, November 2009
The wildly revisionist recordings of American pianist Tzimon Barto (born Johnny Smith) provide the mainstream classical piano repertory with a salutary jolt. Whether he’s playing Rameau, Ravel, or now a group of keyboard sonatas of Haydn, he revels in ultra-detailed readings (Barto marks up scores with interpretive directions at the micro level and refuses to perform from memory) with extreme dynamic contrasts, carefully controlled gradations of dynamics and articulation, and an overall willingness to place the dictates of expression above any concept of authentic performance or even fealty to what’s in the score. Barto, who has added bodybuilding, command of eight languages, composition of several thousand poems he plans to engrave on stone slabs, and a bout with crack cocaine addiction to an impressive résumé, might be considered a somewhat less Romantic-oriented and less overtly flamboyant relative of Ivo Pogorelich, but his music-making is no less extreme. The Haydn sonatas here make the listener gasp, and at times likely laugh out loud, at the sheer unexpectedness of the events in the music. No repeat is safe from Barto’s sudden accents; no cadential pattern exempt from a sudden intense focus on its significance; no limpidly playful finale like that of the Piano Sonata No. 42 in G major, Hob. 16/27, is off limits for a high concept. Barto’s recordings of the late 2000s, for the Finnish label Ondine, which are beautifully recorded, have brought him admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. This one, devoted to a composer who, despite his boisterous personality, lived in a decorous time and depended on decorousness and balance to make his jokes work, is perhaps not quite so successful as the others, and nobody should pick it out as a first choice for Haydn’s sonatas. It is unlikely, however, to disappoint Barto’s growing body of fans, for like Barto’s other work, it leaves the listener with the feeling of never having heard the music at all.