Frederic Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4
Frederic Chopin: Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (Air on the G String)
Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90
Franz Schubert: Ständchen D. 957
Frederic Chopin: Heroic Polonaise, Op. 53
Frederic Chopin: Mazurka Op 17, No. 4
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (The mysterious barricades)
Johann Sebastian Bach/Franz Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543
Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3
Franz Liszt/Vladimir Horowitz: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Last Thursday evening, after the enlightening afternoon recital by Franco-Haitian, and rightfully proud of it, pianist Célimène Daudet, a leisurely walk around La Roque d’Anthéron, and salads that took 45 minutes to arrive (Maybe we should have stuck to the fabulous ice-creams next door), we were back in the Château de Florans’ magnificent park for one of the biggest draws, if not the biggest draw, of this year’s international piano festival, namely Georgian-born and French-naturalized Khatia Buniatishvili, whose prodigious technique has been as much discussed as her glamorous looks.
But you gotta give it to the woman: She is a tireless advocate for classical music who does not hesitate to use her rock-star status to relentlessly promote it in all five languages that she speaks. Although I had been keeping an eye out for her, I never got a chance to hear her perform live in the U.S., maybe because she is so much in demand in Europe. But hey, if Khatia Buniatishvili won't come to me, then I must go to Khatia Buniatishvili, and that’s just what I did when my mom and I took our seats in front of the park’s high-tech outdoor concert shell that offered the double advantage of stunning aesthetics and excellent acoustics.
The cicadas were still out in full force at the beginning of the concert, which made the choice of Eric Satie’s ethereally impressionistic, resolutely minimalist Gymnopédie No. 1 as the opening number kind of unfortunate. The struggle was worth it though, as the subtleness of Satie’s composition was well brought out by the pianist who is not exactly known for her subtleness.
And then, without missing a beat, Buniatishvili smoothly transitioned into Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 4. Maybe because so much emotional baggage is packed in its tiny size, the prelude has often popped up in popular culture, especially when aching sadness with yet a glimmer of hope is needed. On Thursday night, it unfolded with a lot of restraint and earnestness.
Until, that is, after some drastic gear shifting, Chopin’s short and snappy Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 made itself heard loud and clear with its tight structure and caustic mood, and proved that the composer was not just all Romanticism all the time.
As daylight was fading and the cicadas were slowly but surely deciding to call it a night, we moved on to Johann Sebastian Bach’s beloved “Air on the G String”. Having heard it played on the violin countless times, I was thrilled to discover the piano version, although I suspect that Buniatishvili’s Chopinesque treatment of it would have surprised its maker.
Back into the Romantic genre, she gently emphasized Schubert's gift for melody-making with his radiantly lyrical Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 and his delicately elegiac “Ständchen” D. 957. As I was listening to such exquisite miniatures in a finally quiet environment under the stars I really felt like we were all living a magical moment suspended in time.
The first energy-filled notes of Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise” brought me right back to reality though, and very happily so. Looking totally swept up by the power of the music while remaining fully in control of her skills, Buniatishvili delivered a gorgeously flamboyant, effortlessly virtuosic performance of the formidable masterpiece.
She radically changed register again for his Mazurka Op 17, No. 4, another crowd favorite of Chopin’s that was all understated and unrushed dreaminess, with just one quick obsessive bout in the middle of it.
Originally composed for the harpsichord, François Couperin’s “Les barricades mystérieuses” (The mysterious barricades) may or may not refer to specific barricades, but in any case, it is an appealing work, endlessly complex without being intimidating, which probably explains why it has become such an inspiration for all kinds of modern musical endeavors, and was such a satisfying treat on Thursday night.
Originally composed for the organ, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor in all likelihood lost of its solemnity during its conversion for the piano by Liszt, just as it certainly lost some of its sternness during Buniatishvili’s openly emotional performance of it on Thursday night. The Romantic take on the Baroque composition may have been unusual, but a lot of us dug it.
Chopin kind of remained in the air through his friendly rival Franz Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, but the similarity to his famed Nocturnes was always intended. An all-around favorite encore, it was nice to hear it as part of an official playlist, especially since it was played so eloquently.
Liszt’s irresistible Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 closed the program. Although he wrote no fewer than 19 Hungarian rhapsodies, he could very well have stopped at his second one as it has been by far the most popular of them all. A ubiquitous presence in animated cartoons and popular media, not to mention concert halls around the world, it also is a Himalaya to climb for any pianist who dares to consider it. On Thursday evening, Buniatishvili channeled her inner tempestuous gypsy and handled the entire piece, including Horowitz’s cadenza, with her signature electrifying fervor, and we all loved her for it.
The sold-out audience was so effusive in their approval of their musical evening that she came back for a graceful adagio of the Concerto in D Minor BWV 947 by Bach/Marcello, followed by one last greatest hit of classical music with a vividly contrasted “Clair de lune” from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, which we gratefully savored to the very last note under a beautiful moonlight.
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