Monday, April 22, 2013

Inon Barnatan at CSO

I met the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan at the Tel-Hai Piano Masterclasses in 2001. That was twelve years ago and he was still in his early twenties, but he was already a fully mature musician. I still remember his blistering performance of Ravel's "Scarbo" in the opening concert—I don't believe I've heard a more breathtaking interpretation since.

I bought tickets to hear Lars Vogt—a pianist I haven't heard—play the C minor Mozart Concerto with the Symphony last Saturday, and when Vogt had to cancel at the last minute, Barnatan stepped in, playing the same concerto. His performance was simply amazing, and revealed a stronger and more nuanced musical mind. The C minor concerto is one of Mozart's thorniest, with a dark undercurrent but in a setting that often feels awkward. It doesn't have the natural operatic flow of the D minor Concerto, Mozart's only other piano concerto in a minor key. I like my Mozart fully dramatic, and I don't worry about the "stylistic requirements" that I've felt has lead too many musicians to treat his music with kid gloves. Barnatan managed to combine his fluid tone with just the right amount of excitement at the right moments. The orchestra was an exemplary accompanist, although the conductor Roberto Abbado seemed to struggle to set the tempos at the beginning of each movement, which tended to be slightly on the slow side. I have noticed that a number of big name soloists treat Cincinnati as a kind of backwater and don't give their performances here, but Barnatan was fully engaged and gave it his all.

The second half of the concert was Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony. It's a reminder how indebted our movie soundtracks are to a soundworld created in Austria a century ago. Abbado really made his presence felt on the podium and moulded the sprawling 50-minute work so that every moment was taut with interest and the character of each section was clearly etched. The highlight for me, however, was the remarkable playing of the individual solo instruments, particularly in the wind section.

As a side note, this tone poem has an important history with the Cincinnati Symphony. According to Wikipedia, In 1916, the conductor Ernst Kunwald and "influential Cincinnatians" managed to acquire the music for this piece, premiered the previous year in wartorn Germany and were planning the American premiere when Leopold Stokowski, Kunwald's predecessor at the CSO, suddenly announced that he would perform it with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra on April 28, six days before the scheduled CSO performance. Rehearsals were hastily scheduled and the Cincinnati Symphony eked out a performance just in time to beat the Philadelphia "American premiere" by just over 24 hours.

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