Khatia Buniatishvili’s disappointing Barbican Hall recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 21.3.2024 (CC)

Khatia Buniatishvili

Bach/Liszt – Prelude and Fugue in A minor, S 462/1
Beethoven – Piano Sonatas: No.23 in F minor; ‘Appassionata’, Op.57; No.17 in D minor, Op.32/2, ‘Tempest’
Schubert/Liszt – Ständchen; Gretchen am Spinnrade.
LisztConsolation No.3; Hungarian Rhapsody No.6.

There are definite strengths to the playing of Khatia Buniatishvili; the major problem is that they rarely come together coherently. This was an odd recital: the pianist herself had announced the wrong start time on social media, so that might have had something to do with the many latecomers, even quite late into the (interval-less) recital – at one point those latecomers crossed with people leaving the recital early, in roughly equal numbers. But the pianist’s own late start (around 7.40pm-ish) had me thinking at one point that maybe 8pm really was the right start time, despite the concert ticket’s assurance to the contrary…

It was difficult to blame the exiters though. Buniatishvili’s interpretations tend towards extremes, especially of dynamics. Good that she plays quietly, and good also that her fingers can move evenly at such speed. But little here was in service of the composers: literally plural in the case of the Bach/Liszt (or, as the programme had it, the Liszt/Bach). The reading of the A minor Fugue was different from Buniatishvili’s own Sony recording in that her interpretative traits were intensified. The opening in the Barbican Hall sounded more like a second hand had been at Bach’s score: that of Philip Glass. The positives here were the evocations of organ grandeur, but why so much pedal for the fugue subject? This could have been Classical music-lite from our own century, but what it really was Bach-demeaned. The old trope of over-highlighting fugal entries was certainly present, too. No doubting Buniatishvili’s finger strength, but this did neither Bach nor Liszt any favours.

It seems a double blow to be writing about Buniatishvili’s Beethoven in the light of the announcement of the death today (March 23) of one of the great Beethoven players, Maurizio Pollini. Buniatishvili’s Beethoven accentuates her core failings: impulsiveness to the detriment of the music’s structure, an unnecessary dwelling on the moment. The ‘Appassionata’ might seem perfect for Buniatishvili – she is certainly not lacking in passion – but its monumental structure is unforgiving of the harmonically short-sighted. So it was that Buniatishvili’s first movement lacked energy, despite surface contrasts and plenty of prestidigitation. Notes might be accurate, but her rhythm was not secure. The central Andante was stop-start, utterly devoid of meaning, dissonances blunted, the ray of light arrival at the major all but unnoticeable. Unsurprisingly the finale was fast – too fast, for where is the space for the coda? Where, indeed, was the sense of cumulative drive? One wondered how the ’Tempest’ would survive.

After the inter-Sonata latecomers had settled, Op.31/2 emerged as better, if generally nondescript. There was a daring pianissimo at the opening (and Buniatishvili is capable of ravishing pps) but juxtapositions seemed contrived. The slow movement felt unsettled (with some bass octaves not speaking – for all the many notes of Liszt, Beethoven has his own challenges, one of which is that there is precisely nowhere to hide). The finale felt rushed. Beethoven deserves better.

Liszt is very much Buniatishvili’s home turf. The two Schubert song arrangements might have been misleading in that regard however, Schwanengsang’s ‘Ständchen’ contrived of rubato and Gretchen am Spinnrade initially better (a nice sense of movement) but offered in a reading that made the moment of the imagined kiss redundant. The Consolation (No.3) was better, it had flow, but the Hungarian Rhapsody, for all its torrents of notes, again had structural problems. Shifts between sections again went for nothing; overall, it felt curiously literal (even stilted in the slower moments).

There is no doubting Buniatishvili’s talent; but this is a talent too often misaligned with the music. A great shame.

Colin Clarke

1 thought on “Khatia Buniatishvili’s disappointing Barbican Hall recital”

  1. I love this great pianist.
    I wasn’t there but the I think Colin Clarke has been very critical, almost as if something personal, give a break to such a talented musician … [edited]

    S&H replies: I am certain Colin was not being ‘personal’ and as you write you were not there.


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