Mariam Batsashvili gives a strong impression of being a pianist who takes no prisoners. She strode out onto the stage at the beginning of this Edinburgh International Festival performance and, after the briefest of bows, sat down and began to play. No time for niceties: down to business! Well, you don’t get to win the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition by being a shrinking violet. Since becoming its first female winner in 2014, Batsashvili’s career has shown that the fist-filling chords of Liszt hold no terrors for her, and this concert programme showed how extraordinary her technique is, particularly in the Liszt transcriptions.

Mariam Batsashvili
© Jess Shurte

Her playing of Liszt’s take on Schubert’s Erlkönig was nothing short of electrifying. Throughout, the rhythm sounded volcanic in the left hand, the melody flying around it in various registers and permutations. Batsashvili played the whole thing with a taut sense of drama and escalating tension, with liberal yet discrete use of rubato to underline the sense of theatre. How she had enough fingers to play the climactic phrases is a mystery to me!

The simplicity and sensitivity of Ständchen was also very fine, though Aufenthalt sounded pretty hyperactive, even by Liszt’s standards, the many chords seeming to cloud Schubert rather than reveal him. However, the effect in Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod was almost the opposite. Here the perfumed clouds of notes that wafted from Batsashvili’s piano seemed to enrich the original rather than draw away from it. There were occasional moments of filigree delicacy in the instrument’s upper range, but mostly the texture was a heady cocktail of chords that sounded as though they should have been impossible to play. Occasionally Batsashvili even rose from the stool for extra power, and the climactic notes jangled the sensory nerves every bit as much as they do in the opera house. The Valse de bravoure is as close to playful as Liszt gets, and Batsashvili encompassed all of it from its thundering double octaves to its harum-scarum final dash. This definitely wasn’t a waltz you could ever imagine anyone dancing to!

Mariam Batsashvili at the EIF
© Jess Shurte

There was a much more interpersonal balance of poetry and power in Schumann’s Op.12 Fantasiestücke. It’s possible for a performer to overdo Schumann’s Florestan/Eusebius dichotomy in this cycle, but Batsashvili managed to turn the whole work into a dialogue between these two sides of the composer’s personality while maintaining a sense of unfolding drama as each movement progressed. Consequently, the Fantasiestücke turned into a study of contrasts, the gently rippling nature of Eusebius’ music (the reflective side of Schumann’s personality) contrasting the muscular torrent of notes for Florestan (the impetuous side). In Aufschwung, Batsashvili’s playing was muscular and curt, but also lyrical in its way, with seamless legato even in the most turbulent moments. She saw the second half of the cycle, where the two characters/personalities meet, as its heart, In der Nacht showing turbulence while Fabel was more reflective. The filigree speed of Traumes Wirren was dispatched with tremendous precision, while the powerful chords of Ende vom Lied reinforced the composer’s reference to wedding and funeral bells. 

After all this high seriousness, she finished with an encore of Rossini’s Petit Caprice (Style Offenbach), which chased its own tail in a dazzling shower of semiquavers, Batsashvili demonstrating that she could do the lighter side of repertoire as well. This was a great display of pianism, and also terrific entertainment.