Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
Gvantsa Buniatishvili (piano 4 hands)
rec. June 2020 Philharmonie, La Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Paris, France
SONY CLASSICAL 19439795772 [79:37]
Khatia Buniatishvili was born in Georgia in 1987 – a former Soviet republic at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A French-Georgian citizen, she signed with Sony Classical as an exclusive artist in 2010. Her first album (2011) included Liszt’s B minor Sonata, and Mephisto Waltz – certainly impressive works for a debut CD. Following the success of her previous album ‘Schubert’ (2019), Buniatishvili has just released her latest new album ‘Labyrinth’ which, as the advertising hype informs us, ‘includes diverse and easy-listening tracks with an appeal to a broader audience’.
The CD comes nicely-presented in its jewel case, further enhanced by a separate cardboard sleeve. The basic details of all the pieces recorded are clearly shown on the title page, although nothing further of consequence is said about the individual pieces in the body of the text, which comes in English, German, and French.
Buniatishvili takes up the first page seeking to clarify the relevance of her title, Labyrinth, to her choice of works on the CD, and this continues to be her modus operandi throughout for each successive track. As the above hype confirms, this is first and foremost, a CD aimed at the easy-listening sector, who possibly might not be overly concerned that there are virtually no biographical or musical details at all. Similarly, there are no biographical details about the performer, except for two pages devoted to her other recordings on the same label, and a couple of pictures from a photo-shoot. I have taken the liberty of researching the missing information that I personally like to see in a conventional CD booklet.
The CD opens with Deborah’s Theme, from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to the film, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, a 1984 epic Italian-American crime drama starring Robert De Niro. The piece itself is all but calm throughout, of the sensuous nature you’d expect from Morricone, even if this music was originally intended for an earlier film in the 1970s, but which was rejected. The piece is certainly very poignant, and Buniatishvili’s reading, imbued with simple sincerity, does tug at the heartstrings.
If the Morricone was more familiar to film-goers, then Buniatishvili’s second offering has become almost synonymous with the easy-listening classics genre – Satie’s Gymnopédie No 1. With such a well-known piece, it’s hard to produce a unique performance, given the plethora of other recordings out there. But again Buniatishvili comes up with something relatively special, where her seamless legato, and abundantly-warm cantabile tone do make a telling contribution, aided by what might be termed a ‘Soft Grand’ setting if this had indeed been played on an electric Grand – unfortunately, no details of the instrument used appear in the booklet.
Buniatishvili follows this with another short gem, the E minor Prélude from Chopin’s Op 28 set. Her well-shaped tone and touch-control are again impressive, although I do feel that her performance is perhaps a tad drawn out at times, but this can happen when you extract one small piece from a jigsaw, and expect it to stand on its own – unless, it was merely given as an encore at the end of a live performance.
Chopin is followed by Hungarian composer, György Ligeti’s Arc-en-ciel (‘Rainbow’), No 5 from his first book of Études pour piano, one of the most significant sets of piano studies of the twentieth century, combining virtuoso technical problems with expressive content, as with the present example, which sees the music rise and fall in arcs that aspire to evoke a rainbow. Buniatishvili’s vivid interpretation does justice to the composer’s intentions, although, whether the final result qualifies as a piece of ‘easy’ listening, it’s harder to say.
Next she is next joined by elder sister, Gvantsa, in Khatia’s own arrangement of the well-known Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 2 in B minor. Rather than give the game away, suffice it to say that it starts off very close to Bach’s original. There’s undoubtedly craft, both in Buniatishvili’s arrangement, and in their highly-disciplined ensemble, but I think it could divide listeners’ opinions in terms of its overall effectiveness.
If there was ever another piece synonymous with the realms of easy-listening, then the so-called Air on the G String, from the same composer’s Orchestral Suite No 3 would be a prime example. Depending on your age, you might just be sat there now, enjoying your cigar – real or imagined – since the piece, in a jazz rendition from the Jacques Loussier Trio, was used in an advertising campaign for Hamlet Cigars, from 1966 to 1991, when all tobacco advertising on UK television was eventually banned. Or, you might be savouring Buniatishvili’s innate ability to let the melodic-line sing out over the accompanying chords, or the little melodic subtleties and harmonic nuances, which enhance her quite entrancing performance, bring fresh life to a somewhat clichéd evergreen.
