Saturday, May 14, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

This was Khatia Buniatishvili’s rescheduled Barbican recital after she cancelled last October. She also radically changed her programme, offering a Saturday-night-is-music-night medley of familiar pieces. Her recital was due to last about an hour and a quarter, which it did, without an interval. The Barbican Hall was full for this parade of popular works, and I wondered what she would offer as an encore.

Presently in her mid-thirties, Buniatishvili is now a grande dame du piano, wearing glossily well and a shimmering, red, figure-hugging gown. The lady in red radiates charisma and is possessed of and by a formidable technique, and can ripple through the most virtuoso music effortlessly. Her playing is so saturated in personality that matters such as style and history don’t really register. This is music-making for now, with her brand of emotional engagement often at the point of meltdown. Her name has occasionally been mentioned in the same breath as Argerich, but the latter is very much the servant who becomes the master. Buniatishvili can’t help mould what she plays in her own image. The listener certainly feels secure with the risks she takes, which are dazzling, but interpretation goes on the back burner while she keeps her steely control of dynamics, exaggerated speeds fast and slow, and some impetuous phrasing and accents on a rolling boil.

And quite soon her repertoire of effects sounds limited. The main culprit is her fondness for a pianissimo that easily slips beyond audibility, which might have been the point a heckler in the audience rather robustly was trying to make during her progress through Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Ständchen (as used in the TV series Succession). There were whole bars you just couldn’t hear. But the piano-whisperer had been at it from the start in Satie and Chopin and took it to extremes in Couperin and the opening of the Bach/Liszt transcription. If anything, some tumultuous speeds caused even more casualties, particularly in Chopin’s Polonaise and Horowitz’s version of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody where concerns such as detail and articulation were smudged in the cause of velocity.

On the other side of the speed coin was a glacially slow take on a Chopin Mazurka, for some one of the saddest pieces of music ever written, and here sad, yes, but for the wrong reason. The Polonaise and the Hungarian Rhapsody also gave a clue about her delirious attitude to accents, which were sometimes beyond impetuous.

In the end, I just couldn’t find a way into her judgment to allow her to take me with her, and so was content to be harangued, seduced and overwhelmed, while leaving her to enjoy her unique self-intoxication. At the end, she worked the audience with ‘Liberaceissimo’ panache, while the standing ovation whooped and hollered, and after a couple of encores – the very fast and loud Finale of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 and the very slow and quiet Marcello arrangement of Bach’s Adagio BWV974 – there I was, neither sadder nor wiser.

***

Programme, as per Barbican website:

Erik Satie Gymnopédie No 1

Frédéric Chopin Prélude No 4, Op 28

Frédéric Chopin Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp minor, Op 39

Johann Sebastian Bach Aria from Suite No 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Franz Schubert Impromptu No 3, Op 90

Franz Schubert/Franz Liszt Ständchen

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise in A-flat major, Op 53

Frédéric Chopin Mazurka No 4, Op 17

François Couperin No 5 ‘Les Barricades Mystérieuses’ from Pièces de Clavecin (Book 2)

Johann Sebastian Bach/Franz Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor

Franz Liszt Consolation No 3, S 172

Franz Liszt/Vladimir Horowitz Hungarian Rhapsody No 2

Khatia Buniatishvili records Labyrinth for Sony Classical.