Pinch-hitting pianist, Milwaukee Symphony deliver deeply moving Brahms

Inon Barnatan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Inon Barnatan, MSO in sync for concerto

By Elaine Schmidt

Great concert artists do not travel with understudies.

Fortunately for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, when pianist Radu Lupu had to withdraw from this weekend's performances of Brahms' Concerto for Piano No. 1, pianist Inon Barnatan had the weekend off before performing the same piece in Aachen, Germany.

Barnatan took the stage Friday evening with the MSO and music director Edo de Waart and gave a deeply moving, musically articulate performance of the concerto that won him a standing ovation.

Barnatan brought exquisite phrasing to the piece, employing both subtleties in dynamics and color to delicate passages and a stormy, almost brash power to its biggest moments. He gave the concerto's second movement an intimate, tender, seemingly soul-baring performance, playing at times as though lost in haunting memories.

De Waart and the orchestra responded to Barnatan with a like-minded approach.

Despite a few loose connections between the ends of piano phrases and full orchestra entrances, the many spots in which one or a few players took up a phrase begun by the piano were glorious. Several times, solo or small ensemble voices in the orchestra matched Barnatan's dynamics and colors so convincingly that their entrances sounded more like continuations of a single instrument than a handoff to another player.

De Waart and the orchestra opened the program with a finely honed, expressive performance of Schumann's "Overture to 'Manfred.'" From beautifully wrought phrases, gentle applications of rubato and occasional urgent, forward-leaning energy, their performance was sensitive yet never overstated.

Following the Schumann piece, de Waart and the players moved to James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie," a requiem of sorts for victims of witch hunts in Scotland in and around the 17th century.

Far less programmatic than the title might lead one to expect, the piece moved between amorphous murmurs and overwhelming waves of orchestral sound, contrasting soft sonic blurs with wrenching cries.