Monday, May 29, 2023 @ Wigmore Hall, London

Tuesday, May 30, 2023 @ St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The Georgian pianist Mariam Batsashvili, about to turn thirty, studied with Grigory Gruzman at the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt in Weimar. She won the 2014 Liszt Competition in Utrecht, and between 2017 and 2019 was a BBC New Generation Artist. Resisting flamboyance or gimmick, she cuts a boyish, diminutive figure, dark tapered suit, high-throated white blouse and low-heeled shoes being her trademark. At the keyboard – still, penetrating, pale-faced, head in chiselled profile, short swept-back hair – she reminds of those portraits of the young Liszt (Lehmann 1839, Lauchert 1856 particularly). Liszt, the temperament of the East, is in her blood. In the tradition of the Caucasus, land of Colchis, Medea and the Golden Fleece, she’s an ashugh, a bard, a singer-poet. She tells stories, she conjures old feelings and shamanistic wraiths, unspoken souls within. Her facial language is a photographer’s gift. She smiles rarely but her eyes say everything. Furrowed brow, gasping despair, the smallest gesture, the twitch of a muscle, a frown, communicate volumes. Georgian poetry encapsulates her. “Yesterday I dreamt a fairy whispered to me that a mist lay upon a mountain lightly and the peaks caressed and kissed … With sun-scissors I cut deftly a fantastic little glove. From the night I got some moon-thread, myriad-coloured, fairy spun, from the spring a silver needle, gilded by the rising sun. Then I sewed the gloves and sprinkled them with fragrance of the rose from the lashes of a fountain that like sun-split diamond glows” (Grishashvili). “On the day of my birth a pine tree was planted before this window in the garden below; to the ocean of life was another drop added, to the forest, another pine tree” (Euli). “A full moon sheds a pale cold light upon a valley white with snow. A hungry wolf with wistful eyes looks at the village stretched below” (Gabeskiria).

The Wigmore Hall’s live-streamed BBC Lunchtime Concert, with an imposingly voiced new Yamaha CFX grand, opened with a reading of Chopin’s First Ballade of an order, inflexion and brilliance that more typically might end a recital. Compelling. Schubert’s challenging F-minor Impromptu – one of those luxuriations that all too easily can slip from art into mechanicals – was beautifully water-coloured. A structured essay in tone, aching maggiore contrasts and flow without end, a mountain brook heading into autumn. Regal artistry. Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata was little short of phenomenal, each sonority, dynamic, rhetoric, opposition and pause placed with burning intensity, here savage/infernal, there tender/lingering. Batsashvili’s life depended on it. Long elegant fingers, seering technique, a spirit-catcher in every phrase and camera shot. The ‘Lords of the Earth’ Fourteenth Hungarian Rhapsody thundered its storms and campfires, pride and melancholy, brooding step and dancing reverie, nightingale cadenzas spiralling into a glittering, pianistically fantastical climax, the race home intoxicating. Arthur Symons, Belgrade 1902, ghosted my mind. “She was slender, with a thin, perfectly shaped face, the nose rather arched, the eyes large, black, lustrous … She leaned there, haughty, magnetic, indifferent; a swift animal, like a strung bow, bringing all the East with her, and a shy wildness which is the gypsy’s only.” Liszt’s opium. If there was a passing reservation it was Batsashvili’s resort to the score. Subsequently I needed to just listen to the audio, page-turning distractions removed, for the magnificence of her performance, the breadth of her imagination and engagement, to come across fully. For encore, a deliciously feathered Fourth Paganini Étude, Liszt’s devilish intricacies of fingerwork wondrously conveyed.

Held in St John the Evangelist, a non-parochial church of late-Victorian vintage, SJE Arts International Piano Series in Oxford, with a house Steinway D and a seating capacity of between 250 and 400, has cultivated a strong reputation over the past decade, drawing notably high-calibre artists. Attracting an appreciative audience, Batsashvili offered broadly the same programme, but with the addition of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ instead of Chopin for openers plus Liszt’s Tenth Rhapsody. Maybe she was tired (this was her third recital in four days), possibly the very different sonics of the Steinway (lesser power, brighter treble) and the reverberation period of the venue needed adjusting to? Whatever the reason, the Wigmore’s drama and voltage, that edge-of-your-seat tension, wasn’t so tangibly apparent. Plenty to take away even so. The Schubert and ‘Dante’ Sonata left their mark, the Schubert perhaps even more so: Batsashvili has a way with quite endings, stopping time, that can be hypnotic. The ‘Appassionata’ was essentially about prophecy, Batsashvili homing in radically on Beethoven’s non-conformist dimensions – anticipating what she was to do later in the ‘Dante’. Here, she seemed to want to affirm, was a work which simply had nothing to do with the fashions or vocabulary of its Viennese hour (the early 1800s). Aphoristic episodes made up the first movement, staying one minute, gone the next, now measured, occasionally impetuous. Egg-shell luminescent, the Andante dealt in bass lines and inner textures, here and there eerily estranged in suffusions of cosmic dust. The Finale amounted to a “wind across the graves” scenario, “merciless rocks” (Graham Topping) its destiny. Reared on the words of Tovey and the likes of Arrau, Richter and Lazar Berman, I’m not sure how much I warmed to the approach. Certainly though it bore consideration. Reviewing Vajiko Chachkhiani’s Georgian-polarised Heavy Metal Honey Bonn exhibition in 2018, “what is it trying to say”, the art critic Noemi Smolik observed that “like ancient myths, there is [always] a plurality of possible interpretations”. Correspondingly, I’d like to think, Batsashvili’s Beethoven. Same tossed off Paganini-Liszt encore. Charming. (Had there been a second one, the wit and bravura of Rossini’s Petit caprice (style Offenbach) from her October 2020 Wigmore – blistering dare-devil octave glissandos – wouldn’t have gone amiss: well worth sampling if you fancy the opposite of Ciccolini,