For the Wigmore neophyte, I doubt I could have selected a better concert to introduce my companion for the evening to the delights of London’s “sacred shoebox”: Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili dazzled in a highly accomplished performance of music by Mussorgsky and Liszt.

© Julia Wesely
© Julia Wesely
The second half, all short virtuosic works by Liszt, felt like a piano recital from another era: music written to impress with glittering displays of technical brilliance and bravura gesture. Yet, there was nothing ostentatious nor self-indulgent about Buniatishvili’s playing. There was serious musicianship and poetry aplenty from a tenderly-rendered Liebesträume which floated across the hall in a masterful display of control and tonal beauty, to a rollicking Grand galop chromatique and a Hungarian Rhapsody which combined a gypsy lilt with nationalist grandeur and proved a great showcase for Buniatishvili's displays of fleet fingerwork. The particular highlights for me were Feux Follets, which fluttered across the keyboard with grace and delicacy, and La Campanella, which was saved from seeming hackneyed (as it can too often in the wrong hands) by Buniatishvili’s command of the tonal and sonic possibilities of the piano, especially in the upper registers. Occasionally, rapid passagework threatened to run away with itself and there was the odd muddied run or two, but overall this was a glittering display, which left my concert companion declaring he was “now a Liszt fan”. And amidst the piano pyrotechnics were poetic pianissimos and featherweight phrases.

The concert opened with Mussorgsky’s evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of pieces inspired by pictures by the composer’s friend Viktor Hartman. The music is as varied as the pictures, and the best performances are from pianists sensitive to the many colours and characters expressed in the individual movements.  Buniatishvili’s opening Promenade was understated, hymn-like and instrospective, as if the viewer of the exhibition was hesitating in the doorway of the gallery, unsure whether to proceed. I was a little worried about the rubato in this movement, for it teetered on the borders of good taste, yet is worked, because Gnomus was dispatched with a dramatic snap, the nutcracker gnome of Hartman’s picture growling and tumbling menacingly around the lower registers of keyboard.

Il vecchio castelo was played as a melancholy lament, its slow, almost hypnotic, tempo and darkly strummed bass the perfect contrast to the scurrying, shrieking children of Tuileries, which gave the audience the first real taste of Buniatishvili's luminous and playful passagework. Bydlo followed, dark and brooding, the laden ox and its cart richly delineated in ponderous chords, while the Ballet of the chicks in their shells was as light as eggshells. Catacombs was played with a stark authority, while Baba Yaga shrieked and squawked, but was never strident, even in its loudest sections. The final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev, is a challenge for any pianist, not least in judging the climaxes to achieve the greatest dramatic effect, while avoiding hammering the octaves which represent pealing bells. Buniatishvili’s performance was perfectly weighted, the music building and enlarging to a glorious climax of bells, chorales and the opening Promenade theme.

Two encores closed the concert. The first, a Handel Minuet arranged by Wilhelm Kempff, was serene and lucid after the fireworks of the Liszt. The second, a wistful Chopin Prelude played without guile or artifice, brought to an end a concert of consummate pianistic skill, vertiginous virtuosity and a deliciously varied palette of colours and sonorities.