On Wednesday Khatia Buniatishvili, with her sister and manager Gvantsa, blew in to Britain on the Eurostar from her home in Paris, rehearsed with the Oxford Philharmonic on Thursday afternoon and was playing Rachmaninov in the evening before whizzing back to Paris again. At the weekend she had been playing in the Konzerthauswien (in Vienna). Such is the peripatetic life of the stellar international musician. Publicity puffs burbling about her "sweeping the globe with her fiery musicianship" tend to precede her appearances these days. Such puffs (and more especially their accompanying photos, with which the Oxford music billboards have been plastered this last couple of weeks) tend to lag a while behind Old Father Time. In fact Buniatishvili has reached the ripe old age of 30, having first tinkled at a keyboard at the age of three, given her first recital in Tbilisi (in Georgia) at six, and for ten years now has trod the treadmill of the supra-national concert circuit.
Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, which resurrected the first phase of his composing career, was composed at age 27. The famously tolling bell-like chords grew in intensity until finding release in the arpeggios that launch the majestic main theme. It's interesting how at no point does the pianist have the main opening theme, giving the soloist an air of independence. Buniatishvili was soon whipping the second subject up into a faster tempo, launching into a pounding crescendo that had her rising from her stool as though to obtain more leverage on the keyboard. Some of the people sitting opposite me and behind the orchestra sat forward, gripping the ledge in front of them, sucked into the drama. By contrast the soloist took the opening to the 'adagio' and its serene accompanying figure simply, almost casually, moving onto wave-like progressions in the central section.
It goes without saying that Marios Papadopoulos was judging perfectly the volume of orchestral accompaniment which was often being handed to pizzicato strings and oily-smooth clarinets, given that he knows so well the acoustics of his home venue and is a solo concet pianist himself. In the 'allegro scherzando' there's a period where the music breaks into a sort of languid waltz-time; that's to say languid for the orchestra but continuously hectic for the soloist; hereabouts there was a beguiling visual moment where Ms Buniatishvili, an exotic figure in spangly peach-coloured dress, and Mr Papadopoulos, dapper in black and grey, simultaneously shook away the hair falling over their faces. As the end approached and the soloist built to a rocket-like cadenza, the glorious melody poured out, reminding us that this is some of the most wildly romantic music ever composed.
After the gales of applause, Buniatishvili bounded back into the playing space as if on springs and gave us as an encore of Franz Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, the second in a set of nineteen. I wonder if she chose this piece because Rachmaninov wrote a famous cadenza for it? Whether or not, she delivered the difficult opening section where the left and right hands are doing notably different things and then built up the pace and the intensity, ending in a detonation of pyrotechnics that had the audience gasping, then roaring. To coin a phrase, she came, she saw and she conquered.
We needed the interval to get our breath back and prepare for a wholesale change of mood with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Nick Breckenfield's programme notes provided a lucid summary of the political background, dangerous to the composer personally, of the Soviet Union in 1937, and also how this work's finale has variously been described as 'exultant' on the one hand and 'irreparable tragedy' on the other! I adore this music, with its contrast in texture between tough sinew and the sweet release from sorrow of the slow movement. Then there's the intensely serious beginning, with cellos and basses leading off with the strongly-marked rhythm that's at once copied by the violins; here is there not a suggestion of Bach?
Maestro Papadopoulos was alive to the challenge with this composer of having to give out bursts of energy even when the music has reached a momentary stasis, and to this end he kept the orchestra notably together. The early, long-sustained tune on the violins sang out (I always imagine fleshy politburo members humming it in the bath at their weekend dachas). The slow movement is the kernel of the work, and the divided strings, at one time joined by two flutes and the harp, highlighted Shostakovich's economy of scoring. The finale was, as written, noisy and exciting, full of sound and fury. A curmudgeon might say a bit empty, but here it brought down the house - and the curtain on a memorable concert.