Time Traveler’s Suite
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24; plus works by Adès, JS Bach, Barber, Handel, Ligeti, Rameau and Ravel
Inon Barnatan (piano)
Pentatone PTC 5186 874 63:25 mins
Time travelling is something the period performance movement has been trying to do for decades, albeit with the aid of electric lighting and modern heating. Inon Barnatan’s brand of time travel, spanning four centuries and several cities, involves a ‘suite’ of seemingly disparate pieces, but each in fact united by some element of the Baroque form. And, an obvious point perhaps, all performed on the same modern piano (a Steinway? Alas, he doesn’t say).
We start with youthful Bach and movements from suites by Handel, Rameau and Couperin, before we’re steered towards Ravel’s ‘Rigaudon’ from Tombeau de Couperin which owes so much to 18th-century dance. Barnatan plays with delightful alertness of phrasing and his ornamentation is sublimely executed. Some musical transitions work better than others, and I did wonder whether all of the Baroque works needed to be bunched at the start. But Adès’s haunting Blanca Variations (from his opera The Exterminating Angel) steeped in Baroque excess, were a revelation, providing a smooth passage to the Ligeti which in turn melts beautifully into the rollicking Barber fugue that serves as something of a final gigue.
To my ears this momentum is broken by the recording’s ‘Part II’: the Brahms Handel Variations presented in full. It’s wonderfully played, full of verve and wit – so no arguments there – although it dominates to the extent that the previous 35 or so minutes of music fade somewhat in the memory, which is a shame. Still, I love the concept, and anything that can so effectively and seamlessly bring old and new together is very welcome.