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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Liebestraum in A flat major - Notturno S541/3 [5:28]
Piano Sonata in B minor S178 [30:58]
Mephisto Waltz No.1 (The Dance at the Village Inn) S514 [11:02]
La Lugubre Gondola S200/2 [9:39]
Prelude & Fugue in A minor S462/1 (after Bach BWV543) [10:00]
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
rec. Meistersaal, Köthener Str. Berlin, Germany, 10-15 October 2010
SONY CLASSICAL 88697766042 [67:07]

Having been thrilled, intrigued, challenged and even confounded by Khatia Buniatishvili's recent disc of Mussorgsky' Pictures at an Exhibition (review), I was pleased to get the opportunity to hear this Liszt recital which a sticker on the cover proudly proclaims as "The sensational debut album" and further quotes the Times critic "A manic maelstrom of musical energy."

One thing that forcefully strikes me on both discs is the sheer confidence of the playing. This is love-me-or-leave-me music making and not for a quiet evening in with the lights down low and the music murmuring away gently in the background. Confident too to present a recording of Liszt's mighty and daunting B minor Sonata on your debut disc. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging works in the repertoire but in one fell swoop you are setting up comparisons with just about every great pianist of the last 150 years. Another quote on the disc's cover is from Buniatishvili herself; "I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt. Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul." If I knew what that meant I might well agree - Buniatishvili is a child of the Social Media Age where such confessionals seem de rigueur. As I wrote previously, I have no need to know what motivates a musician's performing decisions because what chimes with them is unlikely to chime with me too. In 1901 Mahler is quoted as saying; "Let the public form its own thoughts about the work being played, not be forced to read someone else's prejudgements while they are listening..." [quoted in Mahler Remembered - edited by Norman Lebrecht page 126].

In the liner, Buniatishvili elaborates on the germinal idea behind this programme being a multi-faceted treatment of the Faust Legend and the three principal characters of Marguerite, Faust and Mephisto. Hence the opening A flat Liebstraum is a presented as a portrait of beauty and love as embodied by Marguerite. Whatever the 'concept' it makes for a very beautiful and poised opening to the recital and serves as a timely reminder that while Buniatishvili is noted for her "manic maelstroms" in fact a particularly strong facet of her playing is a meltingly lyrical touch. Some might find the phrasing too blurred and the sustain peddle over used but I like the dream-like radiance she achieves.

As mentioned, the B minor Sonata is a mighty work in every sense, so mighty that no single interpretation can ever expect to address every aspect. For sure Buniatishvili possesses a technique that seems utterly unfazed by any demands the piece makes. It’s important, while still reeling from this staggering virtuoso display, to acknowledge that she is by no means the first or last to be able to play the piece with such seeming ease. It calls into question what exactly we mean by the concept of virtuosity. Too often I suspect it means velocity as much as anything else: the Latin root implies more "skilled, learned, of exceptional worth." By that definition I would categorise Buniatishvili as a virtuoso albeit one with a pre-disposition to velocity too! In compositional terms the Liszt Sonata broke new ground by being written in one vast thirty minute unbroken arch as well as deriving most of the thematic material from various little motifs set out in the opening pages and returned to in the closing. Take the very first notes - repeated low G's across two octaves. Liszt marks them sotto voce (literally under your voice -'whispered') but with a dagger articulation which indicates short and sharp. Tricky to achieve that within the whispered dynamic but Buniatishvili succeeds perfectly. In doing so it gives the music a sense of anticipation, of gathering of resources which opens the work superbly. In just those three repeated chords she captures the mood better than the likes of Cziffra, Argerich, Pollini, Arrau to name but four. By highlighting this utterly simple moment I want to reinforce the point that Buniatishvili is a highly intelligent, questioning performer, a fact that is lost as much by her own PR machine as it is by affronted critics. Her performance does not displace or diminish any of those other great versions - but it does deserve consideration alongside them.