Her abundant ability to create a fine singing-tone makes the next piece another ideal choice – Rachmaninoff’s wordless Vocalise, here in Alan Richardson’s arrangement. Again this is touching performance, with well-controlled dynamics and powerful climaxes, and a perfect example, especially for young, aspiring pianists, of tonal gradation – the vital art of listening to a note die away, and then carefully matching the volume of the following note accordingly, do avaoid a distinct aural ‘bump’..
The next two pieces are examples where it would have been nice to have some background information on hand. La Javanaise was a song written and composed by Serge Gainsbourg originally for Juliette Gréco in 1963. Buniatishvili’s quite charming piano arrangement, sets the scene of a piano lounge, perhaps somewhere in the French capital, before launching into a beguiling jazz-waltz, with all of the riffs and figurations you’d expect, but delivered with such grace and finesse. She then takes us across the Atlantic to Brazil, for Valsa da dor, by the country’s most distinguished composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. While clearly set as a waltz, again it would have been quite helpful to know what ‘da dor’ means in Portuguese. The title translates literally as ‘Waltz of Pain’, which accounts for it sounding a little like Sibelius’s occasionally rather morose Valse Triste. Once more, Buniatishvili’s performance is incisive and full-blooded, yet equally calm and expressive, as the score requires.
Les Barricades mystérieuses is a piece originally for harpsichord, by French Baroque composer, François Couperin, in rondeau (rondo) form. Structurally, it is built over a recurring bass/chord pattern, loosely based on a variant of the traditional romanesca pattern in the bass, somewhat akin to Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon. Not really a piece that you can do much with on the piano, whereas the harpsichord original might have offered possibilities of registration changes, and octave couplings. We stay in the Baroque for the Sicilienne from Bach’s D minor Organ Concerto, which is based on Vivaldi’s Concerto grosso in the same key. Here Buniatishvili’s arrangement deftly conveys the concept of manuals and pedalboard, in a way reminiscent of Busoni’s transcription of the Adagio from Bach’s organ Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564.
Returning to the Romantic period, the next track is another piano original – Brahms’s Intermezzo in A major, op. 118/2. There is no doubt that the performance comes from the heart, and, as such, can certainly be considered moving. But, while speed isn’t everything, and a few seconds here and there make little if any difference, it cannot go unsaid that Buniatishvili’s tempo is really rather slow, when you consider that she luxuriates in a playing time of 7:35, while Rubinstein, in the fast lane, accomplishes it in 4:50. I’ve not checked every timing, but Van Cliburn (6:12) would seems to be one of the closer alternatives. To what degree Buniatishvili actually conveys the composer’s intentions, all we have to go on is Brahms’s original tempo marking of Andante Teneramente (Moderately slow, and tenderly). Andante is often translated more literally as ‘at a walking pace’, but then, even that is subjective.
Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo sees the two sisters involved once more, but Buniatishvili’s rather unwelcoming programme note for this – Connection is pain – doesn’t look too encouraging at first glance. It was written in 1976 in four parts, but without defined instrumentation. The composer later made versions for a number of specific combinations, including the present one for two pianos or piano duet (2008). According to a short online note about the piece, it lasts ‘approximately 6 minutes’. Here the two sisters appear to extend this to 7:50, which I personally find less convivial to its overall effect and enjoyment – but, as they say, ‘chacun à son goût’.
Whereas Pärt’s Pari intervallo uses minimal resources, allied to a compositional style he sometimes used, called Tintinnabuli – essentially derived from the sound of bells, and perhaps more familiar to us in his Spiegel im Spiegel, Philip Glass’s brand of minimalism is quite different, yet totally recognisable stylistically-speaking. For a long time, Glass had been associated with film scores, and the next track – ‘I’m Going to Make a Cake’ comes from the 2002 psychological drama The Hours, which starred Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Arranged here by Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly, the track is actually based on a scene from Glass’s opera Satyagraha, which looks at Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa. Again the playing finely addresses the textural nuances of the score, at one time impressively bold, especial with the low left-hand octaves, delicate and precise in the chord repetitions, and calmly expressive elsewhere.
