usually take into account the program notes or the packaging of the discs I
review, but I'm going to make an exception in Buniatishivili's case.
Everything about Franz Liszt
the album is just a little over the top.
Tbilisi-born, Kathia Buniatishivili, who's now 24, began her career as a child prodigy (debut at the tender age of six), and has more recently been awarded the Bronze Medal at two major competitions. At the Arthur Rubenstein Piano Master Competition, she was also voted the audience's favorite performer. It's not hard to see why. Buniatishivili is a strikingly handsome young woman with energy and charisma to spare. The booklet contains no fewer than twenty photos of her in various and sundry poses. Here she is vamping like Marilyn Monroe as a breeze lifts at her skirt, or giving the viewer a come-hither look, or posing in a theatrical setting in the faux surreal style of Vogue Magazine. I was half expecting a centerfold to pop out of the booklet. Apparently young women pianists are now being marketed as something more than just pianists. In Buniatishivili's case, the package includes a DVD titled "A Faustian Dream" in which she appears as Faust, Mephisto, and Marguerite in a film (or "film poem" as it's called in the notes) that could have been a collaboration between Ken Russell and D.W. Griffith.
And then there are the program notes. These either tell me more than I want to know about the pianist, or seem like straight lines for those of a skeptical bent. She begins by summoning Destiny, "I was always aware that my first recording would be a portrait of Liszt. Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many different elements within my soul." Later, she says, "A journey in Liszt's world could last so long that time would lose its meaning and would have to be given another name." Hey, I know lots of Liszt loathing folks who would agree with that statement, but not necessarily in a good way. By the end of the notes, we've waxed metaphysical, with capitol letters for further emphasis: "YOU CAN ASK A QUESTION. THIS MEANS THAT YOU ARE BREATHING, ARE ALIVE!" Unfortunately, "IN THE END, THE QUESTION MARK WHICH FLASHED THROUGH THE CELLS OF THE BRAIN COUNTLESS TIMES, TO REVEAL ITSELF IN A WRINKLE OF THE FOREHEAD, THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN YOU ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWER, AND THE ANSWER IS --- THE LACK OF THE NEED FOR AN ANSWER." This kind of high-minded patter makes my head spin. At least Buniatishivili's technical prowess at the keyboard is more secure than her syntax.
I guess the real question is this: can Buniatishvili's playing possibly be as overheated as her prose? In the Sonata in B Minor and the Mephisto Waltz, the answer is, most definitely yes. Buniatishvili approaches these daunting pieces with reckless abandon, a daring that brings the young Martha Agerich to mind. Certainly there's visceral excitement here, a sense of the wheels spinning close to the edge of the cliff. And the pianist can and does produce a mighty sound at the climaxes, though it's also a bit clangorous thanks to the too-close production. Unfortunately a little of this goes a long way. Soon one tires of the brusque phrasing, the clipped runs, the unrelieved extremity of the playing. Passages are very fast or very slow, very loud or very soft. And there is almost no sense of structure, for which Buniatishivili blames the composer himself. "The lack of structure in this piece doesn't matter," she says in a recent Gramophone interview. But of course, it does matter. And too many other pianists (Richter, Zimmerman, Arrau, Pollini, and even Agerich herself) have made it matter without any loss of thrills. Bumiatishivili's B minor Sonata soon devolves into discrete and seemingly unrelated episodes Buniatishivili then uses to display her considerable virtuosity. In the Mephisto Waltz, the contrast between light and dark, fast and slow, is again so extreme, the piece just splinters apart.
I'm happy to report that the shorter pieces are more convincing: a little restraint goes a long way. The Liebestraum is flowing, songful, and deeply felt; La Lugubre Gondolo, appropriately dark and mysterious. Liszt's arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue is Romanticized Bach, of course, but compelling in its headlong, joyful momentum. Here again, Buniatishivili shows a patience and unaffected directness that serve the music well. In the end, I can't really recommend this disc. Buniatishvili might be the flavor of the month, but judging from this recital, she's got some maturing to do. Still, take away all the silliness and self-mythologizing of the program notes and the packaging, and I think you'll find a pianist who's worth keeping an eye on.
Compared to Buniatishivili, Helene Grimaud is an experienced veteran. Now 42, she has been concertizing since the age of 15; and in that time, she has produced a wide-ranging and impressive discography. Her playing of both familiar and out-of-the way repertory has always seemed to me fresh sounding, deeply intelligent, and technically commanding. Unfortunately, Grimaud has spent the past several years dealing with a series of debilitating illnesses (stomach cancer being one of them), and this disc marks a welcome return both to the stage and the recording studio. As such, I wish I could give it a strong recommendation. But I can't. These performances are never less than polished and assured; but alas, they're not especially inspired or compelling either.
The Mozart is angular and brusque, and projects
none of the warmth and grace of the music. Grimaud seems especially
uncomfortable, as if she didn't really like the music very much. The Berg is
technically impressive, but rather cold. Other pianists (Shura Cherkassy and
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, to name two) have found more intensity and drama in this
brooding, knotty score. Grimaud's Liszt B
minor Sonata is again technically secure, idiomatic, and well
organized (especially when compared to Buniatishivili's). But Grimaud could
use more of that flair and daring that Buniatishivili displays with such
riveting virtuosity. The concluding Rumanian
Folk Dances are the most inspired performances here, but they last
less than five minutes total. Too long a wait for too little return. I think the
basic problem here is the pieces she's chosen to perform. For whatever reason,
only the Bartok seems to have engaged the pianist on the deepest emotional
level. Still, we're dealing with one of our most accomplished artists, and I
anxiously look forward to her next release, to hearing her in more congenial
repertory. By the way, the sound is very realistic, though beside the point,
given the disappointing performances.