Rather counter-intuitively for a review of a recording, I wonder if Buniatishvili is an artist best appreciated in live concert. She is never afraid to make bold and often surprising choices many of which 'work' in a revelatory way. By definition, heard once in the concert hall, these choices delight, intrigue or occasionally irritate but are then no more than memories. With a CD, for good or ill the element of surprise is lost and when there are the occasional moments of dislike they tend to loom on the listening horizon. What is forgiven in the concert hall becomes an irritant on disc. My sense with this performance of the Liszt is that its strength as a performance is with the sheer flamboyance and brilliance of the playing. Stand any page or passage toe to toe with other versions and Buniatishvili is their equal. Where she is currently less successful is in navigating the half-hour structure as a coherent whole. Even with repeated, greatly enjoyed, listening, I am not sure where Buniatishvili thinks the whole piece leads to and from. Climaxes, of which there are many, seem equally volcanic so that by the end one feels rather punched out. Of course, there is room for this kind of high-octane approach, and again important to note how beautifully executed the corresponding reposeful pages are delivered, but for more considered and cerebral versions look elsewhere.

Immediately after the Sonata comes the Mephisto Waltz No.1. I must admit this has never been one of my favourite Liszt works but it seems perfectly attuned to Buniatishvili's blend of bravura and dexterity. From there on, the remainder of the programme shows the more reflective side of Buniatishvili's musical personality to impressive effect. La lugubre gondola II is a strangely elusive and modernist work, although the confusingly numbered later revision 'I' is even more so. After the thick textural complexities of the Sonata and the overt display of the Waltz this is a piece of sparse yet pained emotion which rises to one agonised fff climax. Quite how this fits into the Faustian programme I am not sure given the work's genesis as a memorial to Wagner. Just six pages of score translates into nearly ten minutes of music in Buniatishvili's hands - Brendel and Paul Lewis, for example, play it in just over seven - so even here it can be heard that Buniatishvili is challenging convention. But returning to my definition of a virtuoso this is the performance on this disc where I feel Buniatishvili earns the accolade of skilled, learned, of exceptional worth. The combination of poise and power - when required - is compelling. Even at the slow and extended tempi Buniatishvili is able to sustain musical phrases superbly imbuing them with the sorrowing pain that surely Liszt intended. A remarkable work performed with hypnotic power and for me the highlight of the disc.

Closing the disc with a Prelude and Fugue after Bach again seems to bear little relation to the overall concept but instead is a very beautiful envoi - after the dramas of the Sonata and the austerity of La lugubre gondola the purity and absolute music of this Prelude and Fugue seems wholly appropriate. Since this is Liszt after Bach Buniatishvili plays it with a degree of rhythmic freedom that is authentically Romantic rather than Baroque. Certainly, I would love to hear her play more Bach/Busoni for example.

The presentation of the disc is very much a star vehicle for the pianist. There are no less than some 17 different images of Buniatishvili adorning the liner, including one with a poorly Photoshopped-in swan. The remainder consists of various gnomic statements from Buniatishvili; apropos the La lugubre gondola -"this work is, like death, atonal ...". Sigfried Schibli contributes a more standard liner note about the composer and the works. Technically, the disc is well recorded, the uncredited piano recorded with warmth and detail placed reasonably close in a generous but not over resonant acoustic. Where the engineering is particularly successful is allowing the listener to hear startlingly clear levels of inner articulation that Buniatishvili is able to bring to even the thickest and most complex of textures; at times there is a laser-like clarity and precision to passages which in other hands are bravura blurs.

Admirers of Khatia Buniatishvili the pianist and personality will find much to enjoy here, as indeed I did. Possibly, just possibly, when the record companies make less of a fuss over the superficial glamour of Buniatishvili musically and visually then her true stature as a player of remarkable insight and skill will emerge. At her best, as demonstrated here, she is a player who commands very serious attention.

Nick Barnard



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