Frédéric Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (Air on the G String)
Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major, Op. 90, D. 899
Franz Schubert/ Franz Liszt: Serenade 3S. 560/2 from Ständchen by Schubert
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53
Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Opus 17 No. 4
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (The mysterious barricades)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 (Transcription for piano by Liszt)
Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, S.244/2
The fabulous country of Italy has been keeping me so relentlessly occupied (The arts! The history!! The food!!! The people!!!!) that I haven’t been terribly frustrated by the miserly number of musical performances I have come across and, busy schedule permitting, attended. That said, when the right name shows up with the right program at the right time and in the right place ‒ Truth is, I am not overly picky these days ‒ I am still more than willing to drop everything and go.
And that’s just what happened last Wednesday in Bologna when, after leaving the inconspicuous-on-the-outside-but-striking-on-the-inside art and history library of San Giorgio in Poggiale, I serendipitously walked by the Teatro Manzoni and noticed a poster advertising the Bologna Festival 2022, which happened to feature a piano recital by the one and only pianist extraordinaire Khatia Buniatishvili the following evening.
My Neapolitan friend Vittorio coming into town that Thursday for a quick but culture-filled visit, we immediately decided to add a live music component to our already packed schedule, and that’s how, after a particularly decadent dinner, we found ourselves seating among the almost sold-out audience in the rather plain-looking auditorium, all dutifully wearing our masks and buzzing with excitement at the thought of an evening with the prodigiously gifted and unapologetically glamorous Miss Buniatishvili.
I had the pleasure of attending a performance of hers last summer as part of the prestigious Festival de La Roque d’Anthéron, and back then, as the sun was starting to set over the lush estate, she had also kicked things off with Satie’s atmospheric miniature Gymnopédie No. 1, a bunch of unimpressed cicadas unceremoniously drowning the music coming out of her piano. Fast-forward about a year, Bologna’s acoustically satisfying space finally allowed me to take in the whole sound spectrum of the subtle composition and thoroughly enjoy it.
Now that she had our full attention, Buniatishvili wasted no time moving on to one of Chopin’s greatest hits, his short and gorgeous Prelude Op. 28, No. 4, which she played with just the right amount of tenderness and melancholy.
One of Bach’s most enduringly popular pieces has been indisputably his "Air on the G String" as arranged by August Wihlemj, which has known countless versions and interpretations since 1871. On Thursday night, we got to revel in an inspired and soulful, but thankfully sentimentality-free, performance of it.
Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 started softly too, before increasingly big and deeply lyrical waves of emotions showed up as the pianist was flawlessly channeling the composer’s turbulent emotions. It was a beautiful interpretation of a beautiful composition, and understandably earned Buniatishvili her first big ovation of the evening.
More Schubert followed with Liszt’s transcription of his Serenade for Solo Piano, which she handled with the same technical confidence and natural grace.
After all those introspective episodes, we all eagerly switched gear as soon as we heard the first notes of Chopin’s "Heroic Polonaise", an all-time favorite whose flawless structure and assertive rhythms effortlessly speak to everyone’s heart and mind. A fact that proved to be true again on Thursday night, as it was unfolding with unwavering momentum and plenty of virtuosic sparks.
We stayed with Chopin, but toned it down a notch, with his Mazurka in A Minor, Opus 17 No. 4, a lovely, leisurely work, that sounded like an affable conversation between two friends who were enjoying the simple pleasure of being together.
Next, we moved to another popular piece for piano in Couperin’s "Les barricades mystérieuses", a rigorously low-key and yet highly complex composition whose modernity never ceases to surprise.
Bach was back (Ha!) on the program with Liszt’s transcription of his Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 for Solo Piano, which gave Buniatishvili the perfect opportunity to make good use of her impressive technical skills and deliver music that exuded exactness and refinement.
A dreamy mood soon prevailed with her take on Liszt’s outwardly understated but emotionally charged Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major, as she made the transcendental beauty of this little jewel slowly reveal itself and eventually mesmerize us all.
To close the official program in grand style, what better choice could there be than Liszt’s second Hungarian Rapsody, and by far the most famous of them all (And there are 19 of them)? Bold, brilliant, and highly infectious, which probably explains its ubiquitous presence in concert programs and pop culture for well over a century now, it had clearly found an ideal performer in Buniatishvili, who threw everything she had into it and delivered in spades.
After a truly thunderous ovation and many pictures taken by smartphones that were spontaneously popping up all over the place for a little memento, the audience was still not ready to let the star of the evening go. Always the indefatigable communicator, she heeded the call and eventually treated us to three wonderful encores, which I did not recognize, but appreciated immensely.
Back on planet earth, as the night was still young, Vittorio and I decided to go for a stroll around Bologna’s illuminated and bustling Piazza Maggiore, just to extend the magic of that enchanted evening a little longer.