Now that Sony places seemingly no attention on the U.S. market, it would be hard for music lovers to know much about pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. a child prodigy who was touring Europe by the age of ten, and who rejected the violin despite having perfect pitch, she is quoted in her Wikipedia article as calling the piano "a sumbol of musical solitude" (one suspects that something was lost in translation). She is now 25 and has made her way into the festivals run by Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer - all of which raises high expectations for this new Chopin recital.
They begin to be filled form the first piece, modest as it is. Buniatishvili plays the Waltz in C-sharp minor with lovely musical instincts and crystal-clear touch. On a sliding scale, her lightness and deftness are closer to dinu Lipatti than, say Evgeny Kissin or Argerich herself. then it's on to the major solo work on the program, the "Funeral March" Sonata. It is approached almost as tenderly as the waltz, with lyrical flow dominating even in louder, more forceful passages - they are done with vigorous animation but not a hint of banging. The Trio of the Scherzo brings a famous melody, and I've never heard it played more naturally and with such poise. I found myself becoming a fan of Buniatishvili's before ten minutes was out. The transitions between episodes are silken and seamless.
The Funeral March itself remains a challenge; its over familiarity dares a young pianist to say something new or personal. Buniatishvili is a bit cautious, preferring to move ahead with steady declamations of the theme. But where she scores is in her ability to balance the theme with the lugubrious cadences in the left hand. Everything merges and sounds of a piece. Again there is no banging, and when the lyrical second theme enters, she transitions to it with utter simplicity and ease. the overall effect is of great dignity and tender melancholy, a respite from other pianists who want to bury the dead as pompously as possible. The sonata's will-o-the-wisp finale, a ferociously difficult Presto that must never rise much above a whisper, is rendered with precision and clarity; at the same time, Buniatishvili refuses to whisper and adds a sense of suppressed passion.
The last solo work is a Chopin connoisseur's favorite, the Ballade in F minor, treasured because of its wide range of expression and its capacity for bringing out as much emotional subtlety as a pianist can bring to it. Some pianists like Kissin overpower the piece - in a good way - through overt passion and a loud voice. Buniatishvili begins more softly and poetically than anyone I've heard in a great while, but soon her emotional expression, and wonderful technique, flashes out. This is amazingly assured, intuitive Chopin playing. Her ability to transit effortlessly from one episode to the next, which I had already admired, becomes breathtaking here. On Youtube you can hear a very moving and impressive Fourth Ballade from the gold medal winner of the last International Chopin competition in 2010, Yulianna Avdeeva from Russia. Taking nothing from her, Buniatishvili manages to be totally engrossing from first note to last, not just in the build-up to the end, where most pianists let the stops out.
the second half of the album is with orchestra - Paavo Jarvi leads the Orchestre de Paris on Chopin's Piano Cto. no. 2. Despite the oft-repeated criticisms of Chopin's orchestral writing, Jarvi conducts with a will; you don't feel that the show is marking time waiting for the star to enter. Sony's sound, which is very good in the solo numbers, is good here,too - clear, natural, nicely balanced. Buniatishvili remains true to her musical personality from the first entry, understating it while still holding our attention. Like Jarvi, she's intent on finding as much music as possible behind the almost constant fingerwork. This results in a lovely rise and fall as tenderness blends into brilliant passages. Listeners who want to hear the entire work attacked with maximum splash, as Argerich does, may feel a bit let down. We are more in the world of Ivan Moravec's elegant nuances.
I'll confess to not being a great fan, and certainly not a collector, of Chopin's two concertos. I've tried to relate what I hear, even if I can't offer extensive, or even very secure, comparisons with other versions. It was Buniatishvili's extraordinary poise and musicianship that struck me, as much here as in the solo works. To settle us after the scintillating finale, thee is a single slow, melancholy Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 no. 4, exquisitely done. I only wish Sony paid enough attention to the North American market that such an extraordinary keyboard artist could be widely appreciated.