CHOPIN Preludes BEETHOVEN Bagatelles
Listening to his impressive new recording, it’s easy to understand why Cristian Budu won the Clara Haskil Competition in Vevey three years ago this September. A Brazilian of Romanian descent who studied at the University of São Paulo and the New England Conservatory, Budu is a stunningly original pianist with musical insight and maturity that could inspire envy in colleagues twice his age. He has the sort of hands that used to be called ‘velvet paws’, which are seemingly incapable of making an ugly sound at the instrument. Online videos show him to be strictly business. No demonstrations of how almost to fall off the bench, no stomping the floor, no challenging Lon Chaney for the title ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. Completely relaxed but with an almost scary intensity of focus, Budu’s every motion is directed towards the production of sound. All this comes through loud and clear via the strictly audio medium of the CD, captured with remarkable nuance by the Claves engineers.
For his debut recording, Budu chooses an entire disc of miniatures. He is able to focus attention on the tiniest details while leaving proportions perfectly intact. Eloquent phrasing is ever front and centre, and no expressive potential is left unexplored. He commands an immense colour palette and moves from a robust fortissimo to a scarcely audible pianissimo in a nanosecond.
It’s a credit to the subtlety of Budu’s musicianship to say that his Op 33 Beethoven Bagatelles could easily be transferred to an 1804 Streicher with barely an adjustment of the touch he uses on the modern Steinway. Scrupulously observant of the composer’s agogic indications, the abundant drolleries of these pieces are understated and all the wittier for it. My favourite is the C major (No 5), which scurries about with amazingly precise urgency. When all the coruscating bustle finally runs up against a solid wall, Budu resists violent assault, the default choice of most pianists. Instead, he recovers from his bewilderment and, to great comic effect, seems to fashion a door, and calmly walk through.
Were his Chopin Preludes not so delicately coloured, their visual equivalent might be leafing through a portfolio of Ingres’s finest graphite portraits, marvelling at their succinct precision and lifelike directness. At once their striking individuality embraces a sweep and cohesion that leave the impression that the entire set could have been captured in a single take. The A minor (No 2) demonstrates Budu’s ability to create a heart-gripping pianissimo, whispered and just barely audible. In the G major (No 3), the right hand floats spacious and serene over the bubbling cascade of left-hand figuration. The A major (No 7) is a genuine Mazurka in microcosm, while the tolling bells of the E major (No 9) seem to grow and grow without ever exceeding the bounds of an exquisitely beautiful sound. When things grow desperate, depicting fight or flight, as in Nos 12, 16, 18 or 22, the dramatic tension is breathtaking.
Recently it seems as if the tap were left running and we’re suddenly knee-deep in Chopin Preludes. Of those I’ve heard, including the sets by Goerner, Cho, Yundi and Sokolov, Budu’s are the most enduringly satisfying. Bolstered by a vital and intelligent Beethoven, they strongly suggest that Cristian Budu is an artist we’ll be eager to hear more of – the sooner the better.