“Darknesse Visible” = RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit; La Valse; ADES: Darknesse Visible; DEBUSSY: Suite bergamasque; BRITTEN (arr. Stevenson): Fantasy on Peter Grimes – Inon Barnatan, piano – Avie AV2256, 69:27 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Israeli pianist Barnatan’s program, entitled Darknesse Visible, takes its literary rubric from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a conceit that the fires of Hell give forth no light. Music by Debussy, Ades, Ravel, and Britten provides the sources of illumination and angst that bind the pieces in their respective epiphanies. The 1992 Ades, piece, Darknesse Visible, specifically exploits the Miltonic paradoxical image.
Barnatan opens with Ravel’s beguiling and dazzling tour de force, Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) after the poems of Aloysius Bertrand. Ravel wrote the piece to compete in difficulty with Balakirev’s Islamey, and both works defied their composers’ efforts to perform them. The liquid “Ondine” shimmers and cavorts in eruptions of light and shadow, Barnatan’s touch a minor miracle of graduated sound and pedal, especially in his diminuendi and cascading runs. The obsessive “Le Gibet,” an unholy vision of a hanged corpse’s rotting in the glow of sunset, maintains a fine tension, as its ticking B-flats adjust to each twist in the gallows knot, to each hue from the bells’ tolling in the illuminating sun. Finally, in the spirit of both Liszt and Mussorgsky, we behold the ghastly dwarf or incubus “Scarbo,” a vestige of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.” That Barnatan projects infinite degrees of soft tissue that then explode meteorically and contrapuntally quite ravish us with the range of his percussive or strummed firepower.
The least successful piece of the recital, to these ears, remains the Thomas Ades (b. 1971) Darknesse Visible (1992), which takes a 1610 John Dowland song, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” and transposes its notes and rhythm to various registers of the keyboard, often by octave displacement. This pointillist treatment pulverizes the original into tone clusters and discrete moments in time, a leftover of the Webern or Babbitt aesthetic that sucks the melos out of music and leaves an intellectually vapid husk. Perhaps the music of Ligeti provides some model for this music, but I can detect little of that composer’s fascinating, Byzantine atmosphere in this ugly opus of seven-plus-minutes.
A Lisztian “reminiscence” comes from Ronald Stevenson (1972) on Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, itself based on a poem by George Crabbe. The rather gothic tale of accidental death and mob-driven suicide has Barnatan’s rendering a feverish fantasia of percussive and dark themes that soon has his reaching into the strings of his piano to effect the last of the famous Sea Interludes. Equally Lisztian, in a different, more overtly nostalgic way, Ravel’s 1920 La Valse, which concludes the recital, invokes the image of “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” the words by Ravel, a sentiment coincidentally shared by Joseph Conrad about civilization itself. True to each of Ravel’s dance-pieces, La Valse explodes at its conclusion, a kind of apocalypse for the generation of the First World War.
Barnatan extends the “impressions” of his recital with Debussy’s familiar Suite bergamasque (1890) after the poem by French port Paul Verlaine. Something of Schumann’s masked ball permeates the suite, although its most famous movement, Clair de Lune, projects a pure image of nocturnal tranquility. Barnatan’s uncanny control of keyboard dynamics asserts itself from the outset, his taking the Prelude at a broad, luxurious tempo that revels in Debussy’s modal progressions. Both the Menuet and concluding Passepied dance in pearly play, lending an air of antique beauty to Debussy’s idiosyncratic homage to the Baroque spirit, cross-fertilized by an ardent romanticism.
Barnatan’s Steinway, captured in exquisite sound by Adam Abeshouse at The Performing Arts Center, SUNY Purchase, NYC (8-10 February 2010), injects liquid or demonic percussive magic into your audio system, as required.
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…