Incredibly Gifted

Nicholas Spice · Khatia Buniatishvili

Judging by the number of hits on her YouTube clips, the 23-year-old Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili can scarcely be called a discovery, but, when I chanced on her for the first time the other day on Radio 3, her playing came as a revelation to me. She was in the middle of the Schumann C major Fantasy, playing it as if it really meant something to her, and the sense of release in the flow of musical energy was wonderful, creating great emotional intensity without any distortion to the architecture of the piece.

Buniatishvili is incredibly gifted. She has temperament, sensibility and intelligence, and, like the very greatest pianists before her, she has the ability to make the listener hear in the sound of the music the experience of the fingers that are making it. In seeming ourselves to touch, we are touched.

She hasn’t made any recordings yet, so you’ll have to make do with the smattering of fragmentary YouTube clips. I’d start with the various bits and pieces of the Schumann Fantasy, then move to the two extracts from the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (the clip from the second movement is especially startling). There are also extracts from the Chopin B minor Scherzo and the fourth Ballade, snatches of the Liszt Sonata and a frankly incredible performance of the Mephisto Waltz which restores imagination to piano virtuosity and makes you understand what Liszt was all about.


  • 16 November 2010 at 1:32pm
    jpehs says:
    She is certainly gifted, but did the first LRB blog entry on her, of all places, have to make her into a pretty physical object of fantasy? I suspect Nicholas Spice would not be so breathless about the possibility of Alfred Brendel's fingers running all over him. The cleavage-celebrating video itself doesn't help much, admittedly.

    • 16 November 2010 at 3:07pm
      Vance Maverick says: @ jpehs
      I don't see what you're referring to. The closest I can find is the ending of the second paragraph:

      ...she has the ability to make the listener hear in the sound of the music the experience of the fingers that are making it. In seeming ourselves to touch, we are touched.

      which is certainly overwrought, but even if taken literally, doesn't mean she's touching us with her fingers.

    • 16 November 2010 at 4:18pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ jpehs
      The cleavage-celebrating video itself doesn’t help much, admittedly.

      Your innuendos make it sound like the cleavage exposing was done by anyone other than Buniatishvili herself. You can't blame Nicholas Spice that Youtube video is the only available medium for listening to free music. I found the entire video (facial expressions, cleavage) distracted my attention from what was being played so well.

    • 16 November 2010 at 5:36pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ jpehs
      What do you look at on You Tube?

    • 17 November 2010 at 11:34am
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      You Englisch, alvays vith the puritanism, alvays vith the disapprove. What's wrong with a good cleavage, one, and two I don't mind seeing a nice pianist in action. Anyway in the Mephisto Waltz video, which really is very good, she looks as if her spine is inhabited by some nasty extraterrestrial, so she can't be accused of being eye candy.

  • 16 November 2010 at 2:16pm
    Nicholas Spice says:
    Alfred Brendel - possibly not. Bill Evans, on the other hand...

    • 16 November 2010 at 2:32pm
      jpehs says: @ Nicholas Spice
      :) Well, I suppose polymorphous perversity is a kind of excuse. Poor Brendel, though.

  • 16 November 2010 at 5:34pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Superb interpretation. What's all this stuff about cleavages got to do with the musical talent? Don't get it.

  • 16 November 2010 at 6:47pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Thanks very much for this, Nicholas Spice. Everything you've said is right, it is incredible playing, the Liszt is thrilling to hear.

  • 16 November 2010 at 7:15pm
    Nicholas Spice says:
    'Overwrought'? Not at all. Merely descriptive. Music works through metaphors of the body. It moves and breathes. And to play music well, you have to move and breathe in the right way. With singers and wind players, that's obvious. With string players and conductors breath enters the music mediated by gesture - of the bow and the hand. The piano is a fascinating case, because it's an entirely mechanical industrial percussion instrument (in many ways rather monstrous). To make music breathe on the piano, you need touch. Interestingly, in German the word for piano keys is 'Tasten', which is cognate with 'touch' and 'taste'. Touch is perhaps an even more potent metaphor than breath. We speak of being touched when we are moved, when something affects us emotionally. Music touches us. Touch, like tenderness, looks both ways - it's transitive and intransitive: we are tender towards people and tender (i.e. vulnerable); we touch and are touched. Quite how a pianist conveys breath through touch (touches us through touch) is something of a mystery, but when it works (I think of Mary-Lou Williams, Artur Balsam, Bill Evans) it is transformative and all the more affecting because of the apparently intractable inertness of the instrument.

    • 16 November 2010 at 9:22pm
      Vance Maverick says: @ Nicholas Spice
      Sorry for the unfriendly term. My real point, as I hope was clear, was to acquit you of lingering on the performer's person. (Classical-music stagecraft still makes it hard for female performers to avoid performing femininity -- not your fault, nor Buniatishvili's.) I like this version of the Schumann (my reference is Richter, and this differs instructively).

      I don't really disagree with most of what you write above, but I'm doubtful of the ability of words to get to the heart of the phenomena you're addressing.

    • 16 November 2010 at 10:14pm
      Martin W says: @ Nicholas Spice
      In Spanish, too, to play an instrument is "tocar" - to touch or feel.