We encounter the same tempo issue with the next track, Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor K 32. True, the score is not overly helpful, in that, apart from the subtitle, Aria, there’s no further indication as such, and there are almost as many variations in tempo out there, as there are versions themselves. Most readings take their cue from the slow operatic Aria, which provides the performer with sufficient time for clear articulation of the abundant ornamentation and melodic decoration. As you might suspect, Buniatishvili’s tempo is not just slow, but feels extremely so, and if you are already familiar with the piece, it’s like listening in slow-motion. Hover, as far as the next track goes – Liszt’s evergreen Consolation in D flat – I randomly listened to Lang Lang’s interpretation (4:19), and didn’t find that Buniatishvili (5:13) added much, if anything more. After all, Liszt had merely stipulated Lento placido – ‘slow and in a placid manner’.
If you’re after a bit of controversy, then you need look no further than the penultimate track – John Cage’s 4’33”, a three-movement work composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, where the score instructs performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece. This isn’t the time or place for any philosophical debate, as to whether this constitutes music, or not, and there are some thought-provoking online discussions, where each opposing camp sets out its respective stall. On Buniatishvili’s CD, Track 14 remains ominously silent, and ironically has the distinction of being the only one track where she gets the playing time exactly right.
In a nutshell, the idea is that the ‘music’ – if you care to define it as such – consists solely of the ambient sounds you will hear around you while the 4’33” silently play out. This is all well and good, but I think that, if you are actually going to ‘record’ this on a CD, then I think, that the listener is at least entitled to an authentic ‘performance’. 4’33” is in three separate movements, and there are clear markings in the score when each one finishes, and when the page needs to be turned for the next. It’s certainly worth taking a quick look at a YouTube video of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing the work live at London’s Barbican Centre in 2004, and which just happens to be followed by a short lecture from Professor Julian Todd, where he makes a valid philosophical argument against considering 4’33” as music per se. Ms Buniatishvili might at least have been positioned at the piano, where at least we might have heard her open and close the piano fallboard at the start and finish respectively, and make a little noise as she turned the page between movements.
It’s back to Bach for the CD’s final track – the Adagio from the composer’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor, and which he based on Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in the same key. Stylistically speaking, it is cast very much in the same mould as the two other slow Bach pieces on the CD, and where, on this particular occasion, her cantabile tone, legato touch, need for the music to breathe, do go a long way towards emulating the plaintive sound of Marcello’s original oboe.
How much you ultimately enjoy Labyrinth depends, I feel, on your own musical experience. On the one hand, if you were coming to this disc, which Sony describe as being a ‘concept’ CD, having never really heard any of the repertoire before, you would, I’m sure, like many of her no-doubt large fan-base, want to rush out and get hold of a copy. On the other hand, if the vast majority of the ‘classical’ pieces were already familiar, then I doubt you’d feel inclined merely to replace what you already have, just with slower versions.
Personally I did very much enjoy La Javanaise, as well as Villa Lobos’s Valsa da dor, and, in fact, each track undeniably confirmed that Buniatishvili was always going to be far more than a mere purveyor of easy-listening repertoire, which, of course, we all know to be very much the case from her live performances and discography to date.
If, though, you are happy, simply following her narratives, and are prepared to allow Ms Buniatishvili to guide you through her philosophical maze, without undue concern for the music’s niceties, then I’m sure you could find Labyrinth both entertaining, as well as modestly fulfilling – presumably, what a ‘concept’ CD is really all about.
Philip R Buttall
Ennio MORRICONE (1928-2020)
Deborah’s Theme [5:22]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gymnopédie No 1 [3:31]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Prélude in E minor op. 28/4 [2:48]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No 2 in B minor, arranged for piano four hands [1:20]*
Air on the G String from Orchestral Suite No 3 in D
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Vocalise op. 34/14 [6:18]
Sergei GAINSBOURG (1928-1991)
La Javanaise [3:23]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959]
Valsa da dor [5:21]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Barricades mystérieuses [2:24]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741) / Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sicilienne (Largo from Bach’s Organ Concerto in D minor, based on Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor) [2:53]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in A major op. 118/2 [7.35]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Pari intervallo for piano four hands* [7:50]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
I’m Going to Make a Cake, from the film The Hours [3:05]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in D minor, K 32 [4:43]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Consolation (Pensée poétique) in D flat major [5:13]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747) / Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Adagio from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor, based on Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor [3:51]