Khatia Buniatishvili is an artist of extraordinary talent and potential, and at the age of thirty she is taking on the music of one of history’s most elusive and misunderstood composers: Schubert. Granted, there are a few gems in this disc, but to access them the listener must wade through a morass of arbitrary decisions and anticlimactic drama. The title–Schubert–is aptly suited to a program consisting of entirely Schubert, but the uncalled-for, unsanctioned changes that she feels she is privileged to make merit her at least a co-authorial status.
The disc immediately begins with the elephant in the room, so to speak: Schubert’s B-flat Major piano sonata, written two months before his death, is a rumination on the nature of human mortality and is no easy task to pull off. Tovey described the first theme as “a sublime theme of utmost calmness and breadth”; Buniatishvili’s interpretation manages to sound not so much calm, but uncomfortably breathy. In this movement there is no real, lasting statement, rather moments of drama that are half-hearted, coming with a certain inevitability that is much like watching a meteor come at you from millions of miles away.
Buniatishvili’s penchant for drama takes the better of her in the Andante Sostenuto. Indecisive and incoherent, it drags on for a staggering fourteen and a half minutes, whereas most other pianists only take ten. Her presumably good intentions of creating an atmosphere of suspended stillness result in about as much flow as a larvae-ridden pond, punctuated by accents that are easily forecastable. The middle section, whose pacing is relatively sane, jolts the listener out of their stupor, only to be pacified by the return of the beginning. Instead of reflecting on Schubert’s imminent death, it was killing me.
Whatever ideas got hold of Buniatishvili in the second movement abate somewhat by the third movement. This scherzo sparkles vivaciously, abandoning the heaviness of the previous movements and brimming with joie de vivre, although slightly vacuous. It is skittish and fleeting, a precursor to the finale, which is persuasive enough. This movement’s only downfalls are the wildly fluctuating tempos that could easily lose the listener, but it is far more captivating than the rest of the piece. Buniatishvili manages to pull this sonata off on a good note, but in no way does this ameliorate the glaring problems of the first half. Evidently she can consciously make decisions and be aware of what she is playing, and it is such a waste to not put that dedication into the whole piece.
A staple of piano repertoire, Schubert’s ninetieth opus has been played by most of the giants of the instrument. These impromptus are on a much smaller scale than the grand B-flat major sonata, but they take no less of a musically mature player to play convincingly. She does not fail to disappoint with a grotesque, cartoonish example of overblown phrasing in the first impromptu. The second one is reminiscent of a buzzing fly: a confused whirlwind of notes that when zoomed out, reveal that it is going in meaningless circles. Her dazzling technicality in the fourth impromptu is unable to be heard over the pedal, which reduces the piece to a bunch of mumbling gibberish. She then alters her approach and astounds listeners with the third impromptu in G-flat, which finally gives us the yearning lines that we knew she was capable of. Here, finally, there is a delicate yet disciplined atmosphere that allows her to make intimate decisions while still in control. If only it had come sooner.
Last but not least is Schubert’s Standchen, which brings the searching program to a final close. The soaring, glorious melody sings above a muted, but somewhat plodding, accompaniment, and the countermelody is played convincingly enough. To me her tempo is incomprehensible; it may be suitable in the practice room, but it lacks momentum and makes an already slow piece go by like a snail crawling backwards on a turtle’s back. Horowitz’s enchanting recording of this piece is my go-to, and will remain so.
Equally as baffling as many of the dubious artistic licences Buniatishvili takes is the cover of the album: Millais’s Ophelia. The unexplained link between a woman drowning and the male composer confounded me, even more so when coupled with ramblings entitled “Notes of a Feminist”. It is brutal that she gives us such a small sample of her potential through the superb playing in the G-flat impromptu and juxtaposes it with the sorely weary rest of the album; I would be better off without the impromptu. It is noble that Buniatishvili wants to break barriers and make daring choices to distinguish herself, but it is a facade that is easily seen through–the album is about promoting herself above all, while Schubert’s magnificent music lies discarded by the wayside.