Georgian Pianist

Khatia Buniatishvili – Mephisto Waltz


“Though aged just 24, she has already been justifiably hailed as one of the great pianists of the future. She's an exciting risk-taker. In the allegro of the ‘Tempest’ sonata, for example, she was simply audacious with the tempi and played single pianissimo lines with spooky open pedals, recreating this already revolutionary music and demanding that we reassess its plangent mystery.”

The Guardian, 2 October 2011

“Buniatishvili’s technical prowess enables her to combine energy with precision at a level comparable to Argerich – indeed this is the most exciting debut performance of the Liszt Sonata since Argerich recorded it in 1960. Her intellectual rigour also allows her to plot the mercurial changes of pace, weight and speed that are built into its structure. Her allegros are imbued with Faustian recklessness. Her Liebestraum radiates a purity associated with Marguerite, while her Mephisto Waltz has power but also a light touch that can only be labeled Mephistophelian. She has two attributes necessary for a Lisztian: she never bangs the piano in double fortes, and she makes everything sound if not easy then at least inevitable. In short, a triumph.”

Limelight Magazine, August 2011

At the age of twenty-four, Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili has already achieved worldwide success. It has been more than ten years now that she has been performing in Europe, Asia, America and Australia. She has played concerts on such famous stages as Wigmore Hall in London, The Musikverein in Vienna, Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris, the Opera House in Monaco, to name just a few. She has participated in international festivals and competitions and been selected as a prestigious BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.

World-renowned violinist Gidon Kremer first saw her in 2008 at the 12th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, where she won third prize. “Do not take it seriously,” Kremer told her then. “I was also a third prize winner in Brussels [at Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in 2007].” The master violinist was so impressed that he planned a tour with the young pianist.

“Speaking about Khatia is both easy and difficult,” says Georgian pianist Tengiz (Gizi) Amirejibi, who taught Khatia at the Tbilisi State Conservatory. “It is a fact that she is gifted with such talent and possesses pure musical qualities. But, apart from that, she is an interesting person in every sense – she thinks differently, is an extraordinary person. This requires a corresponding attitude to her.”

Grammy award-winning conductor Paavo Järvi, the current Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, is even more lavish with his praise of the Georgian pianist, calling her a poet and a miracle-worker. “She has a magic touch,” Järvi told France’s national TV channel TF1. Others call her a queen of fortepiano. Khatia’s technical prowess leaves no one unmoved, but the pianist cannot hide her disconcertment when hearing such reviews. “Technique gives me freedom to express an idea in a way I like – nothing more than that,” she says simply. Indeed, technique is only a tool by which Khatia communicates to her listeners the fiery intensity and raw emotions of the pianist.

No matter how wary she may be of labels, it is undeniable that she is an exceptionally courageous pianist. One more thing is undeniable – no one is lukewarm toward Khatia. Critics either hail her as a genius, a phenomenon on a level with Martha Argerich or they disapprove of her manner of performance, criticizing her for breaking all the rules. Khatia dismisses the criticism. She believes that the Twenty-First Century so far is too risk-averse: “One can see now that mainly aged people listen to classical music because everything has paled. Pianists prefer to remain confined within existing limits rather than take a risk… The Asian school is considered the most powerful today although I do not like their attitude towards music because they have a phenomenal ability to imitate. They can take an Argerich disc and make an exact copy of it. They can do that – and they do do that. I have never had a desire to do such a thing.”

While the Swiss newspaper Le Temps writes that Buniatishvili has “savage hands,” the Guardian describes her as “one of the great pianists of the future” and extols her for taking amazing risk and neglecting tempo. Her former teacher Gizi Amirejibi is against neglecting tempi and ascribes this trait of Khatia to her youth, believing that the pianist will become tamer with age.

