Adventure powers the keyboard – Khatia Buniatishvili in the Australian

Leta Keens, The Australian
15 April 2011

Pianists, unlike other classical musicians, never get too close to their instruments. Almost every time they appear on a concert stage, it’s at a different keyboard, and some well below concert standard. For the Tbilisi-born, Paris-based Khatia Buniatishvili, that’s not a problem.

“I like this kind of adventure moment when you don’t know what it’s going to be: it makes it more intense,” she says.

Even bad pianos have something going for them. “It’s like a relationship with a person, nobody’s perfect. You have to find connections between the good and bad sides of this person, and that’s what makes the relationship strong. It’s the same thing with pianos.”

This fearless attitude has been noted in her playing. In a list of young pianists to watch, published in Britain’s The Independent newspaper in January, Jessica Duchen writes that listening to Buniatishvili “is like watching a high-wire artist with no safety net”, adding that she divides audiences because she takes so many risks.

“In art, you can be extreme,” says Buniatishvili, 23, who is due to visit Australia for the first time later this month for the Musica Viva Festival in Sydney.

“You can go to the edge, you can go very deep.”

Buniatishvili, who lived in Georgia until she moved to Vienna to study when she was 19, began playing piano at age three “by ear, without scores” on an instrument her mother, a computer programmer and amateur musician, had had since she was a child.

“It had a very bright sound,” she recalls. “Children like that.”

At six she gave her first performance with a local orchestra and soon was performing across Europe. She has played with many orchestras including the Israel Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and St Petersburg Philharmonic. In 2008, she was a prizewinner at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and last year received the London Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. She is also a BBC New Generation Artist.

With such an impressive resume, it’s tempting to think a career in music was inevitable. But as a young teenager at a school for gifted musicians, Buniatishvili, a big reader and moviegoer, almost gave up.

“I wanted music but without making a career out of it,” she says.

“I was in a system that concentrates on being the best, and that destroys something. I hated the word career because they went on and on about it. The system was scaring me.”

But her perception changed: “Career is not something to be afraid of because it cannot change you. You can play the things you want to play, and express the things you want to express. I got quite calm and things happened quite naturally.”

Buniatishvili, whose recording of works by Liszt will be released later this year, is speaking from Chiasso, Switzerland, where she is appearing in a concert with regular collaborator, violinist Gidon Kremer.

“He’s a legend, but it’s hard to think of him that way because he’s such a natural person, a lovely, easy, light human being. Working with him is a huge privilege.”

She says the same of Martha Argerich, at whose festival in Lugano, Switzerland, she has been a featured soloist.

“She has a huge heart,” Buniatishvili says. “I love her as a person, as a musician, as a woman, as a personality. She’s my inspiration, totally.” Buniatishvili was 11 when she first heard Argerich on a cassette someone had made for her. “She was playing a Liszt sonata and a Brahms rhapsody. I was totally in love with this woman. I didn’t know who she was, or even if she was a woman or a man. I’m a fan – I don’t like that word because it’s not my mentality – but of her I really was a fan because I loved everything she was doing.”

As much as possible, Buniatishvili, who likes “to be in the different worlds of different composers”, tries to achieve a balance between solo recitals, chamber music and orchestral playing.

“Chamber music is a paradise after a month of doing recitals,” she says. “I need to have contact with people in a musical way.”

She describes playing with an orchestra as “like being in a huge ocean, it’s such a pleasure”.

But, she says, it would be impossible to give up solo recitals. “I can allow myself to do things that are not always possible in chamber music and with orchestras. This freedom is very important to me.”

She has tried to analyse exactly what happens when she’s up there on stage. “You’re doing something physically but your soul is somewhere else. Somehow there are moments when you forget yourself: the moment when everything is unified, there is no more public, no more me. That is when I’m happy with my concert. The most unhappy is when I can’t forget myself.”

The life of a musician, on the road more often than not, “can sometimes be a challenge”, says Buniatishvili, who enjoys “walking in the streets of different countries. I like observing people.” Being away from home can “sometimes be boring or sad”. But like less-than-ideal pianos, she can turn those moments around. “They can be good to discover new things in yourself. It’s part of our life, and it’s more of a big pleasure when you meet your friends or family.”

Her family still lives in Georgia (her sister, Gvantsa, is also a pianist). The region’s difficult history and its strong folk-music heritage have helped her playing, she believes. “Polyphonic thinking of music is very strong in Georgian music,” she says. “If you know it, it gives you some freedom to play classical music because you have a different view of it. Some pianists who play jazz, for example, afterwards play classical music differently. When you know more, there is more freedom somehow.”

Ask Buniatishvili about future ambitions, and she hesitates. The word ambition is as negative to her as career. “Let’s say ‘wishes and hopes’ instead,” she says.

“First of all, I don’t want to lose myself. And then with each album I make, I want to show very different sides of myself. With each composer I record, I want to leave a part of me, to leave my card somehow. In the end there will be nothing left of myself.”

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2 responses to “Adventure powers the keyboard – Khatia Buniatishvili in the Australian”

  1. Meredith Foster says :

    This young woman is an extraordinary talent. One who plays with exquisite poetry yet unafraid to take virtuosic risks, indeed she can be hugely exciting (listen to her Mephisto Waltz). On the other hand she is able to play with great classical poise and refinement. Such elements in a performer makes for greatness.

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