For a performer with a reputation for intelligent, thought-provoking programming, this looked rather an odd selection of works. The first half of this Wigmore Hall recital featured three pieces Inon Barnatan recorded on his 2012 CD Darknesse Visible, charting works based on other works; Debussy on Verlaine, Stevenson on Britten, and Ravel on Poe. Pintscher’s new work, too, takes its name from an outside source: Ezra Pound’s poem Phanopoeia, specifically on the lines “The whirling tissue of light/is woven and grows solid beneath us.” At easily twice the length of any of the other works we heard, Schubert’s less imaginatively titled Piano Sonata in A major seemed a rather incongruous choice in a programme made up largely of shorter pieces. Thematically, I’m not sure there’s any connection, but Barnatan’s effortlessly lyrical playing made a coherent whole out of disparate halves. A keen dramatic instinct shone through despite a rather inferior instrument, and gave us, in the end, one of the finest Schubert performances I have ever heard.

Inon Barnatan © Marco Borggreve
Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

It’s often difficult during piano recitals to know to what extent tone is a feature of the pianist or their instrument. However, I suspect many of the problems in this recital had little to do with Barnatan. Throughout the first half, the bass sounded not rich but brittle and overloud, the treble rather anaemic in comparison; a balance issue not really acceptable in such colourful music. This is not to say Barnatan’s playing lacked colour; indeed, the Israeli pianist’s deft shading of tone always found him relating finely wrought narratives and drama. Particularly magical was Clair de Lune, the opening materialising numinous from the silence of the expectant hall. When the music required the full gamut of colours, however, as in the storm section of Ronald Stevenson’s Grimes Fantasy or the cataclysmic tumult of La Valse, what had been merely slightly unfortunate became dramatically problematic. In the latter work in particular, which turns on frequent and drastic changes of colour, the drama was significantly weakened by the instrument’s shortcomings.

Yet despite the piano, one could always tell Barnatan had a real gift for poetry, for vocal, songlike phrasing amplifying exquisitely the expression of a line. Even in the Stevenson, when we heard the melody of Grimes’ “What harbour shelters peace?” from Act I of Britten’s opera, nuanced and subtle rubato meant one could almost hear the doomed fisherman sing, despite Stevenson’s interjections from the heartless Borough.

The last place one might expect such an approach to be effective is in Matthias Pintscher’s new work whirling tissue of light, a co-commission by the Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, and the Aspen Music Festival, given its world première in this concert under Barnatan. Opposing moments of “whirling” cascades across the piano with oases of calm around particular notes (a G at the top of the piano, then an F, then a G four octaves down), it is the latter that come out ahead as the music tires itself out. Some string-plucking is thrown in at the end for good measure, Pintscher’s characteristic interest in the sounds possible from traditional instruments on display – if not to such magical effect as we heard at the end of the Stevenson. I’m not sure it’s particularly groundbreaking stuff, but, with a Boulezian aura – Pintscher has, significantly, recently become music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the Frenchman’s greatest creations – it is undeniably accessible and a welcome addition to the repertoire. After a tune during the interval, the piano found itself in much better voice and Barnatan, his poetic credentials already established, met the piece’s dramatic needs with aplomb. The whirling light screamed around the piano to thrilling effect, but it was the quieter, lyrical moments that really sold the work as a genuinely solid supplement to the modern piano literature.

I follow Barnatan’s lead in saving the best until last only because I wish to make clear that, even in a top-notch concert, the Schubert would have been transformative. As it was, between Schubert and Pintscher, a slightly disappointing concert was totally redeemed. This was Schubert as perfectly vocal and as enthrallingly human as one may ever hope to hear; each phrase lovingly shaped with the same attention a singer pays to words; subtle rubato never letting the pulse restrict an achingly poetic cantabile. Schubert’s sprawling exposition felt tight and logical, the Rondo not a problematic and arbitrary end but a genuinely satisfying conclusion to a deeply fraught, intense, and infinitely moving drama. A joy from start to finish, with Barnatan’s narrative gift, hinted at in the first half, now fully and triumphantly on display. Few artists could play Pintscher and Schubert like they were natural partners, but Barnatan’s playing had me thoroughly convinced. More Schubert followed for the encore: the G flat major Impromptu D.899 was played with equally shattering and totally addictive lyrical intensity.