24 December 2010
Khatia Buniatishvili plays Schumann at the Wigmore Hall
Brian Micklethwait

Nearly two months ago now, I went to a piano recital at the Wigmore Hall.  An American lady was visiting a friend.  Friend was busy during the day, and needed someone to show the American lady a good time, or at least to try.  American lady likes classical music, which made me the designated local.


The recital was given by the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, and the biggest piece on the programme was the first, Schumann’s Fantasie opus 17.

I have many recordings of Schumann piano music, but have never quite got him.  Oh, it’s nice and everything.  But only in a rather vicar’s tea party sort of way.  Schumann enthusiasts write about how revolutionary and disruptive his music sounds, and especially how revolutionary and disruptive it must have sounded to his contemporaries, but all I have tended to hear is what his music had in common with that of his contemporaries.  It just sounded to me like nice, classical piano music.  And I had never been able to understand the connection between all that well-mannered tinkling and the fact that Schumann died a madman, and before that had never been entirely sane.  Mad was the last thing his music sounded, to me.  Schumann lurches insanely, nay schizophrenically, between spooky serenity (the kind of music that accompanies attics full of dolls in horror movies) and explosive craziness!  Schumann is wild, man!  But I could never hear this.  It just sounded serenely serene to me.

All that changed when Khatia Buniatishvili started to unleash the Fantasie opus 17.  The American lady later told me that she admired the risks Ms Buniatishvili took with the tempos, speeding up here, slowing down there.  For me, that all helped, but it was the sheer loudness of it, when it was loud, that made the real difference.  Finally, I was hearing what I had been reading about Schumann for half a century, but had never heard before.

The Wigmore Hall accoustic is famous and much admired, but I don’t believe it would suit everyone.  The sound completely surrounds you.  And this is especially the case when someone like Khatia Buniatishvili is flaying a piano the way she did that lunchtime in early November of 2010.  I suppose I might achieve a similar effect in my own kitchen, if I were to go mad with surround-sound hi-fi and turn up the volume to maximum.  But were I to do that at all regularly, my neighbours would soon be pounding on my door.  Anything less than a detached house with a large surrounding garden and everyone else in the house away on holiday and it would be very anti-social.

My experience of listening to live classical music compared to listening to it dead, in my kitchen, has been that the fewer the number of the musicians involved, the greater the contrast between liveness and deadness. 

Strangely, the value added, so to speak, of a concert when there is an orchestra playing is far less than it is for much smaller ensembles.  It is as if, with orchestral music, the drama and the frenzy is packaged in a way that seems to survive the diminution involved in a mere recording.  The melodies, emphases, the contrasts, and above all the harmonies, the meanings of each passing moment, all get through.  But with chamber music, the loss is far greater.  With chamber music, a dead recording is merely nice.  Liveness enables you to experience all the nuances of the performance, including all the body language of the musicians, which of course means far more than it does when you watch a full orchestra all swaying about.  With chamber music, the difference between live and dead is the difference between being in a theatre, and listening to a bad sound recording of the same thing.

Some years ago, I experienced this difference with particular force when I attended a Wigmore Hall performance of the Shostakovitch violin sonata, given by Leonidas Kavakos.  Fantastic!  But then, unusually (Radio 3 broadcasts Monday lunchtime concerts live and then again the following weekend), I was able to listen again to the exact same performance on the radio that I had already witnessed live.  And on the radio it sounded … nice.  The comparison was, as the saying goes, no comparison. 

Since her recital was also a Monday lunchtime Wigmore recital, I would once again have the chance to listen again, to Ms Buniatishvili.  Would the same principle apply to her playing?  That Shostakovitch piece had involved two musicians, Kavakos and his equally excellent pianist, both striking sparks off each other.  Would the deadness-liveness contrast still apply, with only one musician?

Indeed it did, and if anything ever more so.  I listened, in particular, to that Schumann piece that had knocked my socks off in the actual concert hall, and it sounded … nice.  I was right back with the vicar, sipping tea.  Astonishing.

What a difference a journey can make.  As you can see, that’s been a preoccupation of mine here of late.

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