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Inon Barnatan's "Variations on a Suite"

Sunday, January 3, 2021
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Celebrity Series of Boston, pianist Inon Barnatan creates his own baroque-style suite using short pieces by eight composers in a program he calls "Variations on a Suite," on demand.

On the program:

BACH Toccata in E minor, BWV 914
HANDEL Suite in E, HWV 460: Allemande
RAMEAU Suite in A minor, RCT 5: Courante
COUPERIN Pieces de clavecin, II 12e ordre: "L'Atalante"
RAVEL Le Tombeau de Couperin: Rigaudon
ADÈS Blanca Variations
LIGETI Musica Ricercata Nos. 10 & 11
BARBER Piano Sonata in E-flar minor, Op. 26: Fugue

BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Op. 24

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Recorded November 18, 2018 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall.

Learn more about the Celebrity Series of Boston and see upcoming events.

See a preview of Inon Barnatan's most recent recording, the complete piano concertos by Beethoven:

Hear a preview of the program with Inon Barnatan:


Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath at New England Conservatory with Inon Barnatan, who's here for a Celebrity Series of Boston recital. Inon, thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Inon Barnatan [00:00:07] Thank you so much.

BMcC [00:00:09] This program is one that I'll just tell you straight out, when the Celebrity Series announced its schedule last spring, this just jumped out at me, just because of the model of the program, this idea of a Baroque suite idea, but with lots of composers across centuries involved. It just seems so interesting to me. So, that's where I have to start with you. How did the idea percolate from idea to reality and especially, not to make this too complex a question, but, there's thousands of ways to do this. How did you arrive, how long did it take you to arrive at this particular set of pieces?

IB [00:00:41] Yeah, in fact, that was the toughest, to not choose something, because there's so many beautiful, beautiful pieces that you could put in a suite like this. And the idea percolated because I've always been fascinated by how related pieces are across different centuries and how much Baroque music, which I love, influenced so much that came after it. And the germ of the idea came when I, I love the music of Thomas Adès, and I discovered this new piece that he wrote. At the time, it was a brand new piano piece. I didn't know that it was eventually going to be part of his new opera. But at the time it was just a piano piece called "Variations for Blanca"....

BMcC [00:01:26] Is that for "Exterminating Angel?"

IB [00:01:27] Yes. So it's actually part, one of the characters in the opera plays that piece.

BMcC [00:01:32] OK, I got it.

IB [00:01:33] But at the time it was a stand-alone piano piece, and it struck me how much it reminded me of of a Baroque Sarabande. And the idea struck me to compose, to actually make it a Baroque Sarabande in a Baroque suite, dance suite type of program, because the Baroque dance suite was one of the earliest forms of instrumental music. And back then, Baroque composers used it to innovate, actually, because suddenly they could write just instrumental music that was meant to be listened to rather than just danced to. And they could write much more complex music. And they used all of the forms of the dances and the suite to actually really form their own identity and push music forward. And composers have been doing that ever since in the 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st century, using those old forms and especially that kind of dance suite form to have their individual voice and push music forward. So to me, that was really fascinating to explore.

BMcC [00:02:44] So to to fill in those other spots, sort of like in the blanks of what a Baroque dance suite might be, which of course, we should mention it doesn't only take one form. I mean, there's lots of interchangeability, lots of variation in how those different dances get incorporated. But did you then just sort of go to your own catalog, your own, sort of, like, what's under your fingers? Or were there things that you thought, "Actually, I've been wanting to look at this, whatever, Couperin, or whatever, let's make this part of it now." Were there are new things that you brought in just for this project?

IB [00:03:15] Oh, yeah, I definitely, especially the Baroque. I have not played Rameau before. I have not played Couperin before. Those are the things that I usually hear on the harpsichord, and I love hearing on piano. But it made a lot of sense, first of all, Thomas Adès has always been obsessed almost with Couperin. And he says that he plays Couperin on his piano every day. And he wrote also some arrangements of Couperin pieces. And so it made obvious sense to put some Couperin there. And then it made absolutely obvious sense to put Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin on there as well. And then obviously, Bach is going to be there and obviously Handel is going to be there.

[00:04:03] Handel - not only a huge influence on a lot that came after him, but also the basis of Brahms's Handel Variations. A keyboard suite by Handel was the inspiration for Handel Variations. So I mean, the composers were easy to find and the connections were easy to find. But then it was just about what pieces by those composers. And it was very important to me that there's some sort of connection, not only thematically but musically, so that it feels like a suite, that there is - I mean, it starts off pretty strictly as a Prelude, and then Allemande and a Courante, all these dances. And also, key relations were important to me. So I had a couple of iterations of this program, actually, and it's not always been exactly the same pieces, but yeah.

