A silver sequined gown and sparkling virtuosity dazzled a good proportion of the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a recital by Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. However, can virtuosity for its own sake be too much of a good thing? A programme with a fair proportion of narrative colour and a brace of orchestral transcriptions opened a trap-door into which she willingly stepped.

Khatia Buniatishvili © Esther Haase | Sony Classical International
Khatia Buniatishvili
© Esther Haase | Sony Classical International

A last minute programme change promoted Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand to open the evening. Buniatishvili’s dress was suited to the mermaid-like “Ondine” opening movement, as the water sprite tries to tempt the poet to join her at the bottom of the lake. It was difficult to be seduced by a reading of crystalline coolness, despite the shimmering right hand patterns suggesting the watery depths. She was more at home in “Le gibet”, where we are alone in the desert, where the lone corpse of a hanged man on a gibbet is spied on the horizon. Buniatishvili controlled the constantly tolling B flat octave bell beautifully, evoking the desert landscape beneath the setting sun. “Scarbo”, a demonic goblin, was intended by Ravel to be even more taxing than Balakirev’s Islamey. Like that showpiece, flashing tempi do not always pay off and Buniatishvili’s performance was frequently garbled, more splashy broad-brush than detailed portraiture as the dwarf flits and pirouettes through the night before suddenly being extinguished. If Buniatishvili seemed ill at ease, perhaps it was due to a preoccupation with the piano stool, which required much adjustment before the next item in the programme.

Three of Brahms’ intermezzi had been the intended recital opener and I couldn’t help wondering if, had the original running order been retained, Gaspard would have been a little more secure. Immediately she began the E flat major Intermezzo, a smile crept across Buniatishvili’s face and she relaxed into a reverie as she allowed what the composer described as “lullabies to my sorrows” to unfold naturally. Each one was tenderly voiced, without allowing them to spill over into a saccharine wallow. The yearning quality to Op.117 no. 2 in B flat minor was teased out, while the second of Brahms’ Op.118 set was full of wistful nostalgia.

After the interval, we were presented with three showpieces, two of them transcriptions by their composers of orchestral works. The level of excitement Buniatishvili whipped up in these was palpable, but often at the expense of coherent storytelling. Chopin’s Scherzo no. 2 in B flat minor growled and snarled and only infrequently charmed but her treatment of Ravel’s La valse was reckless. Any performance, orchestral or in either of Ravel's transcriptions for piano, is founded upon the careful foundations laid in the bass line at the beginning. Here, the rhythmic pulse is firmly established, plus a sense of menace, on which the waltz’s layers build up, teetering on the brink before the final, devastating implosion. Buniatishvili set off at such a pace that there was little sense of waltz meter at all, dashing it off in well under ten minutes. She had poor Ravel stampeding and careering his way across the dance floor, and the catastrophic conclusion was signalled all too early.

The Three Movements from “Petrushka” highlighted the percussive nature of the instrumental writing. Buniatishvili was rhythmically stronger here, especially in the opening “Russian Dance”, but the narration in “Petrushka’s Room” and “The Shrovetide Fair” was lost in a breathless flurry. Calm was restored in a lovely encore, a transcription of Handel’s Minuet from the Suite in G H439, only to be crushed in the toccata-like third movement from Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. At her best, as in the Brahms’ miniatures, she displayed a very special talent. Having been previously impressed with Buniatishvili’s Liszt, I couldn’t help but depart this recital with a sense of disappointment. Virtuosity needn’t always equal speed and volume.

***11