Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

GrauSchumacher Piano Duo at the Wigmore Hall

GrauSchumacher Piano Duo

Richard Whitehouse on the UK premiere of a substantial new work from Philippe Manoury, along with homages to J.S. Bach from Busoni and Kurtág
Wigmore Hall, London Monday 19 October

J.S. Bach (arr. Kurtág): Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV106 – Sonatina; Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV643; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV687 (various)

Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica, BWV256b (1920, arranged for two pianos in 1921)

Manoury: Le Temps, mode d’emploi (2014) [UK premiere]

Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher (piano duo)

The GrauSchumacher Duo – comprising pianists Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher – follows in a distinguished lineage of such partnerships (among them Alphons and Aloys Kontarsky, or Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir), but at least in the UK is known primarily through its substantial discography (notably for the enterprising NEOS label) than for its live performances. All credit, then, to Wigmore Hall for scheduling this recital as part of its focus on contemporary music, and which featured the first British hearing for a major new work.

Now in his early sixties, Philippe Manoury is well established among his peers in Western Europe while enjoying occasional UK performances (his large-scale orchestral and choral piece Zeitlauf caused something of a stir in London three decades ago). Live electronics has been a constant presence in his music, and Le Temps, mode d’emploi is no exception. Lasting around 50 minutes, this falls into eight continuous sections in which the consciously-applied virtuosity of the pianists is underpinned by electronics in terms of spatial diffusion and textural stratification. At the same time, the music audibly evolves in terms of its salient motifs dispersed across the sound spectrum and that merge into an accumulation of activity exceeded only by the plethora of echoes heard towards the close. Cohesive, then, while also overly uniform in sonic profile (is it surprising that electronically treated piano timbre seems to have moved on only incrementally since Stockhausen’s Mantra half a century ago?), with the actual material rather less memorable than those processes to which it is being subjected.

What was undeniable was the alacrity with which GrauSchumacher tackled this epic among piano duos, or the clarity with which those from Experimental Studio of South-West German Radio projected the complex sound transformations throughout the fabled Wigmore acoustic.

Before the interval came a welcome hearing for Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica – a half-hour fantasy on, around and about Bach that began as a completion of his 14th contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue in 1910, soon to assume its definitive guise before being arranged for two pianos in 1921. This account pointed up the interplay of stark declamation and limpid passagework characterizing the initial chorale-variations, the increasing textural intricacy of the initial three fugues, then the tensile unfolding of the intermezzo with its three variations – leading, via a terse cadenza, to a climactic fourth fugue which was slightly underwhelming here, but the performance quickly regained focus for a haunting recollection of the chorale followed by the stretta (a concluding passage played at a faster tempo) that steers this piece through to its brief though magisterial conclusion.

An impressive reading overall, that gained from its having been placed in context with three Bach transcriptions by György Kurtág. Anyone present at one of the latter’s intimate recitals of these pieces with his wife may have found GrauSchumacher a touch too literal in overall execution, yet the sonatina from Bach’s Actus tragicus and the two chorale-preludes which followed evinced no lack of poise or elegance. Easy to overlook given what was to come, perhaps, while at the same time being telling instances of the maxim that ‘less is more’.