Stunning Virtuosity and Fine Musicality from Khatia Buniatishvili

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Brahms, Chopin, and Stravinsky: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 4.6.2014 (MB)

RavelGaspard de la nuit
Brahms – Intermezzi: op.117 nos 1 and 2, op.118 no.2
Chopin – Scherzo no.2 in B-flat major, op.31
RavelLa Valse
StravinskyThree Movements from ‘Petrushka’


It was not difficult on the basis of this recital to understand why comparisons have been drawn between Khatia Buniatishvili and Martha Argerich. Though Buniatishvili is definitely her own person, and such comparisons rarely shed much light, there is a not entirely dissimilar fire in performance. With one exception, I was greatly impressed here.

In a reversal of the advertised running order, the first half began with Gaspard de la nuit, followed by three Brahms Intermezzi. ‘Ondine’ opened with quiet shimmering, making its way towards reminiscences of Liszt that were never too much.  Buniatishvili’s ppp was quite mesmerising. Much the same might be said of ‘Le Gibet’. Inexorable tread was observed yet there remained an appropriately nymph-like lightness of touch. Chords were somehow both crystalline and upon the verge of dissolution. The pianist’s control was little short of awe-inspiring; likewise, if in a different way, in the case of ‘Scarbo’. Debussyan pyrotechnics were perhaps a little cool at times, but there was ultimately plenty of that aforementioned fire.

The trio of Brahms pieces made for an affecting, thoughtful change of musical voice. The first piece from op.117 offered a sense of ancient familiarity, something almost folk-like, yet without any hint of the routine. One was subtly rendered aware of the undeniably modern quality of its lines and their progress, not the first time Buniatishvili’s skill at voicing came into its own. The apparent simplicity of its ternary form was revealed through variation to be development, not mere ornamentation. A mood of expressive intimacy continued in op.117 no.2; if anything, it was intensified. The A major of op.118 no.2 came as balm, though introspection and circumspection ensured that ambiguity remained, at least for more time than they were eroded. Though in no real sense a Schoenbergian performance, the absolute necessity of every note was communicated, albeit without didacticism.

Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo was the exception I mentioned, though, judging by the audience’s reaction, mine was a minority opinion. It was on the brisk side, though far from inflexible. The problem for me was that much of the material sounded underplayed, reduced to the ‘merely’ ornamental. Something of that iron necessity governing the Brahms pieces would have been welcome here. Structure was clear in an external sense, but form remained curiously lacking in dynamism. It may be grossly unfair to invoke Pollini here; nevertheless, I longed for his deeper understanding. That said, in the second encore, the finale to Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata, Buniatishvili’s pianism proved every inch the equal of the Italian pianist in his legendary recording.

The solo piano version of La Valse remains a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, though I can well imagine we might feel differently had we never heard the orchestral score. Again, Buniatishvili took the piece at considerable speed; perhaps one needs to, without the sustaining power of a full orchestra. Sometimes she might have yielded more, but that was not too much of a problem. What I missed, and this may well be as much a matter of the version as the performance, was a sense of darkness, indeed of tragedy; it remained on the level of a tour de force, though the virtuosity in itself was spellbinding.

There was little to fear from even the most exalted of comparisons (such as Pollini, again) in the Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’. Exuberant, vigrorous, precise: here, there was no reason whatsoever to miss the extraordinary colours of Stravinsky’s orchestra. Dramatic characterisation, variety of touch and articulation, great dynamic range: all were equally impressive. Rhythm often governed, as it should, but not at the expense of melody. A rare slip served only to show that the purveyor of such pianism was human after all. And those glissandi…!

The recital was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for seven days from the date of broadcast by clicking here.

Mark Berry


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