Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Waltz in C-sharp minor op 64/2 [3:19]
Sonata No. 2 in F minor op. 35 [22:43]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor op. 52 [10:26]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor op. 21 [29:41]
Mazurka in A minor op. 17/4 [4:54]
Bonus Video: Warsaw-Paris
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Järvi (Piano Concerto)
rec. 12-15 March 1012, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin and 13, 15 September 2011, Salle Pleyel, Paris (Piano Concerto, live recording)
SONY CLASSICAL 88691971292 [70:59] 

I first came across Khatia Buniatishvili on the ECM label’s Tchaikovsky Trio Op. 50 (see review), but Sony given her a higher profile through her Liszt recital of 2011, and now with this substantial programme of Chopin. Buniatishvili’s own essay in the booklet, Warsaw-Paris, is pretty impenetrable, and Jürgen Otten’s notes are also colourful and somewhat subjective in parts. It is however good to read about these pieces in the context of the composer’s personal turmoil, travails and troubles.
Personal response to Chopin’s music is something to which you can warm, or which can all go horribly wrong. Perhaps Sony sees Khatia Buniatishvili as an answer to Deutsche Grammophon’s Alice Sara Ott, but whoever is driving the piano there is always a fine line between reaching as closely as possible to what one believes to be the intent of the composer, and expressing personal responses which can add or detract. The question as to whether you like any player’s interpretations and performances will depend on too many factors to make the equally subjective comment of a review in any way a definitive pronouncement.
So, do I like this CD? The answer is yes, and the reasons are in fact fairly straightforward. It might seem a strange place to start, but right in the middle on track 5 of a 10 track disc we have the bizarre Finale: Presto of the Sonata No. 2. Buniatishvili has a way of teasing her Chopin out of silence, of traversing the keyboard in a way which isn’t wafty and vague, but which creates landscapes from a water-table of infinite nothingness. Some pianists play this Presto as a kind of storm, which can be highly impressive and exciting, but when it turns out to be full of melody and inner life, as Buniatishvili superbly demonstrates, then you know there is a great deal of sensitivity and intelligence at work. Her lyrical touch at the keyboard is in evidence everywhere, and though the tempo is perhaps a little brisk, the Ballade No. 4 sings sweetly and, while expressively flexed, isn’t over-worked with the tortured rubato to which it can on occasion be treated. Yes, we’re still working outwards from the centre for the moment, so let’s have a look at the famous Marche funèbre of the Sonata No. 2. Buniatishvili doesn’t over-egg the drama at the outset, taking a forward-moving tempo and keeping proportion and shape so that the climaxes can have their devastating effect in context, rather than being extruded from something attempting to be orchestral and heavy with portent. Chopin’s funeral is touched with the sentiment of love and regret as well as the darkness of mortality, and Buniatishvili brings out this aspect of the music with beautiful playing and disarming simplicity.
Does having a full concerto work in the context of what is basically a recital CD? Well yes, why not. The Piano Concerto No. 2 comes from a concert performance which is really gorgeous. The orchestra is perhaps rather shy sounding, with the piano dominant in the recorded balance which is always something of a bugbear of mine, but with Buniatishvili’s chamber-music rather than grandstanding style the whole thing works like poetry. The piano entry for the Larghetto second movement is magical, working the overtone-series like build-up of the chord, and the singing lines are like the brushstrokes of a master artist. With its dramas and transparency of timbre this is a performance which makes you wish the movement would go on for much, much longer, and that has to be a good thing. Buniatishvili’s lightness of touch makes the Allegro vivace finale into something playful and filled with sparkling joy, rather than something heavy and bombastic.
We are lead in with the C# minor of the Waltz op. 64/2, which has as much of a major-key feel as it does melancholy minor. Going back to Alice Sara Ott’s version I can admire her technique, but am troubled by rhythmic overly-artful distortions which see elements of the actual waltz-ness of the piece leaking through rather than being celebrated. Buniatishvili plays the music with a nice sense of lift which actually makes you feel more like dancing - getting you to your feet but then whirling you off into something unexpected and, if you are still trying to keep up, literally breathtaking. I appreciate Buniatishvili’s naughty character in this waltz, but its opposite number in this programme is the killer blow, the Mazurka in A minor op. 17/4. Almost wilfully, Buniatishvili plays Chopin’s notes with a sense of directness which heightens their impact, the composer’s simple but intensely desolate message told like a rhyme, but in words of unforgettable woe.
Playable on computer, the bonus video on this CD is a nicely moody black and white period piece, a little over five minutes filled with nostalgic images of romance, departure, nice dresses and inclement weather. It all goes a bit strange towards the end and the editing is a bit random, but for the most part the effect is convincing enough. Aside from a more coherent narrative, my main wish with this kind of thing would be a far more imaginative use of the music. Chopin’s piano sounds are nicely atmospheric, laying on the Mazurka in A minor as an emotional mainstay and using and extract from the Finale of Sonata No. 2 as something dramatically avant-garde, but the music exists in parallel rather than genuine symbiosis with the images. This neither really sells the album by shaping the film to the shape of an entire Chopin piece, or creating something new. The latter could have been achieved with a deeper look into Chopin’s sonorities and emotional breadth by capturing its essence, rather than spraying it on in bits and bobs.
There is a masculine vitality to Artur Rubinstein’s playing of Chopin which elevated his music beyond the pastel shades of drawing-room entertainment, but Buniatishvili shows us shades of subtlety and dimensions of dynamic and layers of expression which resonate greatly for today’s ears. I can’t guarantee they will for you, but if you love Chopin’s music I would hope you can hear something in this which allows it to thrive, even, or especially, in our own scorched and obscurantist culture.
Dominy Clements 

Personal and individual, sensitive and deeply intelligent and involving.