Charismatic Piano Playing from Khatia Buniatishvili

Haydn, Beethoven, Sibelius: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, / Paavo Järvi (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 6.4. 2013. (NB)

Haydn: Symphony No. 85 ‘La Reine’
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C Op.15
Sibelius: Symphony No.1 in E minor Op.39

Another fascinating, sometimes compelling concert given as part of the Anvil’s International Concert Series. The Philharmonia returned in their role as main contributor to the series and again proved themselves to be an orchestra on top form in all departments.

On the podium was Paavo Järvi, a conductor of considerable pedigree and experience and no little technique, but all the evening’s considerable highpoints came from the orchestral playing and most of all the soloist. Hearing a Haydn symphony played by a full modern symphony orchestra was something of a rare and guilty pleasure. Historically informed practice has become the political correctness of the music world to the point that to deny or at least ignore its precepts verges on brave or foolish depending on one’s standpoint. But to me good playing is good playing and that is what we had. Järvi favoured fast and often inflexible tempi throughout the evening. This suited the celebratory display of the Haydn more than the granitic Sibelius. So after the brief slow introduction the sky-rocket string scales of the opening of the Symphony No.85 ‘La Reine’ were performed with exhilarating élan by the Philharmonia strings. Järvi opted for the continental seating layout with antiphonal violins but more unusually the celli next to the first violins on the left hand side of the stage with their colleagues in the double basses behind them. The major gain in a concert hall is a solidly projecting bass line but it does leave the second violins having to work harder with their sound projecting directly towards the hall’s back wall.

Järvi impressed with the unfussy clarity of his conducting which allowed the orchestra to play with great attack and precision. However, the musical moulding he provided was minimal with phrasing simple to the point of plainness. The Philharmonia’s woodwind was in typically impressive form – Gordon Hunt’s oboe sounding effortlessly beautiful. Reliance on the quality of the playing was again apparent in the slow movement – a miniature theme and variations on a French folksong (this is one of the Paris Symphonies after all) ‘La gentile et jeune Lisette’. I do not like fussy micro-managing of music-making but too often I felt Järvi chose not to impose his own personality on the music at all. He seemed far more engaged by the jovial Menuetto that followed. Here, the deployment of a modern orchestra allowed Jarvi to produce a sound the pre-echoed both a heavy-booted Ländler and a charmingly appealing Viennese lilting waltz. Suddenly some musical wit and character was displayed which had eluded the conductor until this point. However, the finale, all dash and bold dynamic contrasts was singularly lacking the humour which bubbles through so much Haydn. A performance of considerable technical panache but little nuance.

At which point entered the soloist for the evening; Khatia Buniatishvili. As part of the Anvil’s International Concert Series they are presenting all five Beethoven Piano Concerti. Buniatishvili’s contribution to this rather stellar roster of works and soloists was the First. In my ignorance I had not encountered her name let alone her playing before. Even before a note is played she is a very striking stage presence and immediately one wonders if her major recording contract [with Sony] is more to do with the packaging rather than the content. Within bars of her first entry any cynical concerns are allayed. This was quite simply some of the most compelling and charismatic playing by any soloist I have heard in concert in a considerable time. By its very individuality I can imagine some people feeling that this was too interventionist and not appropriately “authentic”, but to my ear this encapsulated the glory of live music making. At this moment in this hall Buniatishvili convinced one totally with the personal force of her vision. Any kind of pre-conception or dogma was dismissed, replaced instead with a sure and certain ownership of the music, the orchestra and the audience. I must admit to being rather in awe of music-making at this level. At the keyboard Buniatishvili sits poised and still; her playing is individual yet unfussy and her touch on the keyboard belies the status of the piano as a percussion instrument. I love the way she risks playing with the lightest possible caress of the keys; solo lines are limpid and beautifully floated full of languid poetry. That this is a singularly Romantic approach is not in doubt – extensive pedalling producing a harmonic haze that must have the authenticists foaming at the mouth. But so tangible is her engagement with work that any complaint is rendered petty and of little consequence.

The central Largo had a meditative quality of Chopinesque intimacy. Stunning contributions from the Philharmonia wind principals enhanced the beauty of the moment. Järvi was much more impressive as an accompanist than as an originator of musical thought. Buniatishvili played much of the concerto riveted either on the conductor or the orchestral instrument(s) accompanying her – a sense of common communion was tangible. Again, I was enchanted by the way in which Buniatishvili was able to allow musical phrases to hang suspended in a state of near-stasis. Subsequently, I have read reviews and comments that dislike her bending of the basic pulse of the music in this way. All I can reiterate is that on this night in this hall it felt like perfection.

The finale was played attacca with a rumbustuous gypsy-like energy; full-blooded and exciting. The off-beats sharply pointed and a well articulated bass-line gave the music a comic effect I had never considered before. Buniatishvili’s dynamic range is simply phenomenal and here the playing encouraged the orchestra to match her virtuosic phrase for virtuosic phrase. The closing bars of scurrying brilliance rounded off a truly stunning performance which was acknowledged as such by very warm and extended applause from the enthusiastic audience, so much so that we were treated to an encore: the closing Precipitato movement from Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata. Since it’s a War Sonata perhaps the analogy of “Shock & Awe” is not wholly inappropriate; this was a breathtakingly exciting and dynamic performance. This is a performer whose work on disc and in concert I will now actively follow: full of passion and individuality yet founded on a stunning technique and an innate musicality.

The concert was completed by Sibelius’ powerful First Symphony. Back in sole control Järvi produced possibly the fastest performance of this work I have ever heard. For sure it made for an exciting journey but this was the excitement of the roller-coaster rather than the majesty and awe of nature which I feel lies at the heart of this composer’s work. Again I have nothing but praise for the quality of the playing of the Philharmonia. Järvi sensibly allowed principal clarinettist Mark van de Wiel and timpanist Andrew Smith to shape the extended opening alone. It was quite beautifully played. Indeed the playing of veteran timpanist Smith was a notable highlight of the performance; he made you realise just how revolutionary for 1898 the timp writing was. I cannot think of another work of that time where so much of the harmonic impetus of the work is dictated and driven by that instrument. Järvi seemed intent on pressing forward with tempi and ignoring any temptation to linger over a phrase or musical corner. It produced a curiously anti-romantic effect and certainly diminished the sense of massive inevitability which defines this music for me. Fortunately, in the Philharmonia, Järvi had a collective instrument fully able to articulate his vision; the scurrying passage work – tricky at the best of times but at Järvi’s unrelenting pace positively hard – was negotiated with ease. The Anvil’s warm acoustic served orchestra and score well with the heavy brass writing ringing out with glorious rich warmth. Likewise the massed string tone was hugely impressive. But oh that Järvi had shaded answering phrases with greater nuance or balanced internal lines with a greater sense of light and shade. Because the orchestra are so good this bludgeoning approach works, but there is so much more here to offer. The finale gained a wildness that I have rarely heard before that was undoubtedly exciting and the three paused string chords before the scurrying descent immediately prior to the great hymnic tune was as well executed as I have ever heard. For this melody Järvi finally allowed it to expand and breath. Perhaps this was his ultimate goal and if such it was a wise choice. But I would have to say that too much before was sacrificed to achieve this effect. Ultimately a flawed interpretation brilliantly executed by a virtuoso orchestra.

This concert will be remembered for the exceptional contribution of pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. Remember that name, unless I’m hugely mistaken she will be around for a very long time and should be numbered as one of the finest players of her generation.

Nick Barnard