Khatia Buniatishvili, a pianist knows for both introspection and romanticism, explores quiet corners of the psyche on her new album, Labyrinth. A collection of mostly well-known pieces by a broad variety of composers – from Baroque through contemporary, Couperin through Philip Glass – it’s an album to listen to with a glass of wine or two.
Billed as a concept album, Labyrinth is a collage of short works that give the pianist the opportunity to explore human nature from the inside out. It has something of the character of her emotional live performances. The deep, long-held tone that introduces the opening selection, “Deborah’s Theme” from Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America, signals the album’s spirit immediately, suggesting a bell tone rung to begin a meditation or a yoga practice.
Buniatishvili gives wide, expansive readings of two of the most familiar tunes in the piano repertoire: Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1” and Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 4. A sharper mood encroaches with Ligeti’s Etude No. 5 “Arc-en-ciel” (“Rainbow”) and reaches an explosive height with Buniatishvili’s own arrangement for piano four hands of the “Badinerie” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, on which she’s joined by her sister Gvantsa.
The program moves easily among genres and cultures. The tight energy in Villa-Lobos’s “Valsa da dor” comes as a bit of a shock to the senses. “La Javanaise” by Serge Gainsbourg is a spirited cruise through a pop-romantic landscape, flirting with schmaltz. The dominant mood returns in a rich, wide-open take on Bach’s familiar “Air on a G String” and a spacious, ruminative portrayal of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” Op. 24 No. 14. One of Scarlatti’s most contemplative sonatas gains from this spaciousness as well, sounding quite modern in the context of this era-spanning collection.
John Cage took space to its ultimate extreme in the infamous “4’33″” in which a pianist sits at the keyboard playing nothing for that span of time. Including it on an album, even one with as much space and pianissimo as this one, is a daring choice. For me, here the piece was realized as a concerto for street conversation, passing traffic, and tinnitus. I pondered whether the pianist had actually sat at her piano with the recording equipment going. I expect that she did – it’s hard to imagine this extraordinary pianist “faking” anything whatsoever.
Although the recording quality overall sounds a bit compressed at times, Buniatishvili achieves a lovely velvety tone in music by Couperin and Liszt and in the beautiful closing Adagio by Bach after Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings.
Labyrinth spotlights Buniatishvili as a curator with a distinctive perspective as well as a pianist with an unusually sensitive spirit. It’s out October 9 on Sony Classical. Listen and pre-order here, and explore your own psyche’s most sensitive corners.