Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili gave a piano recital in HKU on 20th March, 2016 and presented a programme consisting of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Liszt's La leggierezza, Feux follets, La campanella, Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (arranged by Vladimir Horowitz), and Stravinsky's Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka. Khatia Buniatishvili is renowned for her virtuosic techniques and also highly controversial interpretation. Before commenting on Ms. Buniatishvili’s playing, credits should be given to HKU for providing such a beautiful hall with incredible acoustics and intimate sound.
Instead of playing the Promenade with strong articulation, Buniatishvili started Pictures at an Exhibition rather softly and slower than normal. It was innovative and yet faithful to the composer’s intention. Buniatishvili’s interpretation of this movement fully depicted the “walking” pace of an art lover rambling around the exhibition. However, there was occasional over-pedalling, obscuring the clarity of melodic line and mixing of harmonies. It was indeed shocking to see how Buniatishvili rushed through the opening of Gnomus, ignoring the note length indicated on the score and distorting the rhythm. The rhythmic vitality was lost. The negative space of the music was totally neglected and Buniatishvili played the opening as merely an étude. The dynamic contrast was also insufficient in the opening. The central section was, nevertheless, played with more effective dynamic shading.
The second Promenade was played with sincerity and treated with good tonal control. As Buniatishvili went on to The Old Castle, it seemed that Buniatishvili did not pay much attention to the singing melodic line in the left hand in the beginning. As Buniatishvili entered into the middle section, her playing was so ponderous that the propulsive power, cohesion between musical elements, musical shapes were all lost. Despite the overly slow tempo, Buniatishvili should be complimented for the attractive moments and lyrical phrasing in the middle episode.
Here came the third Promenade, which was played majestically. It was a pity that Buniatishvili, again, over-pedalled through the piece. It was possible that Buniatishvili wished to thicken the texture, however, the over-pedalling made the bass line very smudged. Although Buniatishvili succeeded to portray the lively character in Tuileries, the rhythm was unnecessarily distorted again, affecting the musical outcome. Buniatishvili did a better job in Bydlo (Polish Ox Cart) and brought out the “pesante” character of the piece, despite the fact that Buniatishvili could have more careful dynamic shading, for instance the diminuendo from bar 32 to 34.
The tone in fourth Promenade was crystal clear with a defined sound. The phrasing in this section was also satisfactory. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was executed with a lightning speed, but the chords could have been clearer. One may find this movement being trivialised under Buniatishvili’s hands. The trills in the Trio section were a bit uneven and the notes could be more articulate. The next movement came to Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. Buniatishvili played the repeated notes with ornaments with a pearl, polished sound. Her playing here was elucidating with filigree, but in the Andante grave section, the build up towards the climax could have been better planned.
The fifth Promenade is often omitted due to its repetition of the theme of the first Promenade. Fortunately, Buniatishvili did not skip this movement. This Promenade serves as a reprise in the whole suite and has importance in the musical structure of the whole piece. Again, Buniatishvili started Limoges at a breakneck speed, which, of course, showcased her virtuosic skills. Nevertheless, as the tempo was too fast, it was impossible for Buniatishvili to handle the articulation with great care. This section requires high technical demand, but the clarity of notes and staccato touch was compromised in Buniatishvili’s playing. From this spirited section to the gloomy Catacombs, there was a sharp contrast between the two sections as there was no break in between. Buniatishvili was successful in creating a bleak, sombre atmosphere, as the music forced the audience to face death. As Con mortuis in lingua mortua began, one may notice that Buniatishvili had misread the notes in left hand, playing additional sharps. This was rather disappointing as a few notes could make a big difference to the atmosphere and image created in the section. In spite of the slightly uneven tremolo in right hand, in general, Buniatishvili’s playing had displayed a sense of transcendental sorrow. Baba-yaga was undoubtedly played with much fierceness. However, it would be preferred that the chromatic progressions were done more consciously. Buniatishvili’s octaves and precision were indeed thrilling and impressive. Yet, it should not be played simply as a piece for showing off one’s techniques. Buniatishvili’s impassioned playing sometimes lacked musical shaping.
As The Great Gate of Kiev finally came, Buniatishvili’s interpretation was quite grandiose, but her use of pedal was rather careless. She tended to press down at least half-pedal for a few consecutive, rapid octaves in left hand, which apparently would lead to the unintended and unwanted dissonance of the bass line. Her playing of the finale was technically impeccable, but there was insufficient creative engagement from Buniatishvili. The bell sound in the left hand could be more prominent. Moreover, the “senza espressione” part is considered to be a hymn-like passage, which could be imitated more obviously. Mussorgsky wished to translate his dear friend, Hartmann’s paintings in an exhibition into a musical “exhibition” of images. When one listens to Pogorelich and Pletnev’s rendition, one can easily tell that the final goal of the performance of this piece is to evoke the relevant images in audience’s mind, but Buniatishvili lacked maturity of interpretive insight to realise the composer’s intentions and often lost control when playing the faster parts.
After the intermission, Buniatishvili started the second half of the concert with Liszt’s études. She had given a more convincing account here. Liszt’s études are noted for their extreme technical demand, lyricalness and poetry. These études surely had displayed Buniatishvili’s refined technique and mastery of the keyboard. After a fantasy-like opening of La leggierezza, the singing melodic line in right hand appears, which the audience would have expected to hear the music “sing”. The dynamic gradations in this étude were quite well handled. Moreover, the tonal range and voicing was captivating and much better than that in Pictures at an Exhibition. Despite an obvious mistake in the right hand in the central section, generally the rapid sixteenth notes were treated very fluently with beautiful legato. The climax seemed to be a bit congested and the dynamic range towards the climax could be further widened.
