Austria Salzburg Festival  – Schubert, Liszt, and Stravinsky: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 21.8.2019. (MB)
Schubert – Four Impromptus D899
Schubert-Liszt – Schwanengesang: ‘Ständchen’ D957/4; Gretchen am Spinnrade D118; Erlkönig D328
Liszt – Études d’exécution transcendante No.4, ‘Mazeppa’; Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 in D-flat major S244/6
Stravinsky – Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’
At what point does ‘interesting’ become ‘perverse’? At what point does ‘strong personal interpretation’ become ‘self-indulgent’? At what point does a recital become solely about the performer, having long since left behind any reasonable claim to be performing ‘the music itself’? The answer to those and other such questions will always depend: not only on the particulars of the performance, but on the listener’s own personal inclination, which itself may, almost certainly will, vary from concert to concert, and indeed from performer to performer. A performer in whom one holds a particular, often longstanding, interest will most likely be received very differently from one in whom one does not. For me, at any rate, not only was the point in those respective journeys was reached soon in this case; Khatia Buniatishvili’s eccentric ‘comet’ continued hurtling through the skies to destinations rarely imagined, let alone visited, some way past, say, Planet Pogorelich, to draw an obvious, if not entirely just comparison.
The opening set of Schubert Impromptus was bizarre, but not without interest (for me, at least), nor without seductive tone. I wondered to begin with, given the presence later on the programme of Schubert-Liszt and Liszt unhyphenated, whether Buniatishvili were attempting to play them, even recompose them, in some imagined Lisztian style: a fascinating proposition. It soon became clear that if so, she needed to study Liszt as well as Schubert a little harder: in terms not of technique, for she can certainly muster something of the transcendental when she decides to, but of any degree of musical understanding. At any rate, the C minor Impromptu opened, at least in my imagination, as if attempting some sort of Lisztian paraphrase of the work. I could not imagine what Schubert might have thought, but perhaps Liszt might have liked it. What, I think, he would not have liked, nor would Schubert, was the persistent ‘dramatisation’ of every single phrase, nor the incessant reduction in already-absurd tempo from glacial to more glacial. The music, marked Allegro molto moderato, struggled ever to reach Andante. Its successor, marked Allegro, was taken at a tempo one might have described at least as Presto, arguably faster. It sounded like little more than a Czerny study. If the first had been interesting after a fashion, this was at best glib.
Andante for the G-flat major Impromptu? Of course not: more akin to Lento. But it had its moments. I did not mind Buniatishivili’s pauses for emphasis, though I can imagine they would have irritated many. The music was often in danger of being smothered with affection, or something else, but at its best, this was a performance imbued with a dark Romanticism that not only provoked but also enticed. At worst, I fear, it was merely distended. The final Impromptu descended into mere caricature: whether of a Liszt paraphrase or of what we had already, I was unsure. It was pulled around mercilessly, but worse, was often atrociously phrased and sometimes quite without phrasing at all. Some audience oddball leaped up immediately and hurled flowers her away, perhaps having miscalculated his timing of the equinox. An audience of fans, replete with wearying applause after each and every impromptu, was clearly seeing and hearing what it had come for.
Schubert-Liszt fared little better, alas. Indeed, this was just the treatment that tends to give Liszt, with or without hyphen, a bad name. The Schwanengesang ‘Ständchen’ was slow, if not quite bizarrely so: at least to begin with, or perhaps at least with respect to the expectations I had now internalised. You will be well able to fill in the rest by now. Some left-hand voicing was exquisite, on its own terms, but really: all that sotto voce narcissism… Ultimately, Buniatishvili slowed for diminuendi and sped up for crescendi: the sort of thing a good piano teacher drums out of one round about Grade 2. A telephone call for once raised a smile on my face rather than the usual glare. A seemingly interminable tragifarce finally terminated, we heard a Gretchen am Spinnrade full of similar cheap tricks, the balance between some lines so peculiar that it sounded closer to a minimalist film-track than I have ever heard Schubert sound before: quite some achievement, given those harmonies. Erlkönig began reasonably straight: it sort of has to. At least I had thought so, the pianist’s closing accelerando offering playing to the gallery of the very worst kind.
After the interval, we heard more Liszt, followed by Stravinsky. Mazeppa brought awe-inspiring technique, wonderful sounds-in-themselves, and no phrasing, let alone any sense of the piece. By this time, I was fully of the mind that Buniatishvili should be sat down and made to play in the style of Alfred Brendel for the next three years. A Hungarian Rhapsody was, well, rhapsodic, but full of interpretative choices so perverse that I soon lost all interest: as if Buniatishvili were offering a handy compendium of all her worst choices so far. And some of that hammering away was plain ugly: something one should never be able to say of Liszt. What was my safe word again? Brendel?
Stravinsky’s Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’ were often plain careless. Here there were far too many wrong notes, still more taken at individual, self-regarding micro-tempi, and inexplicable accents all over the place. My aesthetics are hardly identical to Stravinsky’s, but how I should love to have heard his inevitable condemnation. I cannot imagine why anyone would hear this music, let alone play it, like this. Dear reader, I shall spare you the encores; if only I likewise had been spared.