Classical music review: Pianist Inon Barnatan brings Oregon Symphony audience to its feet with virtuoso Saint-Saens performance

Inon Barnatan
The Oregonian

By James McQuillen

Courtesy of Portland Piano International, Inon Barnatan made his Portland debut last October as a thinker and poet of the piano, offering an intellectually rich recital program with an exceptionally delicate touch. Saturday night he returned as an athlete, showing strength and speed in a rousing performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto with the Oregon Symphony.

The poetry was still there, with sensitive phrasing and dynamics, as well as a sense of purpose throughout. So was the delicate touch wherever Saint-Saëns gave him the opportunity, as in the first movement's lighter-textured slow interlude. But it was Barnatan's spectacular virtuosity, blindingly fast and brilliantly clear, that had people leaping to their feet before the last note finished sounding.

In his American symphonic debut, guest conductor Michele Mariotti led the orchestra in sumptuous accompaniment. He and Barnatan carefully calibrated their dynamics, allowing both for the piano to sound clearly in densely orchestrated sections and also for the orchestra to enter powerfully as Barnatan gathered thunder toward the end of a solo passage. With a big, lush sound, they deepened the furrowed-brow seriousness of the first movement -- never have I heard Saint-Saëns sound so much like Rachmaninoff -- but then offered a less imposing presence in the giddy second and third, carefully supporting Barnatan as he made his frenzied way over the keyboard.

After intermission, Mariotti led the orchestra in its first-ever traversal of all of Antonín Dvorák's "Slavonic Dances;" each a delightful display of orchestral color and momentum closing with a fortissimo punch, together they gave the slightly dizzying effect of eight encores played back-to-back. As they did last week, the players seemed to relish the opportunity to make the entire ensemble shine under clear direction; wind and brass principals and the percussion section deserve special mention for bringing out details with electric energy in high relief.

If it all seems like an evening of breathless fun, well, most of it was, with lots of action and little down time. But it was serious fun, and that was a substantial part of what made the program cohere (that, and the other dance pieces at the beginning, ballet music from Mozart's "Idomeneo"). Unlike many of his prominent colleagues in the second half of the 19th century, Saint-Saëns rejected the idea that music should be revolutionary and challenging to listeners, but not the idea that it should be genuinely entertaining and well crafted.

Dvorák's "Slavonic Dances" were his first pieces for Simrock, the publisher to whom he'd been introduced by Brahms; they were meant to show Simrock what he was capable of but also to be commercially successful. In both instances, the music was rich, accessible and invigorating. Who could complain?