Jansen and Barnatan Perform at Poisson Rouge

New York's Hot Venue for Music New, Newer and Old

By: - Mar 02, 2011

French French

Janine Jansen, Violin with Inon Barnatan, Piano
Le Poisson Rouge
155 Bleeker Street, New York
February 28, 2011

Ravel, Sonata for Violin and Piano
Messiaen, Theme and Variations
Dubugnon, Retour a Montford-l’Amoury
Cesar Frank, Sonata

In the intimate cave-like setting of Le Poisson Rouge, up and coming artists, and old-timers too, come to perform close to the audience, to open up their hard work with a creative vitality and carefree spirit.  “Real grand style" said the pianist Arthur Schnabel after listening to Brahms play, in a carefree and exuberant atmosphere.

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, now a New Yorker, engaged in a program of French music, the narrative arc a dialogue put forth with impeccable technique and  exquisite phrasing.  This program made connections between composers and eras, offering a tour of French music.

The program was bound by Ravel and Debussy, a decade his senior but often paired with him. Both composers boldly extended harmonic practice in a framework of tonality.  Ravel criticized Debussy’s “lack of architectonic power” and claimed his style was the opposite of Debussy’s symbolism.  He had returned to classical standards.

In composing for violin and piano, Ravel wrote for incompatible instruments.  He would not balance their contrasts but rather revealed their incompatibility. The musical lines of are strongly independent of each other. Jansen and Barnatan displayed their virtuosity without paying much attention to each other.  Starting in a pastoral style, they quickly moved to rhapsodic melodies of crystalline clarity.

The second movement is improvisational and Turkey in the Straw and ragtime early Chicago, New Orleans style.  Jenson plucked and stroked as well as bowed.  She can do anything.  

In the third movement Jansen picked up on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.  An adventurous artist and full of passion, she takes bravura lines with joy.  Barnatan added cacophony sugesting  traffic on the Champs Elysees.  Ravel, ‘the ironic and tender heart that beats under the velvet vest,” was irresistible in the hands of this pair.  

Messiaen did not like to compose chamber music, because a dialogue is created and he preferred one voice in communion with the Almighty. This Theme and Variations is a rare exception.  It was composed in the same year he married Claire Delbos, a composer and violinist.   Theme and Variations is straightforward piece, characteristic in its three mode harmony and seven instead of eight unit bars.  As usual there is no development in the variation form.  The first four variations are in fact increasingly fast decorations of the theme.    The theme returns to a plain octave transposed perfection in the fifth and last variation.  Jansen's violin is projected as a spiritualized human voice as the composer intended.

Dynamic rapport between Jansen and Barnatan, their ability to turn an abstract compositional argument between two instruments into a passionate and increasingly intimate dialogue.  We were invited to eavesdrop.

Composer Richard Dubugnon came on stage to tell us about composing Retour a Montfort-l’Amaury while he lived in Ravel’s home.  He reports that Ravel’s spirit hung over his shoulder and made corrections.   Dubugnon seems to have followed Ravel in starting from ground zero and allowing musical thoughts about Ravel to enter. Certainly this homage Retour is perfect as performed by Jansen and Barnatan.

The concluding work was Cesar Frank’s Violin Sonata, considered by many to be his greatest composition. Its premier was almost a disaster, because the piece ran so long that the sun set.  The violinist tapped the music stand with his bow and took the remaining work from memory and at a very fast clip.   

Did Frank promise the piece to Cosima von Bulow, before she became Richard Wagner's wife?  And then withdraw it to later make a wedding present to violinist Eugene Ysaye?  Romance abounds in backstories and on stage, as the dialogue between musicians erupts and wanes.  

While Frank had composed the first movement to be played slowly, he gave a blessing to the Allegretto tempo the duo took. Like the Messiaen, we hear some suggestion of the Gregorian chant and the familiar Messiaenic lack of development. Jansen performed the upward and downward arpeggios with aplomb.   The opening may be like the opening of Swann's Way in which Proust likens instruments to the call of a bird to his mate heralding the dawn.  The next movement, 'une brutale explosion' was dictated by the piano and contrasts with the smooth first.

Barnatan's gift of revealing the line with almost bell tones, inspired phrasing and a clear, but feathery touch is transporting. Some say that Schnabel would be pleased with Barnatan's performance, but even though Leon Fleischer, a Schnabel student, is referred to as Barnatan’s mentor, you can’t hear the exaggerated rhythmic distortion that Schnabel recommended to bring out to reveal character at the expense of time. Instead you take pure pleasure in the touch of a pianist poet.

The third movement is a Bach like recitative.  Jansen played the unaccompanied cantilena with special severity, in contrast to the soaring emotional melody of the second movement. A brilliant canon begins the last movement.  Both performers seem to enjoy giving the impression of improvisation the composer wanted.

Debussy's Beau Soir, a song transcribed by Jascha Heifitz for violin and piano was the encore, but hardly an afterthought.  A circle was complete.  An evening of as many dialogues as we imagine betwen instruments and humans.

Jansen is a violinist with a huge dynamic and timbre variations – sweet and strident up against each other.  Barnatan as a pianist shimmers and floats of the keyboard with a gossamer touch, while revealing almost without his intervention the beauty and line of the music.  Both artists clearly enjoyed the casual atmosphere.  Le Poisson Rouge invites you to bring an open mind and your drinking shoes.  

Mark the spot.  Both young artists are sure to appear in Boston and the Berkshires in the near future. for future events at Poisson Rouge.