She has been called the world’s most glamorous pianist and that may well be true. In today’s music world, it is not only talent and ability that counts. Even winning a prestigious competition does not automatically lead to a contract with a record company: if you really want to make it, you also have to be able to present yourself as attractive as possible on a cover.
Khatia Buniatishvili is busy. Performances, recordings, book signings, interviews, festivals and even TV appearances with talks about fashion and her choice of clothes: like everything about her, her dresses are special too.
Getting an interview is easier said than done, but after a lot of scheduling and rescheduling, I finally manage to get her on the phone. She apologises for postponing the appointment and I immediately forgive her: Buniatishvili is extremely kind.
Batumi is mentioned as her place of birth. An exotic name I know from a song from my childhood in Poland. A song, sung by a very popular girl group at the time, which after all these years still haunts me.
Would Buniatishvili know it? I sing it to her and she laughs. No, it means nothing to her. The name of the composer, Ajwazian, is also completely unknown to her. Moreover, she may have been born in Batumi, but in fact she is not really from there.
“I was born there, but that was no more than a coincidence. We are originally from Tbilisi and my father happened to be in Batoumi for his work. When I was two months old we moved back to Tbilisi. So actually I am from Tbilisi”.
It is more than striking how many new young musical talents come from Georgia. Pianists, violinists, singers… One Georgian name after another appears in large neon letters above the biggest concert stages and halls around the world. Buniathisvili may be part of a musical family, but how about the others? How does she explain the enormous success of Georgian musicians and singers? Is it something to do with training? Or just the upbringing? Are children there being fed something that makes them more receptive to music? Is there a special diet that makes Georgian children more gifted than those from, say, the Netherlands?
“Hahahaha! No, of course not. It is our folk music. Well, mainly. We have a huge and rich tradition of music making, it’s in us, in our genes. Georgia is a small country inhabited by different peoples, so we have a huge diversity in folk music. There is a song for everything: for love, war, struggle and victory. And for death. Really for everything.”
“Music is natural to us, playing and singing is innate in our people. What’s more, our country has an exceptionally good music education, we are spoon-fed anything that has to do with music, as it were.”
I tell her that I am particularly impressed with her penultimate album, Motherland. The pieces she plays there are less virtuoso than her usual repertoire. She also plays them very softly. And lovingly. The CD moves me very much.
But why is the album called Motherland? You would expect it to contain music by Georgian composers, but apart from When Almonds Blossomed by Giya Kanchelli and a folk song Vaguiorko ma, arranged by Buniatishvili herself, there is nothing Georgian to be discovered.
“I dedicated the CD to my mother. I wanted to combine all styles, from baroque to (more) modern, to folk. In this way I wanted to declare my love to her, to let her know how much I love her. So the title refers to my mother, not to my country. I am really glad that you like the CD so much, it means that I have succeeded in communicating my emotions…”
“On the CD I also play a piece, Dumka by Dvorak, with my sister Gvantsa. She is a great pianist and I regret that we cannot play together more often. But we are making lots of plans. And soon we are going to record something together. I’m looking forward to that.”
“Why did I choose the piano and not another instrument? I didn’t.
People say I should have become a violinist because of my perfect pitch, but it was the piano that was meant for me. I didn’t make the choice. At least, not consciously. I didn’t choose the piano: the piano chose me.”
Is there still such a thing as the renowned ‘Russian piano school’?
For a moment there is silence and in the silence I can hear a question mark, so I repeat my question.
“No. I don’t think so. Everything has become international. Borders no longer exist or are blurred. Which gives you more opportunity to develop your own style, not bound by national borders. What is important for me is that I stay true to myself.”
“I am not a perfectionist, nor do I strive for that. Perfection takes the soul out of music. I am and will remain a flesh-and-blood human being, not some building material.”
“I also think it is important to enter into a kind of relationship with the composer. I find the thought that a composer made a certain piece especially for me very important and exciting, it also helps me. When I study a new piece – and by that I mean new to me – I try to avoid all other interpretations. I never listen to recordings then, because I want to make the score my own, all mine. I want to feel that I am the first.”
“My style can be described as a combination of extrovert and introvert. I love both equally and both are parts of me. Of me as a person and also of my way of making music. But it is, I think, also a female characteristic. Piano as a symbol of the loneliness that you can share with other people.”
Her interpretations are rather wild. Or, to put it kinder: energetic. Extraordinarily virtuoso too. Does she choose her repertoire from that category? How does she feel about the more subdued composers? Which does she prefer to play: solo recitals? Concerts? Chamber music?
“I like to play chamber music. Just like concerts and recitals, by the way.
Which of the three do I prefer? I couldn’t choose, but recitals are my favourite. With concerts you have to make a lot of compromises, it can’t be helped. The same with chamber music, because you also have to deal with your partner(s). But if it clicks, the result can be very satisfying.”
But what if you don’t agree with the conductor? I cite as an example the famous quarrel between Glenn Gould and Bernstein concerning the interpretation of Brahms’ piano concerto.
“I firmly believe that you can make compromises. That is what rehearsals are for, so that you can exchange ideas and if necessary meet each other halfway. But my thoughts, my ideas about a composition are sacred to me.”
Artists today are real globetrotters with many residences all over the world. Where does she feel at home?
“Everywhere actually. Georgia is very dear to me because that’s where my family lives, but Paris also feels like home, this is where I live.”
In February 2016, Sony released a solo album of hers, featuring works by Mussorgsky, Ravel and Stravinsky. And in May that same year, Buniatishvili performed at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ.
Buniatishvili plays Mussorgsky at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam:
“I love Amsterdam. No, I don’t ride a bike. My parents never let me. I always had to be mindful of my hands, take care not to hurt them, so I didn’t learn. But I like to walk through the streets of the city for hours… it is so beautiful!