherous, sparkling figurations were miraculously subdued (but perfectly executed), and the broad melodies exquisitely sculpted – Ravel's orchestration was not so far away, so well-separated were the timbres. Barnatan's dynamic restraint throughout was staggering; Bertrand's dark world of illusion and shadow was evoked to terrifying effect, especially in the rare loud moments, staggering by contrast. The depth of the harmonies and the tonal control of the bell in Le Gibet created perfectly the deathly melancholy and space of the field and its reddening body swinging on the gallows. Scarbo was legitimately frightening, its playfulness turning effortlessly to childish terror at the goblin's long shadow on the wall. Ravel described Gaspard as a parody of Romanticism, and Barnatan captured this perfectly. Grandeur decayed, the world of Romantic nature retreating to the world of the mind, with its irrational fears, and the horrified incomprehension that pervades the verse.

The audience loved it, several rising in ovation, and coaxing Barnatan into two encores: a consoling Sheep May Safely Graze, all three elements again perfectly separate but interrelated, and a coruscating performance of the finale from Barber's Piano Sonata, sending the crowd into the night on a wave of enthusiasm.