Captured On Video, Khatia Buniatishvili Plays With Fire And Sensitivity

Jan 30, 2017

There’s moment in the middle of Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” newly available on Blu-ray, when pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is deep into a solo cadenza. The Israel Philharmonic is silent, and conductor Zubin Mehta, looking out at the orchestra with a hundred-yard-stare, turns the page in his score so flippantly and forcefully it’s picked up on mic with a great “flap!” sound. Within a few seconds, the ensemble and Buniatishvili are back together, dazzling in their technical virtuosity. Whether or not the page turn represents any tension between soloist and conductor I cannot tell, for at the end of the piece it’s all hugs and smiles between Mehta and Buniatishvili. Perhaps it was only a momentary irk.

I only mention this to illustrate the unique differences between just listening to a performance on record and watching it on a high-definition video. The camera sees things you don’t when you’re listening in the car, at home, or even in a concert hall, where the sight line is limited and you’re not within feet of the soloist. My kids pointed this out as much when they sat down with me recently to watch a Berlin Philharmonic performance of John Williams’ music. They were delighted as Sir Simon Rattle leaped, gesticulated, and smiled broadly during the “Star Wars” theme and more. Watching the performance on this Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but take notice of Buniatishvili’s facial expressions throughout the performance, raising her eyebrows in anticipation, smiling at the orchestra, or throwing her head back in ecstasy. But you also get to see her fingers close-up, which is a real treat in the Liszt concerto that opens the program.

Liszt’s second concerto was reportedly conceived as a “concerto symphonique.” Instead of a three-movement fast-slow-fast form, the 20-minute piece takes the listener through a half-dozen tempo markings, and the soloist through a workout. Buniatishvili pounds the keys, but with clarity. Her aggressive playing style suits me for this virtuosic music, but she also knows when to tamp it down, especially for the second piece on the program, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1. The opening movement is as forward thinking as you might expect from Beethoven. An extended orchestral opening statement gives way to the soloist after a few minutes, and there’s an extended cadenza and purely orchestral coda. Buniatishvili performs with song-like sensitivity in the second movement and then playfully engages with the orchestra throughout the final Rondo-Allegro.

This Blu-ray is being touted as the first classical release mixed using Dolby Atmos technology. My system delivered a beautiful reproduction; the surround speakers are used not merely for ambiance, but to create a truly immersive field of sound that also doesn’t rely on gimmicky effects. It’s a great way to experience these world-class performers.