Virtuosic But Puzzling Recital from Buniatishvili


United StatesUnited States Liszt, Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 7.4.14 (DA)

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor
Ravel: La valse
Chopin: Piano Sonata No.2 in B Flat Minor, Op.35
Stravinsky: Three Movements from Pétrouchka


Perhaps this isn’t the best way to begin a review, but I have no idea what to make of this concert. Khatia Buniatishvili seems to be among the most exciting of young pianists in Europe. The program looked great, hardly a nervous way to make a solo debut at Carnegie Hall, and not the work of someone lacking confidence in their technical abilities. In practice, it proved overwhelmingly intense, the Liszt quite enough for a first half (too much, even) without the Ravel tacked onto it, and the Chopin relegated to foreplay before unremittingly brutal Stravinsky. Buniatishvili’s musical personality and strength of tone were extraordinary, yet far too big for Weill’s dainty acoustics. And there were technical marvels matched to insights and instincts worthy of Martha Argerich herself, wonders that quickly yielded, more often than not, to some of the least tasteful pianism I have heard.

 The Liszt sonata was the centrepiece of Buniatishvili’s debut recording. On disc, it’s an impulsive account notable for its ferocity. This performance took those traits much further in elaboration of the Faustian battle that lies at the heart, some say, of this work. It began with an instant snap, with an abrupt intent to its low opening notes: clearly there was something at stake here, right from the start. There were two polarities of tempo at work throughout, one demonically fast and the other basically static. Even in those extraordinarily slow moments, Buniatishvili never let you relax, as there was always the threat that she would uncoil at any moment, with her characteristically tigerish roar of notes smashed together with chronic overuse of the sustaining pedal. With material constantly transforming, the promise of Faust’s bargain (thrashed out on every hearing) felt continuously up for grabs.

 And yet structure fell by the wayside, and some choices seemed perverse. The fugue was so playful as to be dismissive, almost laughing at us for expecting a formal release of tension, before hurling us back into the mix. Liszt’s music was pushed beyond the limit in so many ways here, but not in the modernist manner of, say, a Pollini or an Aimard. It wasn’t as if this were just too flashy, either, as the liberties taken (not wrongly) at the expense of fistfuls of incorrect notes clearly had some direction to them—subjective, yes, but not arbitrary. But this told us much more about Buniatishvili than about Liszt, and it left me curiously unmoved.

 On, unnecessarily, to La Valse, in which Ravel takes a Viennese waltz apart, disintegrating it in a whirl of notes. In Buniatishvili’s hands, the dance had already been destroyed long before the first notes. Toying phrases hid germs of ideas, hinted at an almost Bergian approach, but so many were lost (with that right foot glued to the pedal), that there really was not a great deal of nuance to be found here. At volume, the playing took on a crude edge, the Steinway’s mechanism pushed so far that a great deal of retuning was necessary by the interval.

 The Chopin sonata had a good deal more poise and elegance, although in the first movement, that sat alongside an uncommonly neurotic approach. The scherzo, growling under Buniatishvili’s fingers, once more suffered from over-pedalling, not least in the transition from scherzo to trio (where the final notes of the former hung forever over the latter). Foreboding filled the funeral march, not as slow as feared, and with a tempting nothingness in its droning harmonies. Its own trio of sorts, though, had an odd mechanical feel to it, awash in quiet pedal and lacking variation in its vocal line, intriguingly like a musical clock perpetually on the verge of dying out. The march, on its return, was thunderous. And the hazes of the final movement, so devastating a wind across a grave in the right hands, had their promise muted by what had already come.

 The Stravinsky perhaps received still a more individualist performance. A calling card of another young pianist, Yuja Wang, these pieces from Pétrouchka sounded overheated here. Buniatishvili’s Steinway sounded at its most unwelcomely bright, and while the virtuosity was stunning—and stunningly brusque—one always felt that there was more to find in the music. By “La semaine grasse,” Buniatishvili was pounding away so hard that her stool nearly escaped her.

 Whatever the issues with this concert, however, there is clearly a great deal more to come from Buniatishvili. She is certainly one to watch.

 David Allen



  1. Mark Rudio says:

    This is a great review. I’m seeing her perform the same program this Saturday night in San Francisco. I’ve been looking forward to it for months, and David has just raised my level of anticpation by several degrees.

  2. You write: “In Buniatishvili’s hands, the dance had already been destroyed long before the first notes.” Had I been endowed with even a small dose of your clairvoyance I could have said: When I saw David Allen’s name I knew – before he wrote a single word – that only a page filled with self-indulging, void sentences, telling nothing of substance will follow. Perhaps, just perhaps, the emotional range of Khatia’s playing is way beyond your hearing capabilities.

    • David Allen says:

      Mr. Ilich:

      A performance of “La Valse” usually has a narrative arc that starts with a presentation of a waltz as it would traditionally be heard, which Ravel steadily tears apart over the course of the piece. When Buniatishvili played it the other night, the first presentation was already heavily disrupted. Maybe I might have stated that more clearly, but what is clairvoyant about what I originally wrote? Moreover, if my review tells “nothing of substance”, what would you like to know? Perhaps knowing that might help me improve as a writer.

  3. Pianomuse says:

    This recital was simply awful. She’s sloppy, reckless, and irresponsible – and her musicianship is on the level of a child.

  4. John P. says:

    I love reading criticism about art, music, etc., no matter how well it is written. I happen to enjoy Khatia’s playing very much. And Ms. Argerich thinks very highly of her as well. I feel in pretty good company if Martha has the same opinion of a pianist that I do.

    If you wish to hear her in a more congenial mood, listen to her playing in the Franck Sonata with one of the Capuchon boys. It is really quite splendid. It is also on YouTube.

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