Barnatan’s stylish debut sparks Glover’s return to Music of the Baroque

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
March 30, 2021

The crowning event of Music of the Baroque’s current 50th anniversary season was to be a performance of Bach’s epic St. Matthew Passion_. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting public health restrictions put paid to that ambitious Holy Week event.
MOB’s since-twice revised season instead brought a downsized live-streamed concert of Handel and Mozart Monday night. It was hoped that this Harris Theater program might be able to admit a small audience; but while Chicago is gradually reopening, we aren’t quite there yet.

Still, there was much to be grateful for. The event marked the MOB debut of the pianist Inon Barnatan, it was music director Dame Jane Glover’s first appearance with the ensemble in over a year, and the program offered a pair of relative Mozart rarities rather than relying on the usual suspects. All this and a Mozart premiere surprise as well.

Written at age 18, Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A major, deserves more attention than it usually receives. Granted, the middle movements are less interesting than the framing sections, but the opening Allegro is prime Mozart—the octave-dropping main theme indelible and insistent without ever losing a galant grace.

Glover’s long-established Mozartian bona fides were evident in the overall approach, pacing and transparency of the ensemble (well-blended even with masks and social distancing). Still, at times there was a streamlined quality to Monday’s performance. Some of the delightful modulations and innumerable offbeat touches in the opening movement felt rushed past and glossed over—as if one was trying to glimpse an attractive landscape in a speeding limousine with the windows rolled up. Likewise, the ensuing Andante could have used more nuanced expression and detailing, instead unfolding with an efficient inevitability that verged on blandness.

The concluding movements went better, with greater personality in the quirky Menuetto and ample drive in the spirited finale, the horns adding raspy punch to the coda.

It’s good to see Music of the Baroque expanding the rather straitened roster of guest soloists over the past decade—especially with an artist like Inon Barnatan who is one of the most consistently compelling pianists of our day.

Based on his previous local appearances, one tends to associate Barnatan with contemporary fare more than standard Austro-German cornerstone rep. Yet in his MOB debut, the Israeli pianist showed himself a superb and inspired Mozartian in the Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat. The first of two concertos written for his student Barbara Ployer, K.449 was also the first work Mozart entered in the catalogue of his works (February 9, 1784).

After the extensive orchestral introduction, Barantan drew attention with his first entrance. His playing was innately stylish yet also had a thoughtful quality, with his first-movement cadenza drawing one forward with each note.

The Andantino is a lovely idyll in Mozart’s best inward-melancholy mode, and Barnatan explored the dark-hued introspection with subtle phrasing and uncommon sensitivity. The finale is among Mozart’s most delightful closers and Barnatan put across the bumptious spirits and contrapuntal ingenuity with incisive articulation and rippling roulades, sparking equally lively accompaniment from Glover and the ensemble.

The concerto was followed by an unexpected bonus of “new Mozart.” The composer’s recently rediscovered Allegro in D for solo piano was given its belated modern world premiere on Mozart’s birthday (January 27) in Salzburg. Barnatan threw off this concise miniature with lilting charm and elan in what is likely the work’s U.S. premiere. Kudos to Glover (and Barnatan) for adding this neat bit of Mozart history to the evening.

The program led off with familiar Handel in the form of “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.” The brief opener to Act III of Handel’s oratorio Solomon is fail-safe populist fare but the bustling charm was rather lost at Glover’s breathless tempo.

The ensuing Concerto grosso in A minor, Op. 6, no. 4, proved more successful. The opening of the Larghetto was marred by some errant violin intonation, the only significant lapse in the orchestra’s otherwise polished and cohesive playing throughout. Here too Glover’s brisk pace sacrificed some of the called for Affetuoso—though that quality was nicely to the fore in the slow third movement. The first Allegro went with apt vivacity and the jaunty busyness of the finale was equally well captured.