The student has her own theory:

“Metronome was created in accordance with a human pulse. We know today that if a piece of work is marked with the musical time of sixty, it must be played at the speed of sixty. However, music in the past could not be recorded on a disc, but was written on a paper with notes with the indication of speed. That was the only means to express tempo. Things have changed today. I do not think that I must limit myself to an ascribed tempo. I believe it is an important fact that people have different pulses and, therefore, tempo is very individual. They always argue with me why I play so fast… Someone playing at a slower speed and lower quality may be appreciated more because they prefer everything to be ‘normal’ and ’tidy.’ However, allegro may be acceptable for me at a certain moment while something else at some other moment may also be acceptable. It is simple, pulse also changes. I do not think that I must take into account the criticism concerning tempo.”

The pianist’s attitude has not gone unnoticed by critics – all note that she improvises on stage according to her mood, thus challenging conductors.

Allegro is the tempo through which Khatia Buniatishvili’s musical career has developed. Music emerged in her life at a very early age. By the age of two, she was already singing polyphonic songs with her mother and sister Gvatsa. At the age of four, she started playing piano – first by ear and then, a year later, by notes. At the age of six, she performed at a concert with an orchestra. And still she associates her first strong emotional response to music to the day she first heard Mozart’s Requiem. After that introduction, she insisted that her mother buy first an audio cassette of the best compositions by Mozart and then one of the entire Requiem. It became a sort of ritual for Khatia and her sister to listen to Mozart together before going to sleep. “I studied at an arts college in Didi Dighomi first. During the third year of study, I moved to a ten-year musical school of gifted students. That was followed by a tense and unpleasant period when master-classes and concerts were held all the time. However, despite bad impressions, all this translated into experience. At that period, I had no teacher, attended master-classes alone and had to work myself. On the one hand, it proved to be useful – some students, no matter how good they are, get used to being a student and cannot break away from the position of a student. They have technique but find it difficult to come up with an independent interpretation because they lack self-confidence and inner freedom. I have never found that difficult.”

She believes that anyone who demands freedom cannot be restricted:

“A person may even find freedom in obedience. At the same time, it is a freedom as well when you remain a student all the time – constantly learning not only from your own experience but also from others – when you do not fear that you will fall into someone’s obedience. You must be a bit cautious with a conductor because that is the game for power. I know that I have an image as an independent and free woman who knows what she wants and plays what she likes. When I arrived in Tbilisi [for a concert on 10 January 2012], I invited Gizi to my rehearsal because he does not shy away from making remarks. You may feel ashamed, your image may be damaged, but it is such a freedom to sense that you are not afraid of that. In other words, freedom for me is the condition when you have something to say and are free to express that. You are not afraid to receive criticism from others and sometimes take it into account.”

- What place does a conductor occupy? How important is to be in harmony with each other?

“Earlier, more time was spent for rehearsals. Now we have maximum two, which is enough to get acquainted with a person as a musician. A relationship either proves to be very harmonized and that is very pleasant or plus-minus [if] we clash with each other. That is also not without a certain charm because in such a case the concert looks like a battle between a soloist and orchestra. In addition to a conductor, the orchestra is also very important. It happens frequently when musicians know only their parts and do not listen to others. I am against such an attitude because I am fond of polyphonic reasoning. Being a soloist does not mean just sitting and discovering your own self; you must hear everything around you.”

- To which school do you think you belong?

“Not to the Russian school. Not because of national sentiments. Back then when I participated in contests, many Russian pianists took part as well and I believe that my performance starkly differs from their manner. In general, I do not attribute myself to any school because anyone who developed and achieved success was an individual. Any of those whom I appreciate managed to free themselves from a school and eventually find their own voice. My teacher at musical school in Tbilisi was Esma Kiria, who is very different, her reasoning and attitude are different… Gizi as well, who is the last Mohican, last maestro in the post-Soviet space, and I am proud of that. Then, I was taught by Oleg Meisenberg at the Vienna Academy for Music and Performing Arts. He was educated in Moscow, but I cannot say that he is a representative of the Russian school.”

- You spent your childhood in tense and hard times of the 1990s. How did that period affect you?

