Music Favorites

Khatia Buniatishvili

You may have noticed in the context of dance as synchronized with music, the precision use of timing provides the dancers with opportunities for interpretive styling they can express in creative ways. The precise timing before, on, and after the beat can dramatically reenforce the theme of the music while remaining integrated within the design of a wider interpretive flow. This reminds me of superb jazz vocalist Billie Holliday's ability to do this. If you've ever gone into this aspect of art appreciation in the domain of classical music performance then here are some stellar examples. I'm going to take you through some comparisons featuring my new favorite piano virtuoso, the incomparable Khatia Buniatishvili.

First we'll consider a passage in my second-favorite piano concerto: Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor. Here is Alice Sara Ott's extremely competant performance of that passage. (cued at 10:12) (watch ~2m):


And now compare that performance with Khatia's interpretation noticing the striking differences in the use of timing between these two virtuosos. (cued at 10:06) (watch ~2m):


Like all piano virtuosos, Khatia often uses timing to delay expected notes--on both bass and treble clef lines--leaving what came before hanging in the air ever so slightly in a subtle and suspenseful way of not just robotically playing the scripted music but of amplifying the emotive power of a musical passage. Without venturing technically beyond my expertise, I'll look a little deeper here at the Grieg. When I first heard Khatia's performance, I immediately recognized the music but there was something very striking about her performance that grabbed my attention. Previously, my favorite performance of this Concerto which was imprinted in my brain long ago was the Van Cliburn under Ormandy. So I took the Van Cliburn performance and compared it passage by passage with Khatia's. In that comparison, what really strikes me is Khatia's interpretive power in this Grieg that I'm so familiar with. Compared to Khatia, the Van Cliburn that I had previously liked so much now has a regal, plodding, technical character. This revelation so intriqued me that I took this Khatia performance and did a series of new comparisons with many other virtuoso performances of the Grieg. I'm already going too deep here so I won't include my critical notes; I'll just mention the performers--all outstanding--in the comparisons: Martha Argerich, Arthur Rubinstein, Benjamin Grosvenor, Yuja Wang, Lang Lang, and Alice Sara Ott.

Of course, those other performers have mastered this work and put their interpretive signature into it. My close comparisons revealed to me that the effect under Khatia's hand--whether it technically violates the script or not--is simply superior in the context of what I think the music is "saying" to me. The comparisons revealed many cases of this. In the case of one passage of thematic descent, the music has a gravitas that is building momentum, reinforced in the bass clef line. In that passage the timing emphasis of the other vertuoso performances--more or less--rendered the bass reenforcement with less effective momentum of gravitas. In passages like that, Khatia adjusts the timing with such a precisely uniform variation that it conveys a sense of falling with a wonderful smoothness. And along with that she uses similar precision in the treble line to reenforce such effects. The net effect is powerful and transcending. In these cases the interpretation soars with a passion somewhat missing in the other performers. In most cases with the other performances when the thematic momentum lacks that ingredient I would never have noticed the lack until hearing it rendered better--more effectively efficient--by Khatia's interpretive artistic license. I still "get" Grieg in the way I used to--but now more clearly in Khatia's rendition.

Also of course, though Grieg scripted this music there can be significant latitude in how the performer punctuates/emphasizes it. When you tune in to this interpretive dimension in the flow of a performance, such nuances stand out and grab hold of your apprehension--especially if you've heard many performances of that same music by different, lesser performers. It's how a master of the performing craft puts their unique artistic signature into their work. What Khatia "says" in that special signature that she crafts within works like this adds immeasurably to the work as a whole.

We'll consider one more striking example. We'll compare a passage out of my favorite piano concerto: Rachmaninoff's 2nd--here performed by two different virtuosos. In the context of the interpretative use of precision timing that I've been stressing, listen closely for about 2 minutes of the following passage performed by the extremely competant Anna Fedorova (cued at 5:09). (watch ~2m):


And now listen carefully to compare that performance with Khatia's following interpretation of that passage. Note Khatia's use of timing and how she powerfully drives tempo to enhance the passion of the rise--she broke a finger nail during the violence. (cued at 5:19). (watch ~2m):


I've never heard that passage done better. With exquisite timing, it's so freshly emotive an interpretation! For example, to me, in too many interpretations the conductor overemphasizes the brass in the thematic rise and the pianist treats the thematic climax at 6:50 as though it is a pounding, lock-step military march of celebration rather than the sublime state of a plateau, which when reached, still carries the deep, dark echo of the tremendous cost of getting there. That's how I read the work. It's Russian. It's one of the most sublime passages in all of classical music. Khatia pulls this off with just the right powerful balance of wavering yet soaring passion. And the conductor is right there with her in full re-enforcement. It's a masterpiece performance.

Clarity, precision, power, passion, and beauty: Khatia forthrightly celebrates and uses all her assets. Khatia has gotten some criticism for playing too fast at times and for playing too loose in her adherence to the composer's script. It is fair to say that what the music is intending is explicit in the script such that departures violate the integrity of that intent. So the controversy is genuine. The controversy--artistic license in the performance versus the integrity of the "intent" as explicitly scripted in the composition--is perennial. That Khatia's strident approach to classic piano should spark yet again that controversy is good for the health of culture because it generates appreciation that may not otherwise arise. The bottom line for me is that Khatia's interpretive license works and doesn't feel like it violates the integrity of the composer's emotive intent. In short order, what Khatia has done with her interpretation of these classic works has now irrevocably conditioned how I'll hear them from now on. Her imprint on them is sublime. At Khatia's level of virtuosity she has earned the artistic license which she has so skillfully applied. If she departs from script, those departures are to amplify her interpretation of emotive intent and are not radical enough to warrant concern. They more than pay their way.

From the start, for your--and my--convenience, here is that entire stunning performance: Khatia Buniatishvili performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. (~42m):


And also, from the start, for your--and my--convenience, here is that entire stunning performance: European superstar Khatia Buniatishvili performing Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. (~30m):


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