Kaleidoscope = MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; RAVEL: La Valse; STRAVINSKY: Three Movements from Petrushka – Khatia Buniatishvili, p. – Sony

A personal recital devoted to the art of keyboard coloration marks this Buniatishvili program from 2015.

Kaleidoscope = MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; RAVEL: La Valse; STRAVINSKY: Three Movements from Petrushka – Khatia Buniatishvili, p. – Sony 88875170032, 57:00 (3/11/16) ****:


If slinky dresses and a Hedy Lamarr persona guarantee a virtuoso piano keyboardist, Khatia Buniatishvili has it made. Certainly, she possesses the fingers for this particular program (rec. 23-26 August 2015), which she chooses to approach from a personal, salon perspective. The Mussorgsky’s opening Promenade announces her introspective intentions, to explore the Hartmann visual panorama in musical terms that define Mussorgsky’s love for his departed friend. Rubato and graduated pedaling define the opening Promenade, while the succeeding grotesquerie, Gnomus, receives a fiercely percussive patina. The Old Castle intones its ancient bells slowly in the left hand, and for some, in too funereal a spirit, one close to Ravel’s hanged figure in Le Gibet. Disputatious children pick up the tempo in the Tuileries, Buniatishvili’s brisk articulation decidedly less mannered. The ox-cart Bydlo marches in, its plodding tempo one step away from having become the Dies Irae, since for Buniatishvili, a way of life passes away forever. The chicks from “Trilby” shimmer appropriately, and poor Schmuyle must endure Samuel Goldenberg’s pretenses.

The last, recognizable appearance of the Promenade communicates a steadfast resolve, ready to confront even more directly the juxtaposition of life and death. With the Market at Limoges, the bristling panorama of activity flutters by, brilliantly rendered in Buniatishvili’s wicked staccatos. Then, we plunge de profundis, into the depths, for “in the midst of life we are in death.” From out of the Roman tomb a sad hymn emerges, only to speak to the dead in the illumined language of the Promenade. In the spirit of Berlioz, Mussorgsky’s persona takes us on a diabolical ride with Baba Yaga, the aggressive, Russian figure of Nemesis. Buniatishvili quite captures the fury and elemental terror in the piece, which too break off into stuttering figures, elastic and elongated sparks that we might see in one El Greco’s visions of Toledo. And just as suddenly, Buniashtishvili thrusts us upward, into the Kingdom of Heaven at Kiev’s Gate, the Promenade transfigured into a Lisztian hymn. Idiosyncratic and overflowing with personal largesse – or self-indulgence, as you see fit – Buniashtishvili presents the old chestnut in spectacular colors, the point and rubric of her recital.

I first heard Ravel’s La Valse in its solo piano form by Leonard Pennario. The 1920 composition realizes Wagner’s epithet for the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, “the apotheosis of the dance.” Buniashtishvili gives the dance a mystical birth, evolution, and final, explosive coup de grace. In the course of her realization, the pianist imparts a fluent bravura, a spacious elan that proves exciting and electric. The tugs and stretches of her rubato, again, will win both admirers and detractors. An Old World voluptuousness marks her performance, and Maximilian Ciup’s sound engineering captures the resonant keyboard in its whirling, self-immolating ecstasies.

Stravinsky’s otherwise percussive 1921 Petrushka suite – conceived for Artur Rubinstein – receives the inflamed, bravura treatment we rather expect, and which pianists like Gina Bachauer delivered. In the secondary theme, Buniashtishvili tries for a more lyrical stance, but her strong suit lies in the cascades of colors she projects. Petrushka’s Room permits Buniatishvili to exhibit her jeu perle and alla musette capacities, applied in tandem with ringing chains of chords and scale patterns much in the Liszt tradition. Buniashtishvili claims, in her interview with Olivier Bellamy, that she performed the keyboard part of the ballet proper under Temirkinov, imparting to her the sense of the orchestral sonority she projects in the final scene, The Shrovetide Fair. Here, the glittering kaleidoscope of keyboard effects and whirling pageantry has its breadth of expression. If touches of bombast infiltrate the performance, we can attribute them to the pianist’s rising-star power.

—Gary Lemco

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