You needed to be there; "there" being pianist Inon Barnatan's recital at noon last Thursday at St. Francis Auditorium.

A glance at the program showed the man meant business: Thomas Adès' "Darkness Visible," Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit" and Franz Schubert's immense "Sonata No. 21, D. 960."

This is not a light diversion for a summery afternoon. Each of the three works makes extraordinary technical and interpretive demands on the performer, especially when programmed without a break.

Frankly, Barnatan, a 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant winner, delivered the goods in one of the most exciting debut recitals Santa Fe has heard in a long while. "Darkness Visible," with typical Adès wit, takes its title both from John Milton's description of infernal illumination ("No light, but rather darkness visible/Served only to discover sights of woe...") and from the work's structure, a sort-of fantasia on John Dowland's Elizabethan lute song, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell."

The work offers glimpses of Dowland's song amid furious tremolos, percussive outbursts, halting tempos and broken cadences, ending with an almost signal-clear hearing of the song. The piece recalls György Kurtág's provocative games and transcriptions. Barnatan's intense performance combined power and mystery in equal measure.

Yet more mystery informed the three-part Ravel suite that followed. Inspired by a set of macabre prose poems by French fantast Aloysius Bertrand, "Gaspard de la nuit" opens with "Ondine," which pictures a deadly water sprite aiming to get her man. Barnatan remarked that Ravel turns the piano into water. So did the pianist with an evanescent series of liquid arpeggios coupled with deft use of the pedal.

In "Le gibet," Bertrand depicts a corpse hanging from a gibbet, a bell tolling monotonously in the distance. Ravel's B-flat "bell" tolls a near maddening 208 times (my rough count) behind a foreground of très lent, funereal chords. Barnatan's reading, flexible yet quietly obsessive, made a chilling effect.

For his third movement, "Scarbo," showing a malevolent demon-dwarf, Ravel demands, in his words, "transcendental virtuosity." Is it the most technically difficult piece in the standard repertory? That was the composer's stated intent, anyway. He also intended "a caricature of Romanticism" and, by his own admission, got carried away by it. The pianistic histrionics sound like Franz Liszt on speed. Barnatan made beautiful music of this ridiculously demanding grotesquerie.

Schubert's final sonata of his final year, 1828, stands as one of the transcendent works for the piano—strangely proportioned, inexhaustible, of dazzling radiance and originality. Ludwig Wittgenstein's comment applies: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." The sonata is about as close as mortals get to the music of the spheres. Barnatan played it as if inspired.

Last Sunday's concert brought Barnatan back to the stage, now in Johannes Brahms' "Piano Quartet No. 1" with violinist Giora Schmidt, violist Teng Li and cellist Nicholas Canellakis. They offered a full-bodied reading marked by discretion and finesse—until that sizzling, hell-bent finale. The program had opened with Joseph Haydn's lighthearted "Trio No. 1 for Flute, Violin, and Cello, Hob. IV:1" in a beguiling performance by flutist Bart Feller, violinist Jennifer Frautschi and cellist Sophie Shao.

The concert's centerpiece was Walter Braunfels' two-cello "String Quintet, Op. 63," completed in 1945. Condemned and boycotted for his "degenerate art" by the Nazis, Braunfels composed in the manner of Richard Strauss—dense, supple, harmonically complex tonalities reminiscent also of "Verklärte Nacht." This large-scale piece deserves to be more widely heard. The opening movement, lyrical and insistently rhythmic, leads into a multifaceted Adagio whose aching lament receives a quiet resolution. A skittery Scherzo, then a swinging, folksy Rondo conclude the work. Schmidt, Frautschi, Shao and Canellakis were joined by violist Lily Francis for an energetic, determined performance.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival 2009 Season
Various locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque
Through Aug. 24