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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
(1874) [35:20]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse
(1919) [10:42]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three movements from Petrushka (1921) [14:29]
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
rec. Funkhaus Saal 1, Berlin, Germany, 23-26 August 2015
SONY 88875 170032 [60:31]

I am not a fan of 'library recommendations'. Too often I suspect they represent performances least likely to offend most people most of the time. The risk is they signify something 'safe' and predictable. Safe is not a word that can be associated with the piano playing of Khatia Buniatishvili and neither is this new disc likely to feature in many 'building a library' lists.

Ms Buniatishvili is a big personality on the keyboard with an even bigger technique and at just 28 years old her performing divides opinions fiercely. Normally I do not refer to other reviews before or during my own reviewing process but reactions to her playing are so polarised that some comment is necessary - I have included some of the reactions at the end of this review. My first encounter with Ms Buniatishvili's playing was in concert nearly three years ago playing Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1. For "Seen and Heard" I wrote: "This was quite simply some of the most compelling and charismatic playing by any soloist I have heard in concert in a considerable time. By its very individuality I can imagine some people feeling that this was too interventionist and not appropriately “authentic”. But to my ear this encapsulated the glory of live music making. At this moment in this hall Buniatishvili convinced one totally with the personal force of her vision. Any kind of pre-conception or dogma was dismissed, replaced instead with a sure and certain ownership of the music, the orchestra and the audience. I must admit to being rather in awe of music-making at this level." What was clear that night and also clear from this disc is that this is a performer with a strikingly individual approach and with any such approach it will engage as many as it enrages.

If there is a problem encountering such a performance on disc as opposed to in the concert hall is the fact that you return to this single version time and time again and the sheer novelty of certain moments diminishes. Not that I think Ms Buniatishvili performs with an eye to being novel. The three works on this disc are cornerstones of the modern virtuoso's repertoire with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition one of the mightiest of them all. From the opening bars Ms Buniatishvili challenges convention. The recurring Promenades are not presented as the usual straightforward 'walk' from picture to picture. This is very free, verging on wayward. In the liner - in the form of a conversation - Ms Buniatishvili states that she sees the whole work as a metaphor for "a life cut up into unique moments" with the Promenades representing a movement from simple innocence to experience. I understand the need for a 'handle' to an interpretation but I also feel these are best left unspoken. A conception that clearly is relevant and apt for Ms Buniatishvili does not resonate for me. I am no Mussorgsky expert but my feeling is that the literal interpretation of this work is also the best: musical representations of works of Art linked by a musical metaphor for the viewer strolling from picture to picture. For all my admiration of the playing I bailed out of the liner once I read that in "The Old Castle" is the "fragrance of eternity".

Another element of Ms Buniatishvili's playing that animates the critics is her remarkable technique and virtuosity. The clarity of her articulation in complex and fast passages is quite stunning. The charge laid against her is one of velocity for velocity's sake. Certainly she does have a penchant for occupying extremes of tempi. Whereas the aforementioned Old Castle usually takes around 4:20 Ms Buniatishvili expands this to 5:48. Likewise the lumbering oxcart in Bydlo seems a lot slower than the moderato pesante marking. An additional interpretative quirk here is the deliberate out-of-sync between the left and right hands. Certainly this and the labouring tempo gives the music a sense of burden and effort quite appropriate to the music. In direct contrast is a scampering Ballet of the unhatched chicks. Occasionally there is a nagging question whether such fast tempi are chosen simply because she can play the music with such brilliance so fast.

Returning to my earlier concert quote, to my ear I find all these movements wholly convincing - aided by remarkable poise in the first and the aforementioned articulation and clarity in the latter. When previously reviewing versions of the work by Anthony Goldstone and Sergey Schepkin I made the point that the original score of the work is remarkably devoid of performance directions apart from general tempi and occasional dynamics. This does leaves the interpreter room - a blank canvas if you will - to create their own vision. Schepkin preferred a rather modernist almost austere approach whereas Goldstone was more 'traditional' but no less effective. Ms Buniatishvili finds her own way and backs it up with utter conviction. I find reviews that dismiss her approach as crass or immature to be rather foolish. You do not reach this level of performance with 'accidental' interpretations. Every bar, every note will have been considered and placed within a greater framework that seems right for her here and now.

Some of the issues with this work surely lie as much with Mussorgsky as any interpreter. The final two pictures are amongst the most famous in the work. The remarkably ferocious Hut of Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga) leads into the epic Great Gate of Kiev. The pounding fury of Baba Yaga quite at odds with Hartmann's rather baroque design for a clock. Here Mussorgsky is tapping into the wider Baba-Yaga legend with the evil witch flying through the wood in an enchanted pestle and mortar. My initial reaction to Ms Buniatishvili's performance was "too fast" but then looking at the score it is marked allegro molto. It struck me that perhaps I had been Raveled. By this I mean that the all-pervading Ravel orchestration has retro-dictated how we perceive the original piano version should sound. Ravel's scoring of this powerful music is quite brilliant but the instruments deployed and the weight of orchestral texture dictates a tempo in which all can register. Freed from this constraint, Ms Buniatishvili can play the movement with a diabolically gleeful speed that really does sound like a witch in the wood. The problem that Mussorgsky creates is how to go from this helter-skelter chase to the static grandeur of the Great Gate. Ravel struggled to solve this problem and so has every pianist since the work premiered. Worth noting too that Mussorgsky's dynamic marking is only f which by definition must be less/quieter than the preceding pages. Pace the critics of Ms Buniatishvili's live performances of this work - but that's what the composer wrote. I am not wholly convinced by the rhythmic freedom Ms Buniatishvili gives the opening statement of this movement - to my mind this should have a foursquare solidity that the use of rubato undermines. Apart from the interpretative approach to the recurring Promenades I enjoyed this performance a lot. It is highly individual, technically above reproach and fascinating in how it challenges convention. Not that it would displace either of the previous reviewed versions but this work is not one that can exist in a definitive single performance.

