There was nothing subtle about Khatia Buniatishvili's piano recital on Tuesday night at the Winspear Opera House. As soon as she took the stage, the 26-year-old Georgian pianist grabbed the audience's attention in a stoplight red, figure-hugging sequined gown that popped against the Winspear's signature red and gold splashed curtain. She played some of the biggest, showiest repertoire a pianist can perform, starting the program with Franz Liszt's daunting Piano Sonata in B Minor and ending with Stravinsky's notoriously thorny Pétrouchka. Everything about her performance-style was bold to the point of brash, demanding attention for sure, but sacrificing musicality along the way.
Buniatishvili's performance Tuesday night was the inaugural concert in the AT&T Peforming Arts Center's much anticipated new recital series. The Winspear Opera House is not ideal for a piano recital: that curtain, while gorgeous, sucks up much of the sound of the instrument like a giant towel and the size and acoustics of the room don't help the performer. Still, it's good news for Dallas that a local organization is now bringing in big name classical performers for solo recitals. Violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Andre Watts will perform later this spring, rounding out the series' inaugural season.
If you were at the Winspear on Tuesday night, your perception of Buniatishvili's performance likely depended on your perspective. If this was the first or one of the first piano recitals you've seen, you were probably wowed. Buniatishvili played only the biggest, showiest music (Ravel's La valse and Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor were featured between the Liszt and Stravinsky). Technically, these are massively difficult pieces, filled with big chords, insanely tricky passages of scale work and shimmering glissandi. These are the kind of pieces young pianists live to play on stage. They are meant to wow. And they usually do.
They are also easy to play badly. It's incredibly hard to perform these pieces with artistry and too many pianists try to tackle them before they are ready for the challenge. Just because you can play all those notes, doesn't mean you can play all those notes with a gorgeous, rich tone, thoughtfully shaped phrases and overall sense of musicality.
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For those in the audience who know these pieces by heart and have heard them played masterfully on recordings or in concert, Buniatishvili's butchery of them was disappointing. There are gorgeous melodies within these pieces, and one of the trickiest things a pianist has to do is exalt those melodies above all the other insanely difficult passage-work their fingers are navigating. Too often last night, really beautiful melodies got lost in the mess and when they were brought out, they were shapeless and harsh in tone. There were also just a lot of flubbed or missed notes, something I wouldn't have minded as much if the overall level of artistry was higher.
Something about Buniatishvili's stage presence was brash, too. Several times, she launched into pieces before the audience's applause had died down, giving neither her nor us a chance to prepare. It's important to think before you play. If you don't, your playing will come out thoughtless, and last night it did.
There were some beautiful moments, too. Certainly Buniatishvil was at her best during quieter, slower moments where her tone liquified and melodies sang and sobbed. Unfortunately, she drew those sections out to an interminable length, making for a long night of piano music.
If this was your first time to hear a concert like this, go back. Try again. Listen carefully and hopefully next time you'll hear some really magical music, not just showy technique for its own sake. Thanks to the AT&T Performing Arts Center's new series, you'll have many more opportunities to do so in the months and years to come.