Notes and Editorial Reviews
Album contains a bonus DVD: "Franz Liszt: Sonata in B Minor: A Faustian Dream - A Short Film Concept by Khatia Buniatishvili"
No. 3. Piano Sonata in b.
La Lugubre gondola II.
Prelude & Fugue in a
, BWV 543
Khatia Buniatishvili (pn)
SONY 787385 (67:27)
Franz Liszt, Sonata in B Minor—A Faustian Dream
In a yeasty media coup, 24-year-old Khatia Buniatishvili’s nominal recording debut (she’s a supporting artist on two other albums) burst upon a startled world in July, implicitly challenging all other Liszt players in a program composed almost entirely of the banefully familiar, that is, on ground so wastingly overcultivated that it would seem that, without resorting to gross distortions or gimmicks, there’s nothing new to be said. Suspicion of the latter is given a fillip by an accompanying 4:28 DVD, “a film poem featuring Khatia Buniatishvili as Marguerite, Mephisto & Faust.” YouTube clips of the artist, from 2008, at the 12th Arthur Rubinstein Competition show her clingingly gowned in modestly muted colors, hair back,
makeup. For the DVD and photo-rife album booklet, with her piano on the lawn, her dark hair wantoned by breezes as her hands command the keyboard, her costume shifts rapidly from flowing skirts to man’s evening dress and top hat, the full sensual mouth rivetingly vermilioned. An attractive young woman, so these siren-like overtures are not entirely unwelcome. There’s even a photo of breezes lifting her skirt
Marilyn Monroe. Hype aside, how does she play?
is all sensuously caressing gossamer in an exquisitely escalating passion whose tone becomes more beautiful as it grows louder to issue in a languishingly expressive coda leaving one with the sensation of hearing this hackneyed piece reborn. Yet there is nothing exaggerated, overstated, or eccentric here—rather, one is immediately persuaded by a disarming sense of total identification. In caps on the album jacket, Buniatishvili declares, “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.” As off-putting and megalomaniacal as this seems, it is superbly underwritten by what follows.
From the sonata’s electric initial octaves one’s anticipation is whetted, one’s attention compelled, one’s jaded response to the many-too-many auditions—mediocre or vaulting—encountered over a lifetime cleansed by the artist’s utter conviction as this old story sloughs off its tarnish and begins to glow with spellbinding lift. The
motif stings with peculiar mordancy, the
theme returns with the force of benediction, the amorous
sings in ecstatic delirium, a paradoxical mixture of volatility and control wing the giddy fugato, passagework shifts from mercurial to crackling to cataclysmic, for once answering the score’s call for
. Cresting rhetoric acquires conversational point spurred by color, passion, and quicksilver whose rhythmic flexibility transcends rubato with a gait as natural as breathing. On the point of writing that this must be one of the swiftest Liszt sonatas on discs, a check revealed that it plays for exactly 30 minutes, and is thus within the mainstream, though the sonata’s development generates a suspense similar to performances that
significantly faster—Gunnar Johansen’s, Argerich’s, the 1932 Horowitz classic.
Confirming something extraordinary, tilts at the sonata by Garrick Ohlsson and Marc-André Hamelin turned up in the same post. Ohlsson’s ruminative take might be described as expansive, generous, loving, mature, relaxed, dimpled with nuance, etc., were it not that distended phrasing in lyrical moments, unctuous ponderousness in
passages and transitions, the patient interrogation of every slow run,
, and bit of
stultify rather than enhance their expressiveness. Hamelin’s long-anticipated account unfolds over a similar time frame—31:09 to Ohlsson’s 32: 28—though where Ohlsson is deadpan or generous in dispensing generic sensitivity, Hamelin awakens the contrast of noble sentiments—oracular, irascible, amorous, religious, philosophic, demonic—with grandly strutted, if sober, rhetoric. Moreover, his complete ease of execution and incisive touch render his reading all plangent silver, if also predictable. On the other hand, his expansive scale may provoke disappointment that he has chosen not to essay the thriller approach inaugurated by Horowitz’s stunning 1932 recording, unfolding in a compressed frame of around 26 minutes to jazz the sonata’s rhetorical grandeurs like Burton in
. Hamelin seems to be trying to live down his reputation as a hypervirtuoso (in Peter J. Rabinowitz’s useful coinage) whose omnicompetent technique facilitated the triumphant revelation of seldom-heard composers on the fringes of the possible—e.g., Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji—and win acceptance as a man for all seasons, so to speak, with recordings of Schumann and Haydn. His staid, considered Liszt sonata is another item in this train, recalling not Argerich or Horowitz, as one might have expected of the last-century Hamelin, but Brendel. Phrase by phrase, episode after episode, neither man awakens the cliffhanging passionate narrative Buniatishvili discovers beneath Liszt’s explicit notation, compelling it to sing, confide, swell aerobically, and thunder.
In the remainder of her program, the
is told off with crackling zest, rife with—to borrow the Liszt chapter title of Harold Schonberg’s
The Great Pianists
—thunder, lightning, mesmerism, sex. Finicking and seriously understated, if sinuously oracular,
La Lugubre gondola II
misses the shuddering prehension Brendel could bring to it, but the haunted soulscapes of late Liszt are, perhaps, a misalliance for the young and lively. Liszt’s transcription of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, on the other hand, is hand-in-glove, a miracle of melodious volatility echoing with fleet grandeur Liszt’s recognition of Bach as a Romantic precursor.
In sum, stunning, fascinating, phenomenal.
Buniatishvili’s album note catches her struggling mightily with The Great Ideas. “There were two reasons behind the idea that
should be the leitmotif of this CD programme: firstly, it is considered to be an ‘unofficial libretto’ for the sonata; the second reason is that the legend of Faust has been presented with so many interpretations, subjects, even differing fates, that it truly encourages improvisation. The code of the universe seems to be engraved into the theme of Faust.” In caps, she gives us “MARGUERITE—symbol of beauty—innocent childish soul and mature feminine body. MEPHISTO—symbol of temptation—voluptuousness, money, glamour, bohemia. FAUST—a genius that doubts, an artist that looks for immortality, a human being that needs love.” Are we performing a piano work or working a Tarot divination? In this postmodern jumble it is dismaying to see how readily the Faust legend’s literary legacy passes into teen girl fiction, the stuff of Harlequin Romances. For those who know that legacy, it is all too facile to be patronizing. To be fair, when Liszt immediately followed the sonata with his
, he sidestepped the vexed question of whose Faust—Lessing’s, Goethe’s, Grabbe’s, Lenz’s, Lenau’s, et al.—to compose character portraits of the protagonists without a programmatic literary allegiance. If to conceive the sonata in these half-baked terms fuels the incandescence on disc, so be it. And if Buniatishvili should develop literary discrimination commensurate with her hypervirtuosic interpretive powers she may well give us the finest romance since
Sound is taken with detailed, ear-tickling immediacy filling an aural frame whose large-hall ambience becomes apparent only in quieter moments. If you’ve read this far, you must hear this!
FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis
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