(Sorry, I couldn't resist that title.) I first encountered the remarkable talent of Georgian pianist Khatya Buniatishvili last summer when I was able to listen to a concert broadcast live from the Verbier festival, Switzerland, via the BBC Music Magazine's Web page. In that live recital, she played Liszt's Piano sonata in B minor, followed by the Mephisto waltz and other pieces. I had never before heard the great B minor sonata played with such compelling force and authority - I sat transfixed on my seat through the whole concert. In fact, her playing opened up the Liszt sonata for me in a completely new way so that I was able to hear this old pianistic war-horse with new ears.
After that, I just had to get this recording. And it did not disappoint. Although on the first listening it seemed that her playing could not quite match the sheer force and excitement of that live recital (no CD can do that, anyway), after repeated listening I must conclude that on the whole, her interpretation makes perfect sense in almost every aspect of this many-sided masterpiece. She plays the allegro and presto parts with fire and passion, and after those, the calmer sections sound heavenly indeed.
In her intelligent and very personal booklet notes, the pianist makes it clear that she considers the Liszt B minor sonata to be one of the great masterpieces of piano literature, and in my ears, her interpretation, appropriately passionate and tender, does perfect justice to that judgement. I had previously enjoyed performances of this sonata on CD by Yundi Li and Llyr Williams. Admirable as both of those traversals are, it is now this version of Buniatishvili that I regard as my new version of reference. (In case you are interested, the Llyr Williams disc was published as a BBC Music magazine cover CD. It includes quite an intelligent program of Beethoven's sonata no.14, the Liszt sonata, and Schubert's Wanderer fantasy. With luck, it might still be available as a used copy somewhere. Like Khatia Buniatishvili, Williams was also selected to participate in the "BBC New Generation artist" program, so it might be just interesting to compare the two.)
This is a concept album: Khatia Buniatishvili has chosen the pieces included on the CD because they all have some connotations to the Faust legend, which appears to have great personal significance to her. The CD opens with an absolutely lovely interpretation of Liebestraum no. 3, quite a contrast to the passionate interpretation of the sonata that follows (note that "passionate" here does not mean that it is played hastily or too fast - her version of the sonata lasts - miraculously - exactly 31 minutes, which is about the usual time most performances of it take). After the sonata, we get brilliant readings of both Mephisto waltz no. 1 and La lugubge gondola, Liszt's near-atonal masterpiece. The CD ends in a suitably tranquil fashion with Liszt's arrangements of Bach's Prelude and fugue no. 1 in A minor.
As quite a number of young pianists have made a recording of the Liszt sonata in recent years (the two mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg, it seems), there must be something special in it that appears to young artists. I have nothing against this trend, if this interest in one of Liszt's most difficult and demanding pieces yiedls such results as on this CD.
This special limited edition also includes a DVD of a short film on the Faust theme conceived by Khatia Buniatishvili, in which she plays all the three main roles of Faust, Mephisto and Marguerite. Compared with her superb musicianship, this cannot of course be anything but an interesting aside, but it adds a highly personal touch. Thanks also to the recording company for making this package available at such an affordable price.
But rest assured that whichever version you buy - CD+DVD or just the plain old CD - musically, you are in a very good company here. The sonics are excellent and the CD sounds phenomenal even with my old, decidedly non-audiophile regular stereo.