Arts & Culture

Renowned pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s Harriman-Jewell show promises passion

By Patrick Neas

Special to The Star

Khatia Buniatishvili began playing the piano when she was 3 and has performed around the world.
Khatia Buniatishvili began playing the piano when she was 3 and has performed around the world. Submitted

Khatia Buniatishvili is in the lineage of the great Russian romantic pianists.

Born in the Republic of Georgia, Buniatishvili, 31, says she tries to emulate pianists like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sviatoslav Richter and her “favorite pianist,” Martha Argerich. Like Argerich, Buniatishvili combines a powerful piano technique with intense passion.

Kansas City will have a chance to discover the many facets of her incredible talent when the Harriman-Jewell Series presents Buniatishvili in recital at the Folly on April 17. The concert — Buniatishvili’s Kansas City debut — will feature two composers, Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt.

Buniatishvili began playing the piano when she was 3. She studied at the Tbilisi Conservatory, has won a slew of awards and performed in concert halls around the world.

But Buniatishvili is not some made-to-order conservatory virtuoso. Her style, which is sometimes mournful, has been compared to Georgian folk music. Buniatishvili has an absolutely unique sound. It’s a quality that’s in her lifeblood and cannot be taught.

Buniatishvili recently released a stunning recording of the Schubert Piano Sonata, D. 960, and that’s one of the works she’ll be performing at the Folly. The sonata’s overall mood is of peace and serenity. One would never know that Schubert was suffering intensely from the effects of syphilis and its treatment when he composed the piece, his last major work.

Listening to Schubert’s piano sonatas is like taking a meandering walk in the woods. Loveliness abounds, but there are also shadows and dark corners to provide dramatic contrast. As Buniatishvili puts it, “To love Schubert is to see the beauty hidden in the shades of everyday life and to understand the art of patience.”

After the sonata, Buniatishvili will perform Liszt’s transcriptions of three of Schubert’s most popular songs: “Ständchen,” “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Der Erlkönig,” one of classical music’s scarier stories.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” (“The Elf King”) relates the legend of a father and his son who are rushing through an autumnal forest on horseback. Soon, the child, who might be ill but is most definitely anxious, starts hearing voices his father does not hear. After the boy lets out a piercing shriek, the father discovers that the Elf King has struck the boy dead. Schubert captured the terror of the poem in his song and Liszt amps it up in his transcription.

Buniatishvili also will perform Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 4 “Mazeppa” and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. The Transcendental Etudes are revisions of etudes Liszt wrote when he was 15 and are considered some of the most fiendishly difficult works written for piano.

Buniatishvili will conclude her recital with Liszt’s show-stopping Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. The gypsy-flavored rhapsody is one of the most finger-busting keyboard works ever written, and when it’s over, you’ll be amazed if the piano isn’t a pile of splinters.

This promises to be one of the best concerts of the year, and who knows when or if Buniatishvili will make a return visit. The schedule on her website shows she does not make a lot of appearances. So her Folly recital is a boon for Kansas City and another coup for the Harriman-Jewell Series.

7:30 p.m. April 17. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. $31-$81.50. 816-415-5025 or www.hjseries.org.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.

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