After the Mussorgsky comes Ravel's own piano version of La Valse. By some distance Ms Buniatishvili gives the swiftest performance of this work I have heard. She clocks in at 10:39. Geoffrey Saba on a very early mid-price - and rather fine IMP - CD takes 11:28, Abbey Simon 11:16, Eric Ferrand-N'Kaoua 11:40; the orchestral versions are uniformly longer still. In fact, in a far from thorough search online I could not find another version in any form to break the 11:00 barrier. It is important to stress yet again that Ms Buniatishvili encompasses the technical demands of the score with ease but here I do part company with her vision. The liner's conversation again provides an insight: "It's an ode to the waltzing joy of living, but the extreme feelings and the desire for infinite euphoria take us towards self-destruction." Without doubt this performance is full of a kind of hedonistic wildness but to my ear what is sacrificed is the insistent sense of the waltz rhythm as a 'dance of life' contained within an hallucinatory dream. Ms Buniatishvili creates moments of great stillness and rapt beauty followed by sections of breathtaking virtuosity but the through-line of the dance is lost. For once, this level of intervention left me behind even as I was reeling from the remarkable level of execution.

The disc closes with the Three Movements from Petrushka. As expected by now the level of articulation and inner clarity is all but miraculous and again the contrast between the motoric energy of the opening Russian Dance and the reflective passage later in the movement is pushed to extremes of dynamic and tempo. In the second movement Petrushka's Room this gives the music a pictorial character that I have rarely heard away from the orchestral original. Ms Buniatishvili is especially successful at delineating the music that represents the different puppet characters; Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina. The closing Shrovetide Fair again benefits from the sheer range and character of the playing. Yes, I can imagine others choosing broader tempi, perhaps more in line with some of the ballet's original choreography - there is a very sprightly bear and coachmen at this fair. That said, the sense of the fair's mayhem and bustling energy is brilliantly conveyed. It is possible to debate the relative merits of this and other performances but treating this as a musical event in its own right to do anything but applaud the flair and visceral excitement of the music-making would seem rather petty.

As it happens, most of the music on this disc was performed by Ms Buniatishvili in concert in London in the last year. Here are some of the critical reactions.

Andrew Clements in 'The Guardian' reviewing a concert including Pictures: "Rash immature playing ... on the question of whether Buniatishvili can ever be a serious artist, the jury is very much still out."

Ivan Hewitt in 'The Telegraph': "Virtuoso Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili's musical judgment went out of the window at Queen Elizabeth Hall ... sorely disappointing. Buniatishvili’s problem is that she gets intoxicated by her own virtuosity, and musical judgment goes out of the window. This isn’t to say an effect of intoxication isn’t appropriate at times. In fact in Ravel’s La Valse a sense of encroaching delirium is the essence of the piece. But we have to feel delirium pushing against a firm underlying waltz tempo, and in Buniatishvili’s performance that dance pulse barely registered. It was crazed from the start."

Andrew Clarke in 'The Financial Times': "Then, in Ravel’s La Valse – a rare outing for the single-piano version – her glitzy virtuosity came to the fore. Both here and in Stravinsky’s dazzling Three Movements from Petrushka, speed of dispatch constantly triumphed over clarity of articulation. Buniatishvili is neither careless nor ungifted. She is simply over-hyped, immature and preoccupied with beauty of presentation – a poor example to the legions of young pianists who aspire to her fame and fortune. At no point did this recital reveal a shred of the musical temperament we expect of a scion of Georgian musical tradition."

Finally Barry Millington in 'The Evening Standard': "Buniatishvili’s individuality was stamped on the Mussorgsky from the opening, with a pensive delivery of the Promenade theme, suggesting not a saunter round the gallery but a wonderstruck seizing of attention. The picture of the old castle seemed to hark back through time, while the penultimate movement invoked a nightmarish vision of the child-eating witch Baba Yaga, leading to the thunderous bell peals of The Great Gate of Kiev ... were displays of jaw-dropping virtuoso technique. But heart-melting or hair-raising, this was playing of mesmerising immediacy."
So - buyer beware! I have no doubt Ms Buniatishvili will frequently revisit this music and in the fullness of time choose a different approach but why at 28 should she have to produce a performance to echo down the decades. Her approach to performance is about the here and now. Yes it is an often exciting, sometimes mystifying, occasionally perplexing approach but I would have one of her for a hundred by-the-book faceless virtuosos.

Some brief words about the recording and presentation. Sony have produced a very good recorded piano sound indeed. The piano used is uncredited but since the booklet pictures prominently feature a Steinway I assume it safe to think it is featured here - and it sounds a very fine instrument indeed. Given that the album is emblazoned with the title "Kaleidoscope" - which is in fact much more prominent than the performer's or the composers' names I assume some post-modern irony in the fact that the liner and disc itself is jet-black. The fact that the Sony A&R department choose to promote Ms Buniatishvili through a series of alluring photographs both here and on various websites gives ammunition to those who see her as a superficial product of a marketing campaign. To rail against that is to ignore that we live in an age where image is as much part of the success of anyone in the public eye as content - ask a politician. So if Ms Buniatishvili happens to be a rather strikingly attractive person as well as a formidable musician that is how it is. It should not define her as a musician but it is self-defeating to ignore; likewise her other recent recording projects which include featuring on the new album by Coldplay 'A Headful of Dreams'. If alongside her 'classical' work this attracts listeners to her other discs then all the better - surely this is a cross-over collaboration worth the description.

A disc of flair, individual insight and not a little controversy.

Nick Barnard



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