Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s playing has been described as having “an aura of elegant solitude and even melancholy.” Judging by Wednesday’s performance at Meany Theater in the UW President’s Piano Series, it’s a perfect characterization. This might have been in part because of her choice of works in the first half: Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, the “Funeral March,” his Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, and Ravel’s “La Valse.”
All these are very well-known, but Buniatishvili imbued each, particularly the first and last, with such a wide palette of pianistic expression that she sparked imagination, bringing them to vivid life. From notes falling like slow drops of water on a still moonlit pond to somber processional; from musing introspection to rushes of wild fury to airy lightness, always with impeccable technique, she drew listeners in.
For the Ravel, this troubling piece which mirrors some of his thoughts on the devastation of World War I, she conjured up dancers swirling together in a vain attempt to shut out the horrible sounds of war, coming inexorably nearer.
It was remarkable playing, given that she is only 25. It would have been easy to overdo the emotive aspects of the music. She didn’t. Nor did she put herself forward instead of the composer. And while her appearance is as elegant as her playing, she had no airs or graces. She came out on stage, sat down and played, almost before the applause stopped. In between works she stood, bowed twice, sat down and continued with the next piece immediately; so quickly after the Sonata, that latecomers found themselves trying to find seats as she was playing the Ballade.
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After intermission she returned to play three Schubert lieder transcribed by Liszt, again all well-known: “Ständchen,” “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkoenig.” Today, it seems unnecessary to add anything to Schubert’s exquisitely composed songs, but Liszt, who wanted to play them without a singer, did not overload these gems with his usual coruscating technical embroidery, but left them with their bones intact. Each of these, like the Chopin and Ravel, has undercurrents of loss that came through in Buniatishvili’s playing — and again, not overdone.
She ended with Three Movements from “Petroushka” by Stravinsky, which the composer himself transcribed for piano from the orchestral version — and then was unable to play because they were too difficult for his own technique. Buniatishvili had no problems with them from the technical aspect. Indeed, ending this demanding program, her playing was as clean as at the start, despite the extreme virtuosity required in the Stravinsky. As a work, though, the piano transcription loses something without the instrumental colors of the orchestral version. Too many notes in the same timbre take away from the clear delineation created by the many-colored strands of the original.