The fourth of twelve St Luke’s lunchtime concerts devoted to Beethoven’s piano sonatas welcomed its third artist – the only contributor not doing more than one recital – Khatia Buniatishvili. As befits her impassioned reputation her three sonatas were all in the minor key, with the ‘simple’ Opus 49/Number 1 flanked by two towering, emotionally wrought masterpieces, The Tempest and Appassionata.
Curiously, given her heart-on-sleeve approach, ‘The Tempest’ seemed rather subdued, particularly in the opening movement’s alternations between Allegro and Largo phrases. Yes she did scale the heights in terms of bravura and volume in the finale, but was surprisingly subtle in the first movement. Admittedly Beethoven in later compositions did shift the focus to the end of the work, but here – in a work dating from the time of the composer’s Heiligenstadt Testament in which he confronted (and faced down) his encroaching deafness – the trajectory is more balanced, and ‘The Tempest’ was more subdued than expected from Buniatishvili, definitely not living up to her ‘Hurricane Katia’ (sic
The dangers of the seemingly easy Opus 49 pair of sonatas are very different, but Buniatishvili presented us with a heartfelt and refreshingly unfussy rendition of the first one. Apart from bending her head towards the keyboard so her hair falls in front of her eyes, Buniatishvili is a modest player – on this viewing at any rate – with no extra-musical habits to distract, and the G minor miniature was an utter delight. It also served as a palate cleanser for a great performance of the ‘Appassionata’. Even in its loud, sonorous climaxes there was a clarity that again allowed Beethoven’s conception to speak. Here we were not disappointed in passionate engagement and the finale was overwhelming. It’s a curious feeling being wrung though the mill at lunchtime – as the sun streams through the windows of St Luke’s – but it was well worth it. Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 9 December.