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Schubert Sonata & Impromptus, Khatia Buniatishvili

Review: Khatia Buniatishvili, Schubert Sonata D960 & Impromptus D899 / Sony Classical

If you like the art of piano interpretation this album is for you. As in her traversal of the Rachmaninov concertos (one of the best couplings of the Rach 2nd and 3rd in recent years according to our review) pianist Khatia Buniatishvili doesn’t just hit the right notes but emphasizes on colour and phrasing.  In the Rachmaninov concerti with Paavo Jarvi and the Czech Philharmonic she dared to challenge the composer’s own interpretation playing them at breakneck speed while employing plenty of lyricism. Here her approach is nearly the opposite: tempi are often on the slow side and notes seem to linger creating a sense of timelessness.

Her performance of the first movement of the D960 is a wonder of tempo fluctuations and contrasting dynamics. People often complain about the heavenly length and the repetitions in Schubert’s music, the D960 being a case in point. The first movement can drag on forever if one includes repetitions. But not here: yes, Buniatishvili includes all repeats, but she seems to realise that Schubert did not intend for the music to sound the same every time a theme is repeated (of course some repeats are marked in different key but part of the exposition is to be played the same) and this is exactly what we get here: no two thematic repetitions are the same with changes in rubato, tempo and dynamics emphasizing new subtleties in the music. Not only do listeners never get bored with the same material, but they also notice the tiny details of the thematic relations.

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The pianist’s musicality is showcased even better in the slow movement of the same sonata, here clocking in at 14 minutes, making it one of the slowest accounts ever. Marked Andante Sostenuto, this is sostenuto indeed. Buniatishvili stretches the music to infinity but, again, possibly realizing this might verge on exaggeration (it doesn’t) she picks up the tempo when the second theme arrives. This is an effective antithesis, springing with lively rhythms —  a juxtaposition Schubert himself seems to favour in his last sonatas. And then listen to her treatment of the final notes, as they slow down gradually and, barely audible, fade into silence, giving the illusion of time standing still. It sounds like a cliché, but Buniatishvili achieves a sense of timelessness in the slow movement that I have only encountered in rare occasions.

And if you think this is a performance of slow tempi, the Scherzo that follows really dances and at 3:44 it is one of the most lively accounts. The pianist’s trills here are wonderfully playful, almost nostalgic. The same dance qualities begin the final movement until the third theme enters fortissimo and, under Khatia Buniatishvili, fortissimo it is indeed — the dynamic contrast couldn’t be more exciting. But again watch out for the carefully moulded softer passages. It is here that Buniatishvili excels.

Tempi aside, the pianist doesn’t try to impress by slowing down or racing up. Her D899 Impromptus have a very mellow, reflective tone, without sacrificing the so important bass lines. No. 3 has a crystalline quality and while its beginning sounds (appropriately) dreamy, there is some strong left-hand accompaniment underlying the struggle that is so common in most, if not all, of Schubert’s works. And while her 3rd Impromptu is slow and tranquil, the 4th is fiery and wild, the central section carrying the required drama. A discerning critic could easily label this as inconsistent playing, but a more open-minded one would realise this is what interpretation is all about.

If you really want a recording that adheres 100% to the score and prefer a straight-forward performance look elsewhere. This is music-making that might annoy listeners who like their Schubert (the last sonata especially) having a flowing tempo and non-intrusive dynamics. But it is my view that Schubert is one of those composers whose music, especially his late works, demands interpretation and reinterpretation and, most of all, a heartfelt approach. Buniatishvili does that and some more. This is a release to cherish, Schubert played with utter feeling and gusto. If you want to hear this score as intimate and subtle as the piano swan song that it is, then Buniatishvili knows how to make it work.

If you want to discuss Schubert’s last sonata and your favourite recordings, there is an open thread on our Facebook group.

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