New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: scarlatti

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Music Before 1800 Gets Radical

One of the great things about Music Before 1800‘s programming is that it’s not just standard repertoire. Sure, a lot of baroque and early chamber music sounds quaint to us today since it wasn’t written to be anything more than a backdrop for courtly dancing or whatever else the dictators or petty dictators who commissioned it were up to. But a lot of it has as much resonance now as it did then. Last night at the Kosciusko Foundation, violinist Lina Tur Bonet and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss took paradigm shifts from the early 1700s and brought them to life with equal parts adrenaline and meticulousness.

The program was titled “La Petite Merveille and the Red Priest.,” the latter referring to Vivaldi, two of whose dynamic, so-called Graz Sonatas moved seamlessly through graceful, balletesque leaps to gritty, rapidfire riffage, Weiss providing a steady, purposeful safety net beneath Bonet’s charges through volleys of sixteenth notes and biting minor-key cadenzas.

As exciting as all that was, the pieces de resistance were two similarly dynamic works by pioneering French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was given her marvelous little nickname by Louis XIV. Beyond the challenge of being a woman composer of concert music in a field that was a a thousand times more of a boys’ club then than it is today, she singlehandedly introduced the Italian sonata form and its virtuoso playing to French court music, and in the process transformed it. That it took such an outsider to pull off that feat has many implications for royalty of the era.

The duo first played her Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, possibly dating from as early as 1695. From its plaintive, moody adagio introduction, throgh fascinatingly fugal, waltzing counterpoint, a handful of strikingly rapidfire passages for Bonet to relish, and a bitingly edgy coda, it was a radical piece of music for its era. There was somewhat less bite but no less innovation in the alternatively wistful, pensive and eventually triumphant variations in Jacquet’s Sonata No. 4 in G Major, which the two performed after a voluptuous yet precisely considered Weiss interpretation of Louis Marchand’s Suite in D Minor for solo harpsichord.

Weiss also put a close spotlight on the intricacies and playful japes in a quartet of solo harpsichord sonatas by Scarlatti. It’s one thing to multitask with this kind of music in the background: up close in concert, it was impossible not to be surprised and tickled by the composer’s occasional use of modern-sounding close harmonies, or the irrepressible humor that bubbled throughout Sonata K. 56. The duo encored with a brief Bach piece that sent the crowd downstairs to the after-show reception with a pre-party nocturnal glimmer.

In addition to their pretty-much-monthly series of concerts by top-tier choral ensembles, Music Before 1800 sometimes features rare treasures and familiar favorites from the chamber repertoire. Their next concert at the Kosciusko Foundation is on March 3 at 7 PM, featuring rising star Beiliang Zhu playing all six Bach Suites for Solo Cello.