Schubert, Liszt, Stravinsky

I do not normally get excited about solo piano recitals, but tonight I may have a new favorite pianist.  I have heard Khatia Buniatishvili before in concert – always with orchestra and just never in solo recitals – and acknowledged her stardom.  But at 32 years old she keeps getting better, and a solo evening at the Festival allowed her to show off without an orchestra.

The concert opened with the first four Impromptus by Franz Schubert.  Since she played solo, this meant she could do things which would not be heard with any other instruments present: mezza voce on the piano!  Really?  How is that even possible?  These impromptus were not songs, but pure piano works, but Schubert gave them lyrical qualities, and she took it one step further, making me search for the words that never had existed.

The following works (three more impromptus and the rest of the concert) had swells and indeed wilder playing, but Buniatishvili never lost that lyricism, and mezza voce lines returned when needed, mixed with just the right amount of other dynamics (from dancing melodies through to outright crazy).  One hand could be delicately singing while the other jumped wildly and at volume all over the keyboard (and her third, fourth, and fifth hands added other lines – what, she only has two hands?).

Three Schubert songs followed (with brief pauses but no break for applause between them as she did not lower her hands), in arrangements for piano solo (without words) by Ferenc Liszt: the “Serenade” from Swan Song, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” and Erlkönig.  Liszt did more than just add the vocal line to the piano accompaniment, but in Lisztian fashion made embellishments.  Buniatishvili not only handled those embellishments masterfully, but she did so by practically keeping the now wordless vocal line, with all the emotion that the missing words would have provided.

After the intermission, things got even crazier, with Liszt’s own works and some Igor Stravinsky.  First after the break came a study for piano of what would eventually become Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa.  In this version, it was recognizable as the future (better) orchestral work, but with only a piano at her disposal Buniatishvili unleashed herself like the wild horse carrying the chained Mazeppa across the steppe.  There followed Liszt’s piano arrangement of the Hungarian Rhapsody #6 (which Liszt had also orchestrated – but who needs an orchestra with Buniatishvili playing).

The final programmed work was an arrangement Stravinsky did for piano of his ballet Petrushka.  This was not a piano transcription, but rather a fantasy based on the music.  The ballet is colorfully scored, and I would not have expected it to come over well for piano – too much going on (both in contrasting lines and in colors).  Indeed, a few years ago in this hall a husband-and-wife piano team who had performed Mendelssohn’s concerto for two pianos did as an encore part of a Petrushka transcription (maybe even this one) for piano four hands and it indeed was missing a lot.  Yet somehow with only two hands, Buniatishvili managed to get everything in there.  Even watching her do it I am not sure how she did it.

The standing ovation (in a fully-packed Great Festival House – which seats well over 2,000 people) warranted two encores.  First came part of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in its piano arrangement.  Not only was this not missing the usual orchestra, but it almost seemed she did a parody of a Liszt embellishment of his own work, by adding all sorts of extra notes and riffs, and performing at what seemed like at least double speed.  A few notes were missing here and there (or her finger landed slightly wrong), but these are forgiven because I am flummoxed how she did this at all.

Buniatishvili took down the racing heartbeats in the room with a sedate second encore.  I did not recognize what it was, but it was clearly only there to calm people down rather than for any particular show.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess it may have been Debussy: it seemed to want to go somewhere but never quite get anywhere, and went through a phase that felt like we had been transported to a low class night club late at night with the prostitutes circling a bunch of bored drunk men.  Since with Buniatishvili’s lyrical playing we could almost hear the words not being sung, I’m pretty sure this had to be French.  Chopin had moments like this but usually more class, and Ravel would have been equally as terrible but a bit more modern, so I’ll go with Debussy as an educated guess.  Still, under the circumstances, Buniatishvili did have to sedate everyone (the concert began at 9 p.m. and ended around 11 p.m., so non-nocturnal Festival-goers would need to go back to their hotels to sleep, and this worked).  And she demonstrates so much personality, no matter what she plays, so actually made this rather dreadful piece sound pretty good.

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