BMcC [00:05:03] I was going to ask you how many versions you kind of went through. Probably a lot of them.

IB [00:05:07] Well, actually, only two that I've performed.

BMcC [00:05:09] OK.

IB [00:05:09] Yeah, but, you know, maybe one day I'll record all of these pieces and people can put them together themselves.

BMcC [00:05:16] That's right. In the age of programable playback machines, whether they're iTunes or CD players or whatever. Yeah, that'd be cool.

[00:05:23] So, I read a quote from you in another interview that said something along the lines of, you know, "I'm a different pianist when I play Shostakovich from when I play Bach, from when I play Ravel." And it kind of made me think, wow, you're really setting yourself up for some quick gear changes. What is it like then to just go one after the other through, how many different composers is this, like eight or nine composers that you have to do instant gearshifts for? Is that a difficult thing, or is it more just kind of exhilarating and exciting to do that?

IB [00:05:55] It is exhilarating and exciting. I mean, multiple personality aside, I find it very interesting to explore how the piano sounds different when you're playing Couperin than when you're playing Ravel Tombeau de Couperin, but also what the similarities are. So for me, it's really exciting to explore. And when I play Ravel after Couperin, when I play Brahms after the Handel Variations after the first half, it sounds different to me. I hear different things about it that I hadn't heard when I played a stand-alone piece. And so, yes, it is, there's the challenge of, how do you make the piano idiomatic for whatever it is that you're playing, but also, how do you - it's fascinating to find all those connections. Every time I play this program, I hear things that I hadn't heard the time before, and I hear things in the Brahms, or in the Ligeti that I have not noticed before, but only noticed because I play them next to something that really spoke to it.

BMcC [00:07:02] Yeah. Yeah. It's that idea of the conversation among the pieces of music that kind of opens up new things in them. And so just a quick word, I wonder how you settled on this Handel Variations by Brahms as the complete second half. How many other ideas did you have for how to follow that initial Baroque suite trajectory?

IB [00:07:20] Well, the initial program actually was something that they asked me at Lincoln Center to put together for an hour recital. So not two halves. So the initial recital was just the suite. And then I felt it worked so well that I wanted to add the second half. And then there was no other, in some ways, no other piece that I wanted to put out there. Because, first of all, Brahms Handel Variations is, I think, one of my favorite pieces by Brahms. But also, I mean, it is literally based, it is variations on a suite, which is basically what this recital is.

BMcC [00:07:58] Yeah. Yeah. It's exactly in the same spirit as that first half anyway. So that makes a lot of sense.

IB [00:08:02] And also the Adès itself, even though it's only a six minute piece, it is a set of variations.

BMcC [00:08:09] Right.

IB [00:08:10] So all these things are being explored, variations and dance forms and all these thematic things that are also musical things really appealed to me as a way to... And you can kind of understand how Brahms is using all those techniques, including the fugue, for example. The fugue is being explored. There are three fugues in this recital: in the opening piece, in the Barber fugue that closes the first half, and the fugue that closes the Brahms variations. And to me, all of those connections are just fascinating.

BMcC [00:08:52] Yeah. Yeah, it's terrific. So speaking of Thomas Adès, you'll be playing with him at Tanglewood next August. You're doing Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. So have you played with Tom as a conductor before?

IB [00:09:06] Never. Never. I've never we've never worked together before.

BMcC [00:09:08] Oh, my gosh.

IB [00:09:09] Yeah. So I've actually, I've always, I've programed a piece of his on my recitals very often because I am a big fan of his music and I'm a fan of his as a pianist and conductor as well, but we've never worked together, so.

BMcC [00:09:24] Yeah. Yeah. And so was the Fourth Piano Concerto by Beethoven one that you requested to play, or was it the other way around, that the BSO requested that you do it as part of its program?

IB [00:09:35] They asked me what I would like to play and then I gave them some options and they chose the Fourth, which I just I had just done. And I also just finished recording all the Beethoven concertos. So it made a lot of sense, both for for them and for me.

BMcC [00:09:52] Tell me about the Fourth in, sort of, the orbit of pieces, especially concertos, that kind of make up your life. I mean, I'm sure there are some concertos that are sort of at the very center and then others sort of on various rings that go outward from there. Where does the Beethoven Fourth sit with you?

