Pianist Inon Barnatan finds the poetry in music

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Plenty of pianists dazzle us with flash and fireworks. Their technique is astounding, but musically there's something lacking.

A notable exception is Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan (EE-non BAR-na-tan). Critics turn to a different lexicon when describing his playing: "poetic," "sensitive" and "probing" are frequent adjectives.

It's certainly not that Barnatan, 36, is lacking in technique; no one in their right mind would attempt Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit" or Barber's "Piano Sonata" (both in Barnatan's repertoire) without having impressive technical chops. But Barnatan never allows mere fiery playing to stand on its own.

"I'm drawn to the idea of poetry in music and how to try to find out what's underneath the notes," Barnatan says from his home in Harlem.

One composer closely identified with Barnatan is Schubert. Barnatan recorded his last three piano sonatas, one of which, in A major, he'll play this Sunday in a recital presented by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. It will also mark the pianist's Detroit debut.

"The Sonata in A Major" reflects how Barnatan feels about Schubert in general.

"What attracts me is how much he can say with so little; there's this simplicity and complexity at the same time," he says. "That's also one of the things that makes his songs so compelling. They're miniatures, but there's so much said with so little."

And there's something else that connects Barnatan to Schubert: the composer's innate sensitivity. "Even when Schubert writes a melody in a major key, it's sometimes sadder and more poignant than if he wrote in a minor key," he says. "There's a sense of smiling through tears."

The other pieces on the program all end in a fugue, a contrapuntal form with a subject that's expanded and developed. Bach's "Toccata in E Minor" starts the program, followed by Franck's "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue," Barber's "Piano Sonata" and then Schubert.

"Bach, Barber and Franck are all so different in the way they approached the fugue, but they stem from the same place," Barnatan says. "You see how Bach influenced later composers."

Barber's 1949 work is often mentioned with Ives' "Concord Sonata" as the two greatest American piano sonatas. Its concluding fugue is relatively short but brutally difficult. "It was a challenge to learn it," the pianist admits. "But like anything you've learned and played before, you forget about the difficulty and work on how you're going to communicate it to the audience."

Cesar Franck was an organist, but his "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue" was the first major piece he wrote for piano, Barnatan says. "Its harmonic language is so rich, lying somewhere between French and German."

In 2014, The New York Philharmonic tapped the pianist for a three-year Artist-in-Association residency, which keeps him busy playing chamber music and concertos in his adopted city.

That position seems like destiny when you consider Barnatan's musical start. At 3, and blessed with perfect pitch, he was already correcting his mother's piano playing.

"That's what she tells me — that I was not only picking out tunes but also identifying what notes she was playing and those that were wrong.

"I guess I was pretty obnoxious," he says of his time as a pint-sized musician. "But that's how my parents discovered I had perfect pitch and that spurred them to start me with piano lessons.

"I knew even then that music was a language I understood."

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Inon Barnatan

3 p.m. Sunday

Seligman Performing Arts Center

22305 W. 13 Mile Rd. at Lahser, Beverly Hills

Tickets $30-$60;

$15-$30 students