A Variable Recital by Khatia Buniatishvili at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Liszt, Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev. Khatia Buniatishvili (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 6.12.2011 (RB)

Bach/Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV543
Liszt: Liebestraum No. 3
Schubert/Liszt: Three Lieder
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op 5
Sonata No. 2 in B Flat minor Op 35
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat Op 83

Khatia Buniatishvili is a Georgian pianist who is being mentored by Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, and who last year received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust award. She is reputedly one of the rising stars of the Classical piano world but I must say that I had significant reservations about some of her playing in this recital.

She started off very well with Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s A minor organ prelude and fugue. The opening was very quiet and she played the contrapuntal lines in a highly expressive and richly coloured way. Buniatishvili captured the organ sonorities of the piece well and did an excellent job in creating mood and atmosphere. The bravura passage work was well executed and she conjured some imaginative sonorities from the piano. This was followed by the most famous of Liszt’s three Liebestraume transcriptions (‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!’). Buniatishvili’s approach was seductive rather than rapturous and the vocal line was relatively restrained with the cadenzas played in a shimmering and mercurial way. The phrasing was excellent but I thought this piece could be played in a much more ravishing way.

Buniatishvili next performed three of Liszt’s virtuoso transcriptions of Schubert songs. In ‘Standchen’ there was some nice layering of the thematic material and the vocal line was highly expressive. The harmonic shifts were handled particularly well and there was some excellent colouring of the material. In ‘Gretchen am Spinrade’, Buniatishvili again played very expressively and successfully created an unsettled atmosphere. The modulation to the major key was particularly gorgeous. With ‘Erlkönig’ the recital started to go downhill. There was some powerful playing at the beginning but a number of errors seemed to creep in and the drama at the heart of this work was insufficiently characterised.

Buniatishvili ended the first half with Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. This is one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire and I was not convinced by Buniatishvili’s interpretation which seemed rather loosely structured and overly impressionistic. She seemed to come off the rails in the climatic chords before the coda; the coda itself lacked shape and I was unable to hear what was going on in the very murky textures.

In the second half, Buniatishvili opened with Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ sonata, playing the opening movement at a very fast pace. It came across as a blur of colour and texture; there seemed to be little insight into the architecture of the piece and the lines were insufficiently delineated. The scherzo was better although the opening section could have been rhythmically tighter. In the trio section, Buniatishvili allowed the music to breathe more and she coaxed a lovely tone from the piano and some well[shaped melodic lines. The famous funeral march was played very well with Buniatishvili achieving an intensity in the outer sections and a gorgeous change in tone colour in the D flat middle section. Paradoxically, the problematic last movement was played best of all with Buniatishvili conjuring a swirl of dark impressionistic colours from the piano to represent the ‘wind over the gravestones’.

Buniatishvili’s performance of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata was very uneven and there seemed to be a lack of insight and musical understanding into the material particularly in the outer movements. The opening ‘allegro inquieto’ was played as a very fast sequence of pianistic figurations but there was no sense of the edginess, disquiet or sarcasm that one hears in the greatest performances of this work. Buniatishvili was better in the expressive ‘andantino’ in the middle of the opening movement where there was some well-judged rubato. The opening of the ‘andante caloroso’ slow movement was played with a restrained beauty but the middle section lacked intensity of shape. The final ‘precipitato’ was again played very quickly but came across as a torrent of notes with important thematic material lost or thrown away. The coda came across as a noisy and undifferentiated series of chords and octaves that made no musical sense.

As an encore, Buniatishvili played Chopin’s E minor Prelude and redeemed herself with some sensitive playing of this miniature masterpiece.

Robert Beattie