How do you avoid Tchaikovsky’s over-familiar First Piano Concerto, once its announcement has filled the hall, being given a routine performance? Answer, engage Khatia Buniatishvili to play it. Her performances often make central repertoire sound new, both the music and its interpretation. “Interpretation” might be too fixed a term for what we heard here though. In the introduction, for which Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra established a traditional steady tempo, the first cadenza immediately went its own way, slower than the norm in lyrical parts and much faster in the Lisztian double octaves. That set the scene for much that followed.

Khatia Buniatishvili © Julia Wesely
Khatia Buniatishvili
© Julia Wesely

Noseda set a swifter than usual tempo for the Allegro con spirito main section of the first movement, but not one so fast that his soloist could not press urgently forward as excitement mounted. She also likes to draw out a lyrical phrase to distil its sweetest essence, much in evidence in the outer sections of the Andantino semplice – only Principal Flute Gareth Davies’ sublime opening solo really acknowledged that “semplice” though. There is a whiff of sulphur about this pianist and this was Mephistophelean playing that first dashed ahead, and then flirted with danger in saying to the passing moment, “linger awhile though art so fair”. And would Tchaikovsky have dared mark the middle section prestissimo if he had heard Buniatishvili’s astonishing quicksilver way with it? Yes, he probably would. The finale swept all before it, not without the odd minor mishap, some rapid alternations between soloist and winds were imperfectly synchronised – “Do keep up, Gianandrea!” laughed Khatia. (OK I made that bit up). But there is a sportive element to a big Romantic piano concerto, and we had many more thrills than spills. It would be an impoverished classical music scene that excluded a performance like this, even if we are left thinking “fabulous, stunning playing, but is not the work better than that?” 

The last time I heard Buniatishvili give an encore she played a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody so fast it seemed over in half its usual time. Here Debussy’s Clair de lune was so slow it felt twice as long. Are there silent beats and bars other artists ignore?

The “Leningrad” Symphony set off with a determined tread, the strings digging deep and the woodwinds adding their harmonic asperities with relish. When the quiet rocking melody arrived, the violins sweetly evoked some rural idyll. That of course is ended by the quiet indication by a side-drum that the most famous, or notorious, passage in all Shostakovich is upon us. The vast crescendo of repetitions of the “invasion theme” was immaculately controlled by Noseda, the tempo properly metronomic (not something he could have done with Miss Buniatishvili around). The key change at the climax was shattering, the ensuing restoration of calm rather uneasy.

The second movement featured fine LSO wind playing, especially from Olivier Stankiewicz’ oboe, and the third opened with wind and brass playing of liturgical splendour. At the climax of the swifter central section the trumpets pealed with great brilliance. When the strings quietly returned with the the opening wind chant, it was a benediction. More fine playing marked the finale, so it was a pity in the coda that the return of the work's opening theme lacked the weight and presence it needs. But a fine Seventh Symphony, continuing Noseda’s impressive Shostakovich cycle.

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