    • 17 November 2010 at 9:47am
      Oliver Rivers says: @ Martin W
      And in French: think of Couperin's "L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin."

    • 18 November 2010 at 3:23pm
      jaspreetsinghboparai says: @ Oliver Rivers
      Now that just sounds dirty; I'll remember to use it over the weekend.

  • 16 November 2010 at 9:08pm
    cigar says:
    After reading or rather enduring Nicholas' post, I chose to listen to the audio with the video out of sight, scrolling down after clicking play. I am not a big fan of Schumann, but I think there's no doubt this is a very good interpretation. What stood out right at the beginning was her subtle, conscientious use of dynamics, and later of changes in tempo, which combined produced some beautiful phrasing. For now I think she deserves all the success that comes her way, and can only hope she does get it.

    But Nicholas' post is a prototypical example of what is wrong with music criticism these days: it is so purplish, he might as well have used that color for the font. Perhaps also one of those ersatz longhand topographies and added an RSVP for Kathia. And his comment goes beyond, becoming purely embarrassing. "Music works through metaphors of the body. It moves and breathes." This is the kind of writing that makes me turn the TNY or NYT into an spherical ballistic missile following a curvaceously voluptuous trajectory to the rubbish bin. Every single of Nicholas words' brings attention to his kitschy sensibility rather than to the performance he is writing about, to the musician, let alone the music. He should be reviewing Liberace or his contemporary heir, Lang Lang and stay away from real talent like this pianist.

    • 16 November 2010 at 11:32pm
      outofdate says: @ cigar
      Crikey. There I thought 'I'd start with the various bits and pieces of the Schumann fantasy' was a fairly innocuous way of putting it, but I suppose once alerted to the Colour Purple you start seeing it everywhere.

    • 17 November 2010 at 1:13am
      outofdate says: @ cigar
      Also, why is Lang Lang crap? Because he's a noodling, gibbering, lazy showoff without respect for what he's playing, slippery of touch, you might say, and thus unable to touch his, er, viewers. How do you make the point without resorting to metaphor and conjecture? I don't know that he has no respect for music, perhaps in his stupid way he reveres it, yet I know as I live that he has no respect for music. And I think my metaphors are really rather apt, whereas your 'conscientious use of dynamics and changes of tempo' tells me precisely nothing, though it's no doubt excellent copy for the new Hyundai Sonata.

  • 16 November 2010 at 10:13pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    There's a short Radio 3 interview here, if anybody's interested.

  • 17 November 2010 at 11:30am
    Oliver Rivers says:
    And you can hear her playing the Franck piano quintet with Gidon Kremer et al here (Spotify link).

  • 17 November 2010 at 4:19pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm surprised to find that this blog provoked 22 replies, whereas Neve Gordon's recent post on the US indecent offer to Israel earned two, which were both from me. Any views? It can't have been the cleavage, or can it?

    • 17 November 2010 at 7:28pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      If you look at the ten "Recent Posts", listed above, I think this is the only one that isn't about politics.

    • 18 November 2010 at 10:09am
      Oliver Rivers says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      The news from Israel is awful; the news from various parts of Europe is not so great; the news from America is pretty depressing. Talking about piano playing's something of a relief.

    • 18 November 2010 at 4:36pm
      A good point, and I comment your use of a non-ital. 's.

    • 18 November 2010 at 4:40pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      CommenD. Damn.

    • 19 November 2010 at 9:33am
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Don't worry, we've all been there. I was going to give Joe Morison grief a while ago for fussily italicizing newspapers but then keeping the first person singular lower case -- 'i like the Guardian' or something -- and only decided against it after lovingly previewing my comment. It's only natural to notice such things and make a tit of oneself in the process.

    • 19 November 2010 at 7:31pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      It's not the titness I mind, it's my eyesight not noticing the mistakes I mind.

  • 18 November 2010 at 3:28pm
    jaspreetsinghboparai says:
    I wonder if anybody has any idea when a recording will be released?

    • 18 November 2010 at 4:40pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ jaspreetsinghboparai
      A friend of mine said she's signed a contract with Sony who will release an all-Liszt disc, including the B minor sonata, "at some point" (he didn't know when).

    • 18 November 2010 at 4:50pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Here it is:

      Her debut album for Sony Classical, due in spring next year, will mark Liszt’s 200th anniversary, and will include the Sonata in B minor, along with Liebestraum No 3, La Campanella, Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 and the Mephisto Waltz.

    • 19 November 2010 at 5:51pm
      jaspreetsinghboparai says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Cheers for that. Incidentally if you'd really like to read "Marginal Comment" I could simply photocopy the whole thing and post it to you -- though how best to manage the operation?

    • 20 November 2010 at 3:36pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ jaspreetsinghboparai
      Goodness, when did I say that? Sometimes I really can't remember anything. How very kind you are.

    • 21 November 2010 at 11:56pm
      jaspreetsinghboparai says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Think nothing of it -- it's an interesting and often entertaining read, but hardly worth £120 quid as a 'rare book' unless it's got Dover's autograph or something. E-mail me: -- and we'll see what we can arrange. JSB.

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