As the Liszt bicentenary year draws to a close, Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili offered her own contribution to the celebrations in a sold-out recital at the Wigmore Hall, featuring music by Liszt, Chopin and Prokofiev.

Khatia Buniatishvili, © Julia Wesley
Khatia Buniatishvili,
© Julia Wesley

Opening with Liszt’s transcription of J S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue for organ in A minor, BWV 543, a work of stern and imposing grandeur, she quickly stamped her authority on the evening with displays of virtuosic and sensitive pianism.

Liszt venerated Bach, and this is evident in his treatment of the Prelude and Fugue: he takes no liberties with this music (compare this with his rather cavalier attitude to the music of some of his contemporaries). Buniatishvili capitalised on the bravura chromatic figuration which is shared between the hands, and harnessed both the power and the delicacy of the Wigmore Steinway to produce a rich palette of sounds, from whisper to mighty declamation.

As befits its title, the Liebestraum ('Dream of Love') was serene and warm, a soothing salve after the preceding piece, but never saccharine; while in Liszt’s transcriptions of three of Schubert’s lieder, strong melodic lines were highlighted over the essential interior architecture of these pieces. Ständchen was plaintive and poignant, at times almost painfully so, its tempo beautifully nuanced; while the hypnotic ‘spinning’ semiquaver figure and breathless climax in Gretchen am Spinnrade perfectly captured Gretchen’s erotic ardour and distraction. Erlkönig was eerily characterful, unsettling and dramatic.

It was fitting, then, that these 'narratives' should be followed by Chopin’s Ballade no. 4. Chopin 'invented' the Ballade form, though he was perhaps influenced by the literary model. This Ballade is the most fully developed and liberated of the set, and shows Chopin’s complete mastery of the form, in both structure and melody. Khatia Buniatishvili gave an involving and sensitive performance with nocturne-like episodes interspersed with climactic passages, and moments of ‘zal’ (that untranslatable Polish word suggesting longing, nostalgia, melancholy, even anger), the structure of this music always underpinning its romanticism.

This same involvement and understanding was carried forward to Chopin’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, and if the tempo of the first movement was perhaps a little too rapid, the remaining movements combined songful lyricism with restless agitation. The third-movement Marche funèbre, too often still associated with the death of Soviet leaders, felt fully integrated into the whole work. The famous theme was played with the same grandeur and authority as the Bach Prelude and Fugue, while the contrasting middle section, in D flat major, was consoling and serene.

A concert pianist friend of mine once described playing the final movement of this sonata as 'horrible.....like being laid bare on stage', and there is no consolation in this visceral stream of consciousness. A highly restrained dynamic range only served to emphasise the dry textures and fleeting harmonies of the strange closing movement.

More fugitive visions, startling dissonance, and striking textural contrasts in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 7 (the 'Stalingrad'), famously premiered by Sviatoslav Richter when Russia was enveloped in the horrors of the Second World War. The music was jazzy, spiky, agitated, aggressive, menacing, percussive, shot through with sections of Schumannesque lyricsm (second movement) and some brilliant figuration. Buniatishvili really put the piano through its paces, displaying great technical skill and insightful pianism in this 'wartime' sonata.

Chopin’s Prelude no. 4 in E minor (nicknamed 'suffocation') was the understated, yet entirely appropriate, encore to this impressive and absorbing concert, the enthusiastic applause a mark of Khatia Buniatishvili’s popularity with the Wigmore audience.

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