Pianist Inon Barnatan performs a virtual concert from his living room.(video capture)

Review: Inon Barnatan streams superb piano recital from his living room, via Spivey Hall

Mark Gresham | 11 JAN 2021

On Sunday afternoon, Spivey Hall presented a virtual recital by pianist Inon Barnatan, which was performed from tie living room in his New York home. With a wall full of books behind the piano, the setting was visually amiable and the sound was surprisingly good in the multi-camera video. Given at least one prominent hard splice in the middle of one of Barnatan’s talks about the music, the video appeared prerecorded and edited rather than streamed while performing live. But that is okay. That really seems the most secure method of presenting online. What’s important as if “live” is that we are seeing it for the first time, though there is a bit of thrill in the tightrope that is “live broadcast.” What was genuinely live was the interactive Q&A session which followed the concert.

That the recital was not live at Spivey Hall before an in-person concert was disappointing, of course, but artists and presenters alike do what they must to deliver the program to the audience, and we look forward to Barnatan performing again in that context. In the meantime, Barnatan’s living room offered an intimate, sufficient performance spot.

Barnatan has become a recent favorite with Atlanta audiences over the last eight years between his Spivey Hall appearances and his performances as soloists with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Barnatan made his Atlanta debut with the ASO in May 2013 then performed with them again in 2015. He subsequently made his Spivey Hall debut in Spteember 2016, opening the esteemed venue’s 2016-17 seson. He returned to Spivey Hall to perform with the Dover Quartet (in their own Spivey debut) in November 2018. Barnatan’s most recent Atlanta performance was again with the ASO, with Robert Spano conducting, in a virtual concert streamed in October 2020.

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Sunday’s Spivey Hall presentation, which Barnatan entitled “Songs Without Words,” began, most naturally,” with seven selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s several opuses of such eponymous miniatures, in this order: Op. 19 Nos. 1 & 3, Op. 67 Nos 2 & 5, Op. 62 No. 1, Op. 19 No. 6 and Op. 67 No. 4. I found it an attractive, effective ordering of the selections, with good flow and plenty of contrast that demonstrated Barnatan’s range of expression in a bouquet of smaller pieces versus a single lengthy work of broad gestures.

That would come at the final item on the program, Schubert’s great Sonata in B♭ major, D. 960, which clocked in at 38 minutes in Barnatan’s performance, just over half of the concert’s total duration, including talk by Barnatan about the the music, Schubert’s B♭ Sonata is at its core the spirit of song, It’s a great example of Schubert’s ability to take the listener on a musical journey over a long span of time without it feeling all that long long (the same for his song cycle Wintereisee). Barnatan demonstrated capacity to take advantage of that for maximum expression and engagement of the listener.

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Between Mendelssohn and Schubert came several works that pulled the concert out of the 19th century and afforded a fresh look at two 20th century composers through the lens of younger composer/performers.

Most interesting to me was Ronald Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971) , which draws its inspiration from the music from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. An engaging tour de force look at Britten’;s music through the lens of Stevenson is an ear opener, especially if you are already a fan of the opera. Most notable is that Stevenson begins with the most turbulent music, and ends with his take on the “Dawn” music from the opening of Act I, which gives it more of a feeling of spiritual release and resignation rather than anticipation. In this concluding segment of the Fantasy, Stevenson has the pianist stand and strum the piano’s strings while holding down keys with the left hand, which gives those notes a color that imparts an even more ephemeral feeling.

George Gershwin’s “Prelude No. 2,” the bluesy middle child of his Three Preludes offered a sultry mood in advance of pianist Earl Wild’s rambunctious “I Got Rhythm” Variations in the famous Gershwin song — a much more energetic a free-exploration of the tune than Gershwin’s own expanded “party” arrangement of the tune for solo piano. ■

Mark Gresham is a an American composer and music journalist. He is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant.