‘Two concerts in one’ in Cardiff – and a young pianist impresses

Weber, Grieg, Hindemith, Liszt, Bach/Liszt, Prokofiev: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christoph König (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff 31.5.2011. (GPu)

Weber, Der Freischütz – overture
Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor
Hindemith, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No.2
Liszt, Liebestraum in A flat major, S541 No.3
Bach/Liszt, Prelude and Fugue in A minor, S462
Prokofiev, Toccata on D minor, Op.11

The very best things in this concert happened after it was over. Let me explain. The first four items listed above, played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Christoph König with Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto constituted the main body of the concert. The programme told us that there would then be, after a short interval, what was described as a ‘Post-concert coda’ in the form of a mini recital by Ms. Buniatishvili, playing the last three items on the programme of works listed above.

The main body of the concert was enjoyable without being remarkable. Christoph König appeared to have established a fair rapport with the BBC’s Welsh Orchestra and began the concert with an atmospheric account of the overture to Der Freischütz, the whole rounded off with a stirring conclusion (after a few moments of uncertain intonation early on). Later we were treated to a performance of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses which was full of gusto and wit and in which most sections of the orchestra took their chance to shine at one point or another. In the initial allegro there was plenty of engaging rough and tumble; David Cowley’s contribution on oboe was delightful and the brass were properly impolite in this strange cross between a march and a peasant dance. In the so-called ‘Turandot: Scherzo’ (the reference is to music Weber wrote for the play by Carlo Gozzi, not to that play’s descendant, Puccini’s opera, which, remarkably, was being performed simultaneously elsewhere in the same building!) guest principal flautist Alessandra Russo was outstanding, as she was in the third of Hindemith’s four numbers, the andantino, its evocation of birdsong exquisite. The fugue in the scherzo was played with immense vitality and humour – here, in its jazzy phrasing, was Hindemith responding to the music of his exiled home in America. The closing Marsch, in which Hindemith doubles the tempo of Weber’s original funeral march, with delightfully absurd results, and the second of Weber’s decorous themes (both taken from the ‘Huit Pièces pour le pianoforte à 4 mains’ of 1818) becomes altogether more robust – in this performance its catchiness was that of a kind of sublimated beer-hall! – was played with great zest.

The slow melody of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody was nicely shaped, the work of the woodwinds particularly pleasing, and Christoph König’s conducting brought out the colours of Liszt’s orchestration very vividly. The gathering momentum of the work’s lengthy close was well handled and the excitements of the closing pages were played with gleeful momentum. At times there was, for my taste, rather too much that was overemphatic – even bearing in mind Charles Rosen’s comment that the Hungarian Rhapsodies embody “the least respectable side of Liszt”. The result was great fun, but largely at the cost of such refinement and subtleties as do exist in the piece.

There was plenty of refinement and subtlety, as well as plenty of power, of prodigious technique and of poetry in the post-concert recital given by Khatia Buniatishvili. Her accomplishment had already been evident in the earlier performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, in which her certainty across the dynamic range was impressive, as was her capacity to make the (over)familiar seem fresh, without recourse to self-indulgent posturing. The Adagio worked particularly well, where the pianist’s work had a beautiful innocence and intimacy to it, its phrases articulated and shaped with unforced expressiveness. Buniatishvili made the folk-dance rhythms at the beginning of the third movement thoroughly terpsichorean and she made as much as can reasonably be made of Grieg’s rather overblown final cadenza. I have to confess that this is not a concerto I have ever found particularly satisfying, but this performance put a pretty good case for it. I was altogether more deeply impressed, on the other hand, by the three solo items with which Ms. Buniatishvili closed the evening. They would, by themselves, have justified attendance at the concert.

The first two pieces – Liebestraum No.3 and Liszt’s piano transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor for organ – are both included on Ms. Buniatishvili’s first (all-Liszt) disc for Sony Classical, recently released. I haven’t heard that CD, but if the performances are as good as those we heard on this occasion, it will be a disc well worth acquiring. The Liebestraum was beautifully characterised, but quite without exaggeration or vulgarity; Liszt’s composition had its origins in Ferdinand Freiligrath’s brief poem which begins with the injunction “to love, as long as you can” (O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!) and ends with the recognition/warning that “The hour approaches … When you will stand by graves and weep!” (“Die Stunde kommt … wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!). I can’t remember hearing in recent years a performance of this piece that so beautifully balanced the emotional complex that Freiligrath’s text sets up and which Liszt so poignantly ‘translates’ to the keyboard. The ensuing performance of the Liszt transcription from Bach was a model of clear articulation, in which dense textures remained remarkably lucid and in which delicacy of touch and sheer power were both put to thoroughly musical use. Prokofiev’s Toccata is a dazzling showpiece and here was a pianist who could handle the chromatic leaps and the insistent repetitions without, it seemed, the slightest technical uncertainty and who could make the excitement and the exhilaration of the piece more than merely superficial, more than a mere display of pianistic technique. This is a young pianist who is unquestionably the real thing and who surely has the potential to become a major figure. I can’t resist quoting – because I endorse the sentiment – something I heard another member of the (healthily large) audience say: “It is like listening to a young Martha Argerich”. High praise, but entirely understandable.

Glyn Pursglove