Pianist with a bus to catch

KHATIA BUNIATISHVILI at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, 4 June 2014

The Georgian pianist, now 26, is, let us say, very pleasing to the eye. Last night she gave us a shimmering, figure-hugging, full-length silver gown. With that mop of black hair and trademark carmine lips, Khatia Buniatishvili cuts a charismatic figure. You can’t teach stage presence. She has it in spades. Also very pleasing is her ability to produce a range of soft pianissimos that beguile the ear. But there are aspects of her playing that are worryingly awry.

It was brave of her to start with Gaspard de la Nuit (a programme alteration), one of the repertoire’s most demanding works, but the way she conjured up the opening passage was magical, Ondine’s voice heard as a distant apparition above the watery accompaniment. The incessant tolling in Le gibet was skilfully voiced but hardly chilling, especially at such a slow tempo. On the other hand Scarbo was demonically fast, an aspect of Miss Buniatishvili’s playing which is, frankly, her undoing. This is the second time in as many months that I have been at a recital in this hall and heard a pianist with the same phenomenal, staggering dexterity – and been unable to hear much of the music. Is it the acoustic? Did anyone sit out front during the rehearsal and advise on clarity and projection? Of course, the acoustic changes with a full house (which it was last night) but then the artist must adapt. To not hear the notes the composer wrote is one thing, however, but to miss the emotional high point of a work is another: the two big climaxes in Scarbo, which should send a shiver down the spine, went for nothing as Buniatishvili hurtled onwards.

A stage-hand came on to adjust the stool after this but left the stage before the pianist had agreed on the new height. Thus abandoned, she was left to adjust it herself before settling down to three of the slowest and hushed performances of three Brahms Intermezzi I can remember (these had been programmed to open the recital). The sounds Buniatishvili produced were ravishing, the rapt intimacy held the audience spellbound but for this listener it was a manufactured view more concerned with sound production than emotional content. A bouquet was offered by a member of the audience.

The second half of virtuoso works passed by in a blur of incoherency. Buniatishvili left no room for the opening figure of Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo to breathe, and while the question-and-answer section of the middle part was heart-rendingly done, the passagework after this and in the repeat building to the return of the first subject was despatched so fast that it was impossible to discern what exactly Chopin had written. It made your reviewer tut involuntarily and audibly. How the audience cheered (the pianist, I mean, not the reviewer). La Valse, again delivered with scarcely credible speed and venom, the big glissandos towards the end tossed off with effortless aplomb, had little narrative sense. The couples had danced their way to destruction long before the final pages. Petrushka was, frankly, a bang fest. Wild applause.

Buniatishvili’s best playing came with the first of her two encores, Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of Handel’s Minuet in G minor HWV 434. Her poise and quiet hands made for a moving few minutes and showed that underneath her untamed temperament lies a real musician with a great gift. She then launched into a crude version of the Precipitato finale of Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, a silly choice as it replicated the motoric writing of Petrushka. It ended a deeply frustrating and disappointing evening – and I write this as a fervent admirer of Miss Buniatishvili. Someone needs to sit her down and channel her manic delivery into something more musical.

Nothing to do with the pianist, but two extra gripes. Announcements were made before the concert started and during the intermission to be sure we were in our seats promptly because the concert was being broadcast live on Radio 3. Why should we march to the BBC’s orders when we have paid to come and hear a recital that just happens to be something the BBC has taken an interest in? If people are late to their seats or someone coughs or shouts out something – then that is the nature of a live concert. Deal with it. Which brings me to the second gripe. Do not sit on seat AA27 in the QEH. It is a whooppee cushion. It would have been very easy (and possibly amusing) to have got up and sat down again in the middle of Le gibet…but I resisted the temptation.

This is a longer version of the review written for International Piano magazine online. http://www.rhinegold.co.uk/magazines/international_piano/news/int_piano_news_story.asp?id=2035


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