“Negatively and, at the same time, positively. First of all, my parents tried to spare me from all that. They managed to protect my personality from psychological damage. However, the post-war situation – pennilessness, power shortage, cold (I am allergic against cold, my fingers swell from coldness)... I remember all these and no matter how hard my parents tried to hide that hardship, I still sensed it inside of me. Therefore, I fear poverty and war the most. Not because I am young. I think that at the age of twenty-four, one is not afraid of death or poverty, in fact of anything in principle. But seeing people in indigence affects me gravely.

“My parents tried to make us learn as many languages as possible. In the times of hardships, they would not buy a Barbie for us, but foreign languages were a must.” Today, Khatia is fluent in Georgian, Russian, English, French and German languages.

“Time has changed now, back then the conditions were severe. Teachers had kerosene heaters and even though they irritated our eyes, we had to continue playing as there was no other way. Such a situation, in some way, makes you grow and you become stronger.”

Contracts bring about a new rhythm of life. Airport-to-concert hall and vice versa have become a routine. When she noticed that she no longer controlled that rhythm, had no time left to take a breath, she understood that a person may have a very moderated internal tempo:

“You should view all this at a slow speed – this is, perhaps, the only solution. Gidon Kremer was concerned seeing so many offers. He did not want me to sign contracts with large agencies or record companies. He has gone through all that and thinks that that may restrict your freedom. I told him that I wanted to make my mistakes and obtain my experience… I turned out to be a disobedient child, but that is how it is.”

Recently, she has begun selecting her repertoire only from compositions she likes – she can now allow herself such a liberty. As she says, life is too short to play something which you do not want to perform. She does not single out any one composer; her attitude toward this or that composer changes in accordance with what she is working on at the time. Franz Liszt, however, seems special to her – her first disc was dedicated to the Hungarian composer:

“I wanted Liszt to be the first because of his diversity and to point at what I possess inside me. A disc must mark a certain stage of your life, express your spiritual world at a certain moment. I wanted such a person who would be comprehensive and, at the same time, very balanced. Cannot a person contain many sides that are harmoniously combined?!”

Khatia Buniatishvili finds harmony and balance in three characters: Marguerite, Mephistopheles and Faust.

Theme of Faust became a leitmotif of her debut CD, a spectacular Liszt recital released in the summer of 2011 by Sony Classics. She chose Sony to record it, first, because she was charmed by the enthusiasm of the Sony representatives themselves and, second, because they gave her creative control. The concept of the disc – its visual side as well as text – belongs to Khatia. She has not yet ventured to make a video, but she is very fond of cinematography. She likes fiction too, but she does not speak with such great passion about anything else but music.

In the music sphere, Khatia has her favorite women – Martha Argerich and Maria Callas. It is not difficult to identify the young pianist with them – they all have expressive body language and charisma in common. That was precisely what Limelight Magazine meant last year when it wrote about the most triumphant debut of the Liszt Sonata since Argerich’s performance. For Khatia, Martha Argerich has been a sort of idol for quite a while and “a genius.” The first meeting of the two pianists in Lockenhaus was memorable. Several days earlier, Khatia had to shave her head after burning her hair with a candle in a church. She wore a hat to the concert, but the hat inconvenienced her and she took it off once the performance began. With bald head, she performed Mephisto Waltz for the first time for her favorite pianist.

- Where are you heading? You mentioned striving toward perfection, what do you mean?

“I do not know where I am heading. I live with the present and do not delve in the past – this is an ideal condition for me. I think the key is the process of marching toward perfection, though I know that I will never achieve it.”

She does not dream:

“Such things have happened in my life unexpectedly of which I would never have time to dream. Therefore, concrete dreams have lost sense for me. I may want to perform in a particular concert hall only because I know that, by doing so, I will please my beloved person. I treat praise, lofty words, critique somewhat indifferently because they are not deep. People often say such things which they may not think or feel. Someone may say in France that ‘Khatia is the greatest pianist,’ but I deem it absurd. That person may also say the same about a musician or just a person whom I do not respect at all.

“When questioned, I always try to say in response what I think – no matter how ugly and stupid it may sound. I no longer care what the consequence will be. The same holds true in music – honesty is central because when you think about manner you can no longer exude that warmth… body language is also expressive if you do not act artificially.”


This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 85, published 30 January 2012.



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