Khatia Buniatishvili was born to play Liszt. This is not news. Her Liszt is like a wild stallion, galloping furiously, nostrils flared, tossing its black mane impatiently. The easy virtuosity she brings to this most flamboyant of pianist-composers was fully on display towards the end of her International Piano Series recital in the freshly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall. What was surprising was the humour she brought to Mikhail Pletnev’s impish arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and, in the first half, the weighty introspection and dignity of her Brahms.

Khatia Buniatishvili
© Julia Wesely

The applause had yet to die down before Buniatishvili dived into the magisterial opening chords of the Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor. Brahms composed it when he was only twenty. In the same month as its première, Robert Schumann had hailed the composer in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as a “young eagle”, referring to his sonatas as “veiled symphonies”. With its five-movement structure, it was certainly a massively ambitious work, often heroic in tone, the writing symphonic in scale and colour. Brahms later turned to variation form and then the exquisite miniatures of his final years, but he had nothing to add to sonata form after this Third, never writing another.

Buniatishvili’s approach was bold and resolute, maintaining tension even the quiet sections in the Allegro maestoso opening movement where one sensed a coiled spring waiting to be dramatically released. Right hand chimes tolled through a long crescendo with leonine power. In the nocturnal Andante espressivo, Buniatishvili voiced the theme like a tender lullaby. Sitting very upright, poised, her playing felt unforced, unhurried. Time stood still, the strummed broken chords at the end floating off into the hall.

After two lengthy movements, Brahms completes this lop-sided sonata with three short ones, but Buniatishvili kept listeners rapt, the mercurial Scherzo – as skittish as Brahms gets? – delivered with a light touch, always on the verge of breaking into dance. In the Intermezzo, subtitled Rückblick (Reminiscence), she really leant into the fate motif rhythm in this most symphonic of movements, sombre memories recalling a bitter funeral march. The halting, rondo-like finale ended in ebullient style, Buniatishvili flinging her left arm skywards.

Her Tchaikovsky was stylish, drawing out the humour in Pletnev’s arrangement of numbers from the ballet, some of whose numbers appear in the familiar suite. The Sugar Plum Fairy pirouetted crisply in the brittle upper register of the QEH Steinway, the bass rumbled in imitation of bassoons in the Chinese Dance. The pert March suffered a splashy lack of synchronisation in the middle section, but the Tarantella (the Prince’s solo from the Pas de deux) was vamped up gloriously. Best of all were the Intermezzo, rippling left hand conjuring images of the Land of Snow from near the end of Act 1, and the pas de deux itself, a cascade of notes delivered with symphonic grandeur.

Not one to milk applause, Buniatishvili plunged into the two Liszt items on her programme. The Rhapsodie espagnole teased with its playful jota, familiar from its use in Glinka’s first Spanish Overture, its finale delivered at dazzling speed. Liszt was always happy to gild the operatic lily and his Réminiscences de Don Juan, drawing on three themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, found the Georgian pianist in devilish form. The Commendatore thundered, the seductive duet “Là ci darem la mano” was treated to giddy variations and the Champagne aria fizzed. In the fastest passages, she somehow keeps her hands very soft, her wrists supple, with no iron tension. Best of all was the encore where Buniatishvili turned human cimbalom, hammering rapidly repeated notes of the friska from Vladimir Horowitz’s wild arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C sharp minor. Outrageous fun.