Feux follets is often regarded as the most notoriously difficult one in Transcendental Études. Buniatishvili had tackled most of the technical issues, for instance rapid double notes and complex hand crossing, with ease, except the big leaps in left hand, in which Buniatishvili had played quite a number of wrong notes. Although it was absolutely understandable that mistakes were inevitable in a live performance, the wrong notes somehow affected the musical outcome since the left hand brought out the embedded melodic line. Buniatishvili gave a very persuasive account of this piece, though. She had effectively portrayed the mysterious, diabolical character of the music, which was also a major difficulty apart from the technical difficulties.
As for La campanella, it is the often performed étude composed by Liszt. The stretches in right hand had very high accuracy, but the bell sonorities imitated by the notes in the high registers should be more prominent. Furthermore, personally I would prefer a more solid tone, like a marble, in this étude as the bell sounds were constantly represented by the high notes. Also, the climax in La campanella was kind of abrupt, without much planning and build up. Nonetheless, Buniatishvili’s interpretation of Liszt’s études was still commendable. Unlike the robotic renditions by some pianists, Buniatishvili’s playing had vigour, passion and feelings even though her interpretation was not flawless.
Buniatishvili proceeded to Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (arranged by Vladimir Horowitz) quickly after a short bow. The arrangement by Horowitz was showier and more virtuosic. The texture at many places was thickened, which was typical of Horowitz. The first section Lassan was played rather plainly and Buniatishvili did not attempt to emphasize on the Hungarian folk music element, which is an intrinsic quality of this piece. The subtle changes in mood and character were unfortunately also neglected. Her touch somehow lacked depth and refinement. In the second section Friska, the multiple voices were not well differentiated and Buniatishvili could have accentuated the inner voices so as to make the thematic materials more articulate. When it reached the section with thickened texture or rapid octaves, Buniatishvili’s playing again showed her indiscreet use of pedal. Very often only a cloud of noise was heard. It seemed to me that the goal that Buniatishvili wanted to reach in this piece was only to show off her virtuosic technique and agility of fingers. Undeniably, Buniatishvili had very strong technical facility, but her interpretation of Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 simply did not have musicality.
The programme ended with a very gross interpretation of Stravinsky Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka. She started the first movement, Danse russe, at an exceedingly fast speed. It was such a pity that the chords at the beginning were not played with a full-bodied tone. Buniatishvili often made sudden, unreasonable tempo modifications and she made numerous mistakes, which were distracting for the audience. The energetic vigour of the puppet was turned to a puppet dashing. There was little real understanding of the dramatic intend and, thus, the audience’s expectations were not met. The tremolo in the second movement, Chez Petrouchka, had an extremely unrefined, harsh tone production. There was also very restricted dynamic gradations in this movement, and the dynamics throughout the movement did not have much adjustment. Without a doubt, the story behind the music was not told. Buniatishvili continued to rush through the third movement, La semaine grasse. The notes were very unclean, and Buniatishvili had a plain tone throughout the piece. The disaster started at the “Agitato” section. It was a total mess, with plenty of wrong notes, neglect of articulation, score indications and rhythm, and very abrupt use of pedal. Though Stravinsky intended this piece to be very virtuosic, allowing pianists to display their techniques, and this piece is not just a “piano transcription”, the variety of tone colours is even more vital. However, Buniatishvili did not make any attempt to imitate orchestral tone colours or make any design on the tonal qualities, not to mention about the reflection of the composer’s emotional inner world.
Despite the terrible interpretation of Stravinsky Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka, Buniatishvili still received ebullient applause from the audience. She then played Debussy’s meditative Clair de lune, which was surprisingly by far better. This piece depicted a lonely moon-lit night. Buniatishvili’s touch was luscious, mellifluous and sensitive, so the delicacy of Debussy’s writing was not destroyed by the sometimes heavy left hand. It was absolutely a soothing experience to listen to the Clair de lune in such a dream-like atmosphere. Buniatishvili concluded the concert with Prokofiev Piano Sonata No.7 third movement, Precipitato, which regrettably showed Buniatishvili’s usual practice of rushing through the piece. It was a very electrifying and sensational interpretation in the beginning, and Buniatishvili still had control over the beginning of the movement. Her playing was out of control starting from the further amplification of the theme, where notes became nearly incomprehensible. When compared to Sokolov’s version, it was apparent that Buniatishvili’s lacked clarity and refined articulation.
One may say that it is important for musicians to have a unique musical style and personality, but is it even acceptable to interpret the pieces like what Buniatishvili did? Buniatishvili is intoxicated by being virtuosic and often forgets what is behind the music. One should have faith in his or her own interpretation, but he or she should also re-think whether he or she is doing justice to the music or not. In addition, technique is much more than playing the notes accurately and rapidly. Technique refers to the total mastery of the keyboard. Yet, at times Buniatishvili’s playing lost control, no matter use of pedal, or tone production. Virtuosity does not necessarily mean speed and volume. In order to become a mature artist with individuality, Buniatishvili has to reflect on her musical approach and attitude towards music making.