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Piano and plastic bag

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Apr 14, 2014 12:35 PM

Khatia Buniatashvili; photo by Julia Wesely

Last Monday night, Khatia Buniatishvili played a program in Weill Recital Hall (the upstairs venue at Carnegie Hall). She is a young pianist—age twenty-six—and as that “vili” in her name tells you, she’s from Georgia: the ex-Soviet kind, not the Jimmy Carter kind. There are now two “vilis” in our musical life, and their names are very similar. The other is the violinist Lisa Batiashvili.

I had reviewed an album of Khatia’s—all-Liszt—and reviewed it favorably. But I had never heard her in the flesh. If you really want to know about a musician, there is no substitute for live (and repeated hearings).

The young Georgian’s program choices at Weill did not beat around the bush. They were in-your-face, screaming “Romantic Piano Virtuoso!” She began with the Liszt Sonata—a work that often ends a program but seldom begins one. (In fact, Stephen Hough ended his recital at Alice Tully Hall yesterday with the sonata.) She then played La valse, the Ravel favorite. After intermission, she played Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor—the one with the funeral march—and closed the printed program with Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Pétrouchka.

To reiterate, all of these pieces require great technique and flair.

Speaking of flair, Buniatishvili emerged from the wings in a shiny silver dress, which said “Vegas.” The woman behind me remarked to the man she was with, “You don’t need to hear the music”—in other words, looking was enough.

In the early going of the Liszt, Buniatishvili was nervous, or so it seemed to me. She was tight, coiled, clenched. She loosened up a bit and found her groove. She reflected the fantasy element in this sonata. And she makes a big, big sound. If I may say this—readers are welcome to sue—she “plays like a man.” Or, to put it differently, she is a lioness of the piano, an Argerichian player.

There was much to dislike about this account of the sonata: It was somewhat stumbling and eccentric; also, it could have used a better singing line. But there was much to like about the account, too. You know who I think would have liked it, warts and all? Liszt.

During the performance of his sonata, we had a major distraction in the audience. Let me recall what I wrote on this blog two weeks ago: “A plastic bag is an amazingly ruinous object in a concert hall or opera house. The crinkles are absolutely deafening.” Well, during the Liszt, a woman in the back was playing with a plastic bag, I’m pretty sure. At first I thought she was unwrapping a candy—but the unwrapping was taking five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes . . . It must have been a plastic-bag issue.

Buniatishvili went on to the Ravel—and the woman at the back went on with the plastic bag, though less obtrusively, I think. Buniatishvili’s playing was impressive, in its way. The thing is, her Valse was not very French—not very suave, elegant, coy, or alluring. It was more Lisztian than French: big and rhapsodic (and bangy).

If I were some kind of musical M.D., I might prescribe for Buniatishvili a month in Paris—although I should not presume that she doesn’t know the city, or the culture (or Viennese culture, with its waltzes).

At the beginning of intermission, audience members accosted an usher in the lobby. One man in particular—the leader—was very rude to this poor woman. He was loud, belligerent, and insulting. He was talking about the woman with the plastic bag, of course. He berated the usher, saying, “What are you doing out here when she’s in there?” In a classic New York accent, he said, “There’s a major awtist onstage!”

His rudeness was inexcusable—I could report more of his tirade—but he did have a point: Paying customers were deprived of the kind of atmosphere they should have had, and that the pianist should have had. I did not hear the plastic bag in the second half.

I certainly heard Buniatishvili, loud and brash—but commendably musical too, much of the time. Her Chopin sonata was extreme: extreme in its dynamics, tempos, and feelings. Fasts were very fast; slows were virtual standstills. Cooks will sometimes tell their eaters, “Salt to taste.” In music, rubato (i.e., license with time) works much the same way. And Buniatishvili salted to her own taste, rather than to mine.

How about Chopin’s taste? Well, there we could have an argument.

As for the Pétrouchka movements, they were tight and bangy. Buniatishvili got a big, dry, white sound, which is desirable. But, again, she was extreme. She slapped at the keyboard vulgarly. At one point, she stood up, the better to pound the keyboard. Her playing hurt my ears, though I sort of liked it. And she seemed to play heedless of the public, heedless of pianistic norms, heedless of anything. I thought, “She’s in her own private Idaho.”

Afterward, audience members went to the front of the hall, to take her picture. She beamed. She will obviously be a “star,” and is probably one already: the dress, the lionessness, the loudness. I imagine she’ll be known as “Khatia,” with the “Buniatishvili” on the sidelines.

There is a standard progression in Carnegie Hall, or so I think I have observed: A player or singer starts in Weill Hall; then he graduates to Zankel Hall; then he makes the ultimate graduation, to “Stern Auditorium,” which the rest of us know as “Carnegie Hall.” Perhaps Khatia will skip the Zankel step.

She played two encores, the first of them being a Handel minuet in G minor, arranged by Kempff (Wilhelm Kempff, the pianist who lived through almost the whole of the twentieth century—1895 to 1991). Her playing was very mature. Indeed, it was some of her best playing of the night.

And she bade farewell with just about the fastest, loudest thing there is—the Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. It was fast and loud, all right. But it was less impressive than it would have been if so much of the recital hadn’t been the same way.

A final word, please, about Romanticism: You can’t kill it. And many have tried, or wanted to, over the years. In every generation, people discover Romanticism, and thrill to it, as Khatia Buniatishvili obviously has. This makes me smile, appreciatively.

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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