IB [00:10:08] I think the Beethoven Fourth Concerto will always be at the very center. Of the Beethoven concertos for sure. And of all concertos, I find it just the most, apart from being unbelievably beautiful, but also endlessly fascinating. The dichotomy between the lyrical and, the private and the public, and between the dramatic and the intimate, that second movement, it will never stop sounding shocking to me.

[00:10:50] And just so much of it is... I think there are very few pianists that would say that Beethoven Fourth is not one of their favorite piano concertos or not only pianists, just musicians. It's a musician's piece without losing its appeal to everyone.

BMcC [00:11:08] Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's that's a great way to put it, because I, I actually am a trumpet player, but it's about my favorite concerto in the entire world. So, I mean, point taken. And when you say that, though, when you say it's a "musician's concerto" and as well as being popular for audiences as well, what is it, though, that it presents to you in its greatest challenges? I mean, I don't know if it's the most - I'm not a pianist, so I don't know if it's the most technically challenging of the Beethoven concertos - so in that way? Or is its greatest challenges in that dialog of public and private that you mentioned?

IB [00:11:47] Yeah, for me the greatest challenge is to get the right atmosphere for this concerto, which is not, um, it should never sound... It's not a concerto the way that the Fifth Piano Concerto is. It's not declamatory and, um, virtuosic for virtuosity's sake, not that there's, I mean the Fifth is... but meaning, it's a concerto of a different ilk. But also there is a lot of that element in it, meaning you can't just make it into this very lugubrious, too private of a piece and too intimate of a piece, and that finding that balance where the pacing of it and just the feeling of it and that it has that extra something that makes it so special without getting lost in it. And finding that sound is not easy in that in that piece. But it's really quite amazing.

[00:12:50] And again, that second movement, I mean, it has been suggested, not by Beethoven, much later, that it does follow the story of Orpheus trying to rescue Eurydice from the fires of Hell and convincing them to let him take her out of Hell. And to me, it is a very, very powerful image, with the piano trying to coax the orchestra into whatever world he's is. And it's very rare that I'm not, even when I'm playing it, that I'm not incredibly moved by what Beethoven is doing in that piece.

BMcC [00:13:33] Your description of it, I'm getting chills just thinking about it, as you're talking about it, because it's just such an amazing piece of music. So this is really something to look forward to next summer. But you have something else you're looking forward to next summer. You're taking over as the music director for the La Jolla Summer Fest. It's a pretty significant festival in Southern California. What are your, sort of, hopes and goals for that role?

IB [00:13:53] Well, my hopes and goals for that role are similar to what I'm trying to do with this recital, is that programing is an art form in some ways, and there are no rules to it except that you try and put things together that would have a conversation with one another, so that when you hear a piece that, I mean, as a programmer, especially when you're dealing with a lot of music that has been played a lot before and that has been part of the canon for a long time, I think, as a programmer, you get the wonderful opportunity to put it in the new light, and to provide context for it, without being academic, but, just musically, that when you hear one thing next to another, it wakes both of them up. None of this music should sound old. All of it should sound like it was written just now. And I've always been fascinated by the conversations, the different pieces of music have between each other. So now I have a bigger canvas in which to explore that.

BMcC [00:14:59] So you're going to be setting programs, I mean, in conjunction with the artists who visit, but you'll be working with them on crafting programs and crafting a schedule that kind of pulls that off on a, what is it, a three or four week schedule, something like that, rather than an evening long schedule.

IB [00:15:13] Yeah. So it's a three week festival and about 15 main programs and other auxillary things. And yeah, I basically program all of the concerts and invite all the people that are going to be a part of it, so that's also fun.

BMcC [00:15:29] Have you ever do anything like this before?

IB [00:15:30] Never, it remains to be seen if I'm any good at it. But it is a challenge and one that I'm really fascinated by.

[00:15:38] And obviously it has the advantage of me being able to invite people that I want to invite to play things that I like. But I'm discovering very much that the big problem is that I like a lot of things and that I like a lot of people. And as always, the problem is not what to do, but what not to do.

BMcC [00:16:02] Just like you opened this conversation talking about the recital you're playing here in Boston.

IB [00:16:06] Yeah, it's always my problem. Yeah.

BMcC [00:16:09] It's a good problem to have. Inon Barnatan, thanks a lot for your time today. I really appreciate it.

IB [00:16:13] Thank you so much.