CAMBRIDGE — The Celebrity Series of Boston’s Debut Series, now in its third season, presents “early-career stage” artists in the more intimate confines of Longy’s Pickman Hall. By those standards, Inon Barnatan’s appearance on Wednesday — his Boston recital debut — seemed overdue. The Tel Aviv-born pianist has already played several New York venues, and is in his first season as the New York Philharmonic’s first artist in association.
The technical facility and imaginative sensibility for which Barnatan has been widely heralded were apparent throughout the captivating recital. Bach’s Toccata in E minor sounded both improvisatory and cogent, like a line of argument you didn’t come up with but wished you had. Each episode in this highly sectionalized work seemed to have a distinct temperament — now dancelike, now lyrical. The concluding fugue was a high-wire act of tremendous agility.
The recital’s first half explored Bach’s influence down the centuries. Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue,” which married Bach’s forms to the syntax of French Romanticism, showed the astonishing variety of tonal shadings Barnatan can elicit. Each segment of the piece had its own sound color: pastels in the easy rippling introduction, dark ochers in the chorale, and at a daringly hushed dynamic. He also brought a great clarity of voicing to the fugue, even at the clangorous ending — a feat in itself.
The lushness of Franck’s language turned toward the angular in Barber’s Piano Sonata. Barnatan, in his most thrilling performance, plowed relentlessly through its hard edges and percussive melodies. If Bach’s and Franck’s fugues evoked a cathedral organist, Barber’s conjured Art Tatum in a smoky club, leaning into syncopated dissonances and barely keeping the music from going unhinged. It was an amazing display of rhythmic, textural, and dynamic control.
If Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, was somewhat disappointing, it was largely by comparison with the standard Barnatan set in the first half. The piano sound was drier, the phrasing clipped, and the musical flow that came so easily in the first half seemed elusive. There were a surprising number of finger slips for a pianist who had charged so fearlessly through the earlier bravura fare. Even so, there was much to admire, especially in the eruptive climax in the slow movement. And the finale, which can seem wayward, was here lucid and coherent — a cabinet of surprises, but perfectly arranged.
The sole encore was Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso (Op. 14). Barnatan’s next visit to Boston will be in May, in the company of cellist Alisa Weilerstein. But when he returns as a soloist, it should be on the larger stage he very much deserves.David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.