Khatia Buniatishvili, piano; Works by Haydn, Liszt, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky - Chan Centre, January 23, 2012

Khatia Buniatishvill, pianist

Khatia Buniatishvill, pianist

After an apparently long ordeal in clearing Canadian customs, Khatia Buniatishvili finally made it on stage at the Chan Centre, her poise seemingly unaffected.  The fearless 24 year old Georgian pianist immediately threw herself into the opening Haydn and Liszt sonatas and did not look back.  Winner at the 2008 Artur Rubinstein Piano Competition, and guided by the esteemed Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, it is not surprising that we have something very special here.  Khatia has the strength and virtuosity of a wild stallion but combines this with a poetic and searching side to create a very individual -- but always intense -- type of expression.   She has obviously inherited some of Argerich’s interpretative freedom and ‘animal passion’.

The Liszt Sonata in B minor is one of the peaks of 19th C. piano writing.  Khatia’s interpretation (now recorded on Sony 787385) was about as wide ranging as one can imagine, treating the quiet, brooding passages very slowly and the more dramatic ones with great speed and demonic intensity.  Her finger-work often evolves with rapid fire, but it was always very clean and her rhythmic intensity was pushed with clear purpose.  At moments, it actually conjured up the virtuoso style that the composer himself might have used.  Quite exciting!  It was also interesting to watch her play the fugue towards the end of the work; her quest for precision brought her nose to about an inch from the keyboard -- in fact, recalling the style of the late Clifford Curzon.

For all the fireworks, this was a carefully thought-out performance that highlighted the work’s variety and passion, and seldom lost its line.   It probably did stretch Liszt’s ‘cyclical’ form (music always returning to a pivotal underlying motif) to the limit, but there was compensation in the extended sense of improvisation and expressive range implied.  Perhaps the only qualification is that, in some quieter, contemplative passages, Khatia did not find all the tender melancholy implied.  Here her youth showed; she delivered the notes beautifully but somehow could not get the feeling dead accurate.  

The Prokofiev Seventh Sonata can be demanding work too, and I liked the pianist’s sense of structure and balance throughout.  Compared to the all-out attack favoured by many young performers, it was nice to hear a Prokofiev performance in which the quieter, lyrical elements were given their rightful place alongside the more powerful, jagged passages.  A pretty commanding reading of the outer movements overall, and a good choice of tempo for the difficult slow movement too.

The opening Haydn Sonata No. 33 was also interesting and certainly creative, giving a more intimate and more exploratory feel to many passages, and paying great attention to both phrasing and dynamics.  Illuminating indeed, but sometimes smoothing over some of the work’s bold contrasts.  Thus, the striking soft key modulations towards the end of the first movement lost their dramatic effect because the pianist was already playing too softly.  But the slow movement moved convincingly and the drive of the finale was captured well.

It was probably too much to program Stravinsky’s ultra-demanding Three Movements from Petrouchka as the closing work.  An admirable effort as far as it went, but the pianist was pretty tired by this time.  Nonetheless, a quiet and nicely-felt Chopin Prelude as an encore set the seal on a very fine recital, one which made us really think about each work.  For a pianist so young, Khatia has a remarkable range of resources to work with, both technically and creatively.  And she is already such a ‘magnetic’ performer! 

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© Geoffrey Newman 2012