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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat D960 [47:24]
Impromptus D899 [28:42]
Stšndchen “Leise flehen meine Lieder” (transcr. Liszt) [7:22]
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
rec. 2018, Hohenems, Markus-Sittikus-Saal, Austria
SONY 19075841202 [83:27]

This disc drove me nuts, and not with excitement: with frustration, bafflement and, at one critical juncture, catatonic boredom.

This is Schubert of extremes. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s a valid artistic approach, and Khatia Buniatishvili’s fans will say that that’s what this artist naturally brings. However, I found her approach to Schubert’s great final sonata infuriating; an unsatisfying hotchpotch of muddle without anything lasting to say.

The most obvious factor, but not the only one, is her approach to tempo. The first movement’s tentative opening subject comes across as though veiled and withdrawn, like a memory in a dream; and that, to be fair, makes the bass trill sound even more sinister and threatening than usual. Buniatishvili isn’t consistent in her approach, however. By the time the theme is repeated it’s considerably faster, pushing forward in a way that I can’t see marked in Schubert’s score, and the tinkling conclusion of the second subject is faster still, losing all consistency with what has gone on before. Again, I can understand the desire for drama and an onward push, but taking it to the extremes that she does means that the piece is, effectively, as much by Buniatishvili as it is by Schubert.

This is only one example of what is, to my ears, a wilful waywardness that afflicts the first movement throughout, such as the torrid development which, again, can’t decide whether it is in restful reflection or heroic struggle. However, the second movement is, if anything, worse. This is the catatonic boredom I referred to above, because it is the most ludicrously slow reading that I have ever come across, and I use the word “ludicrous” advisedly. 14Ĺ minutes is absurd for this movement: most pianists take about 10. It’s as though Buniatishvili was going for dreamy stillness but, instead, arrives at turgid stasis, at least in the outer sections, whose empty nothingness drove me close to nihilism! The central section, when it finally arrives, is much more sane both in structure and pacing, which makes the return of the A section all the more frustrating.

It’s such a shame and, to me, feels like a waste. Buniatishvili’s talents are remarkable: her touch is beautifully delicate, and she clearly has the capacity to think deeply about what she’s playing. Furthermore, the quicksilver Scherzo is actually rather lovely, dancing out of the speakers with a sparkle, and the finale makes a lot more sense than much of what has gone before. What a pity, therefore, that she has been driven off course by whatever ideas got hold of her in the first half. When the end of that slow movement came I felt neither peace nor harmony, only relief.

Something similar afflicts the four Impromptus. No. 1 is too slow: not absurdly so, but in a drawn-out manner that, for me, kills any sense of dramatic development, and some of the pauses in the main theme’s first appearance are so prolonged as to almost shut things down. Things do improve when the theme generates more motion in its later iterations, but speed is an issue again in No. 2. Buniatishvili turns the E-flat Impromptu into a reckless speed-chase, so fast as to blur the notes and lose any sense of phrasing. This sent me running to David Fray, who gives this piece a clipped, dance-like 3-in-a-bar swing: Buniatishvili makes it a slippery, unstructured blur. A similar aural haze affects the too hasty outer sections of the A-flat impromptu: only at the two-minute mark, when the central section begins, do things settle down a little. That section may be slower, but here that’s very much a relative term.

Only the G-flat impromptu gets anything like the sense of balance and proportion that it deserves. Here, at last, there is a sense of flow, of narrative structure and of natural unfolding. It’s better late than never, and it’s made all the more frustrating by the fact that it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful when it comes. That's also true of the closing Liszt adaptation, which has lyricism, purposeful momentum and a good sense of pace. If only the rest of the CD had benefited from similar thoughtfulness and restraint!

Furthermore, for what it’s worth, it is a very long time since I have read such tripe in a set of booklet notes. You’ll search in vain for anything lucid about the music’s background or analysis. Instead you get (allegedly) feminist musings from Buniatishvili which bear scant relation to the music or her performance, and none of it made much sense to me. Try this for size: “We have long struggled. We could easily have won but our tenderness and compassion forced us to move nearer by taking difficult and twisting roads to the end of the journey that you reach so easily on the straightest of paths. On our arrival, we have discovered the emptiness that makes you, too, suffer.” Strewth!

Enough! I put this disc aside in despair. Its one benefit is that it left me running for the finest post-millenium accounts of the two main works; Andsnes and Lewis in the sonata and Fray for the Impromptus. Their artistic integrity leaves Buniatishvili’s self-absorbed nonsense in the shade.

Simon Thompson

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