One way or another, Inon Barnatan’s piano recital at Hannaford Hall on Saturday afternoon was all about Maurice Ravel, even though Ravel’s own music was played on only the first half of the program.

In the second half, Barnatan played Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a work more frequently heard, these days, in Ravel’s orchestration than in Mussorgsky’s original piano version – and indeed, it’s difficult not to hear the French composer’s sonorities, superimposed on Mussorgsky’s rich Russian textures, when the piano version is played. And though Barnatan chose a Gershwin piece as his encore, there was a connection that any Gershwin fan would know: When Gershwin, already wildly successful, visited Ravel in Paris for a composition lesson, Ravel reportedly said, “I should take lessons from you.”

Barnatan, whose recital was presented by Portland Ovations, is an energetic but flexible player with an ear for color and strong, though not invincible, technique. There were moments in the more involved, densely harmonized sections of the Mussorgsky when textures grew murky, and notes seemed to get lost. Yet even in those cases, the problem seemed to be the near impossibility of keeping such passages transparent at the speeds Barnatan wanted to take them, and whatever the imprecisions, you had to admire the daredevil attempt.

More typically, Barnatan impressed not so much with surface virtuosity as with a changeable palette, deployed in a way that made difficult passages flow with a naturalness that camouflaged, rather than underscored, their difficulties. And that’s a virtuosity of a purer kind.

Barnatan’s four Ravel selections probed the piano’s breadth as a conduit for tone painting. In “Le Gibet,” the central panel of “Gaspard de la Nuit,” for example, the sense of the hanged man swinging gently, as a distant bell tolls, is vividly drawn, but the real source of the movement’s emotional atmosphere is the calm, eerily detached underlying chord progression.

Barnatan struck a fine balance between those elements, but was equally astute in his evocation of the watery imagery of “Ondine,” the first movement of “Gaspard,” and in “Jeux D’eau,” which takes the effect farther. In “Scarbo,” the finale of “Gaspard,” Barnatan’s unusual accenting and quick dynamic shifts at the punctuating chords gave the scampering movement a dramatic touch.

The last two Ravel works were opposites in nearly every way. Barnatan’s account of the graceful “Pavane Pour en Infante Defunte” was delicate and poetic overall, and if its climactic section seemed weightier than is typical, it was not unreasonably so, and pointed up an emotional undercurrent that many pianists keep at a greater distance. And he played “La Valse,” Ravel’s gloss on the late-19th-century Viennese waltz, with all the assertive splashiness this showpiece demands.

A performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” is, in effect, an interpretation of an interpretation, the work itself being the composer’s musical impressions of a collection of drawings, sketches and paintings by Victor Hartmann. When the work is heard in its orchestral guise (and Ravel was one of many composers who orchestrated it), another interpretive layer is added.

Barnatan brought a few unusual touches to his reading, mostly matters of timing and phrase-shaping, but mostly he took the score on its own, already colorful terms, deftly evoking everything from the lumbering ox cart in “Bydlo” to the haze surrounding “The Old Castle,” the playful bickering of the children in “Tuileries,” and the grandeur of the closing “Great Gate of Kiev.” He also tapped into what seems to have been Mussorgsky’s intention for the recurring “Promenade” music, making these sections not only palate cleansers, but meditations on the “picture” just heard.

For his single encore, Barnatan gave a bright-hued, spirited performance of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: