Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is 27 years old, speaks five languages, and is undoubtedly one of the world’s most glamourous classical musicians. At the age of six she gave her début performance as a soloist with an orchestra, which led to performances in Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Russia, Israel and the USA. Her profile is higher in Europe than it is in the U.S., but that’s beginning to change. She made her 2011 recording debut with a Liszt recital on Sony Classical, followed by an album of Chopin, and last year she released the brilliant and eclectic Motherland. As a duo, she and French violinist Renaud Capuçon have just released an album featuring sonatas by Franck, Grieg, and Dvořák. Her approach to music is anything but typical, marking her as a contemporary maverick who feels more at home in the musical world of the previous century. She recently called me one morning from her home in Paris. I don’t remember the last time I was so excited to hear the phone ring.
Mark Rudio: Your recital in San Francisco last year impressed me with the boldness of your interpretations and the way you pushed at the limits of the music’s boundaries. Many found it fascinating, myself included, and others not so much. It was similar to the way pop or jazz musicians create an interpretation of someone else’s music as if it’s their own.
Khatia Buniatishvili: Yes, I think that is a very important point of interpretation– to view the score as if it was written just for you and you’re performing it for the very first time. When I look at new scores, and by that I mean new for me, I try not to listen to other interpretations, to what other people are doing, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. I’m trying to read the score and feel it as if it was just written freshly for me, and as the first interpreter you’re going to give your soul to the piece. That’s what I’m trying for. Some people don’t like it and it’s often is criticized, but for others there is a feeling that the music was written just for me and it’s authentic and original. There are divided opinions about it but for me it is very important to feel the authenticity of the piece. Even though there are lots of great interpretations of different piano pieces, listening to another’s interpretation you remember the feeling of it, how it breathes, and whether you want it to or not it stays with you in your thoughts and you remember it, and that turns it into a kind of remake, a kind of second interpretation. That’s why I’m very careful about staying alone and authentic with the piece so that it becomes my interpretation and nobody else’s.
MR: Let’s talk about anti-perfectionism. I read that you’re very concerned about the preoccupation of many of today’s pianists about playing every note perfectly, and how that removes the soul from the music. Is this something that’s still in your mind as you’re performing and recording?
Khatia: You should stay very close to what is written in the text because this is the only imprint left from the composer. It is the only material you have, so scores you cannot touch. But I think that perfection of technique and a scrupulous reading of the text as the main purpose or as the way into the composer’s music is not the purpose of interpretation, and often the results are contrary to creating an interpretation. This is what I see today– the most important thing is to be perfect and very correct to the text, which I understand, but it’s your interpretation and your spirit in the piece, and your mood, your thoughts, and your own individuality which actually makes the piece come alive because if we don’t give ourselves to the piece then the piece is dead– it’s like an untouchable room, and art is not like that. Each interpretation should have its own spirit, its own breath to bring the piece alive, and perfection is something you should try to be close to but it should not be the main thing.
MR: In your solo recitals you strive for unaffected and natural phrasing. How is that different when you’re performing as a duo, as you will be this weekend with Renaud Capuçon?
Khatia: I think it’s the same– you just have to share something verbally with your partner because sometimes you’re not always understood as you wish to be. When you perform as a duo a lot of it is about sharing, understanding, and compromising. I like to be a leader when I’m performing, but a part of leadership is to be nice and compromise with your partner. This is also a kind of control, and contrarily in a duo there are both sides, of being an artist and a student. The mixture of both is very important so when I play with other musicians I try to listen to what they want. I don’t like sharing too many words. I don’t like to describe everything that we’re doing. I like to smell what the other person likes to do, discover the scent of the other person’s music. With Renaud I think we are very different as musicians. Our taste is even different, but we respect each other a lot. There is one thing which we have in common and that is we somehow smell each other’s musical scent, a musical color that’s a kind of perfume we have when we’re playing, and it comes out of something very unique which is actually quite strange as we are very different personalities.
MR: You queued up my next question perfectly.
Khatia: I thought I was doing exactly that.
MR: You once said, “I simply can’t play with a musician who has no taste.”
Khatia: That’s true.
MR: Tell me who has exquisite taste.
Khatia: I think it’s difficult to name names, but I could say one which is impossible, and that’s Bernstein. Not just because of his taste but for everything he had. I mean for me this is a human being that is music himself. I think everybody with authenticity and who is pure towards music has taste, not like an academic who is thinking all the time about the text, but a person who cannot lie while playing music. This is good taste– natural phrasing, like when you’re talking you are not mannered. When you express who you are, you speak naturally, you express yourself the way you are. This is good taste for me– not a snob with exotic tastes. Everything natural, that’s good taste. Everything individuated or mannered is bad taste.
MR: In a promotional video for your album with Renaud he describes the fourth of Dvořák’s Four Romantic Pieces as one of the most beautiful things ever written for violin and piano. What else would you add to the list?
Khatia: For me it is Franck’s Sonata that I would build everything around. I think it is perfect. Very romantic, very moving. It’s a touching piece but at the same time it has a fuller musical form. It’s not very original but it is very complex and interesting. Each movement describes and shows many different aspects of a human being’s emotional evolution. So it’s many things in one piece but at the same time it stays very touchable and romantic. There are so many pieces that I love– Shostakovitch’s small pieces, his miniatures. Prokofiev. It’s difficult to say just one piece, but if I have to say just one for violin and piano work, and is special to play with Renaud, it would be the Franck Sonata.
MR: You once said, “If you’re interested in classical music you should be interested in literature as well because there are many things in common between these worlds.” So what are you reading right now?
Khatia: Right now I’m reading something not so romantic, Seneca’s Of Consolation: to Helvia
MR: What drew you to that?
Khatia: I’m very curious about literature, so I can read something only for romantic purposes, which is close to the repertoire about which we were just talking, but I also can read something like philosophers or contemporary literature. I like everything and I’m just curious when it comes to literature. This is a second world, along with classical music. Just music, I mean. I don’t want to say just classical because I don’t want to stereotype, but I would say music and literature are the two worlds which are most important to my life.
MR: I know you like Dostoevsky.
Khatia: Yes, that’s right he’s my favorite.
MR: To paraphrase George Steiner, why Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy?
Khatia: Tolstoy for me is an artist, but as a creator Dostoevsky is much stronger. Dostoevsky understands human beings in a very complex way, in very direct way psychologically. Tolstoy on the other hand is inaccessible for me because there’s a greatness in his work that is imperialistic in thought. This is disturbing to me because I think a really great person cannot be imperial. As an artist it is especially like that for me. All artists want to have power and have greatness but they’re always stopped by very human values. That’s not always the case in Tolstoy’s literature.
MR: I want to ask you about the Kreutzer Sonata not only because of the Tolstoy connection but because of Beethoven, who is often discussed in literature. Have you ever played it? Do you have any interest in the piece?
Khatia: I do. I love Beethoven in general. Not only listening to it but I also love performing it because it allows me to express all the energy I have. Beethoven helps me channel that in the right direction. He helps me a lot as a pianist. But regarding the Kreutzer Sonata, and many different works of his, I would want to give some [extended portion] of my life to Beethoven, separate only for Beethoven. I just need time right now and I can’t do it because I’m busy with other things and I don’t want to do it in the process of being stressed. I want to dedicate lots of time to him, and the Kreutzer Sonata could be part of that, but it’s not only the Sonata I would like to play. Some of them I already have in my repertoire but not for reasons that are related to literature or the literary side of Beethoven, but because I simply love his music. But why are you asking me about the Kreutzer? You want to make this connection with literature or…?
MR: Because I know you’re also interested in film and I want to ask if would be interested in making a film based on Tolstoy’s story and appear as the pianist in the film?
Khatia: Well, thank you for thinking of me. I must say I’ve never imagined myself in an image-related art form but I’ll just concentrate on that for a moment and think about it. It’s a very interesting idea. I don’t know why I never thought of it before. Well, I can’t think about everything, but people like you can give me some ideas. It’s very interesting what you’re saying right now.
MR: I’d like to see that happen. Speaking of films, April in Paris is completely unavailable in the U.S. Do you know if there’s ever going to a release?
Khatia: I think it was released at a festival in Florida I will check with the director, who is a friend of mine.
MR: What drew you to that particular project? I noticed the director is Georgian. Is he a long time friend of yours?
Khatia: Not long time. I’ve known him for several years now.
MR: Do you want to do more films? I’ve seen several of your promotional videos. They’re beautifully shot.
Khatia: I love the art of film and combining images with music. I love mixing the different parts together and for me cinema is something very special because it’s a mixture of music and literature. There’s a story and there is music, or there is silence that you can manipulate with music, which I find absolutely marvelous. It’s an imitation of life but you can put a soundtrack on it, which I find amazing. Yes, I’m very interested in this genre because in life you cannot really do everything– you cannot experience everything, or all the emotions you want to experience. If you are very authentic towards your heart then you can experiment with all of these things and art gives me the possibility to express myself differently. It’s not something I need for myself — not because I want to show it to others or as a narcissistic thing, but it’s more about expressing everything on the inside in an outward way. So all these projects have been done with great pleasure and it was very experimental for me. Life is interesting, but I’m not sure I will continue in this way if I don’t see the interest from the people who work with me. I would like to continue but there are no special plans apart from a documentary which I’m going to realize myself in a little bit with the help of some other people.
MR: A documentary which you’ll be directing?
Khatia: I have this wish too, but I don’t know if I’m good enough to do that. You can never do it if you don’t try the first time, but usually when I make a video I give the concept and provide the script as well. That’s how the videos are done. I’m not really involved with the camera, so I cannot work with cameras but the concept is usually mine when I’m doing a video.
MR: As you’re going through your day do you have a soundtrack playing in your mind?
Khatia: It would be good if you could have it playing all the time, in those moments when you have the concentration of your emotions. What I’m saying is very theoretical but sometimes you just feel that your emotions are very concentrated, for example when you’re less relaxed or when you’re not emotionally empty, and at that point I usually hear music. Or if I want to concentrate my emotions I try to hear music in my head, so music and emotions are very much related for me.
MR: Is there a piece of music you find playing in your mind repeatedly?
Khatia: There are some motives of music that come into my head but usually it is not something concrete. It’s just sounds you hear in your head which can be related to some concrete pieces, but mostly it’s just sounds. I think everybody can imagine sounds in their head. You don’t need to be a composer, it doesn’t need to be written down. I just hear sounds that are close to my mind, or soul, if you will.
MR: Do you hear those sounds on a piano?
Khatia: No, not on the piano. Almost never from the piano. I hear piano in my head, but not in concentrated emotional moments. The piano is always in my head because I’m playing it, so it stays there. But when I think about something emotional, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not the piano: it’s sounds with some strings, but also some that may be not even instrumental. Something weirder.
MR: Obviously being attractive is an advantage for a performer, but do you ever see you the attention paid to your appearance as a distraction? Or do you just ignore it?
Khatia: I try to ignore it but there are different parts to it. There is the reaction of others, and then there is what you know and what you feel about yourself. For example, my image is quite natural because I never went to a stylist to create something. My mother has been my stylist since I was a child. We grew up in the Soviet Union, and as children everyone wore the same dresses, and everyone wearing more or less the same clothes. There wasn’t much of a choice during the Soviet era in my country. My parents didn’t have money, they were quite poor. My mother had no money, but she could make original things for herself in that time which were made from very cheap materials. She had this talent for making something different, nothing that anyone else had. So she’s following me in this way all of my life and it’s something very natural for me. I think she knows my character. She knows what I like stylistically and from that she makes something which is close to my personality. I guess this is something quite natural for me, though there’s not really much connection between this and music. But now I try especially hard to choose the dress in relationship to the the music. It is not always possible because the repertoire for the concerts varies, but if it is concentrated on one composer I could I asked my mother to choose clothes related to the repertoire. For example velvet is very nice with Ravel because it’s very French. Things like that. But in public it’s weird when they talk about my physique or what I’m wearing and they make some connection to it with my playing. I’m a little bit worried because I always thought that I was talented but not pretty, and sometimes when I hear things which are different it just feels ridiculous to me. But it’s okay because you cannot always control the minds of others and in democracies everybody can say what they think so this is fine with me.
MR: I want to ask about your sister Gvantsa and if the two of you have given some thought to recording or touring the Rachmaninoff suites for two pianos?
Khatia: We’ve done it already, and will perform them again in upcoming concerts. We’ve never made a CD together, and we don’t have plans to do so right now, but certainly in the future and not only a CD, but I’ll perform lots of concerts with her in the future. It’s difficult now– everything is so busy and already scheduled– but this is my plan. Not because she’s my sister, but because I think she is a fantastic musician. She is very natural. She’s very smart. She’s very deep as a musician, and as a person she is somebody with whom I can make harmony. We’re very different as far as our characters, but we have some similarities which makes our playing very contrasted but also very harmonic. We are definitely going to have some plans but there is nothing concrete for the moment. On my last CD,Motherland, there is a small piece of Dvořák with her.
MR: Will those dates include the U.S. or will they just be in Europe?
Khatia: Something in the U.S. for sure, but we don’t have dates yet because it’s very busy.
MR: Is there any contemporary music that you find interesting?
Khatia: Right now we cannot put musical labels on style. For example, what is the continuation of classical music? We can’t say. I think everything that is good can be a continuation of, or be on the same level as classical music. For me good music is simply good. It’s not important if it’s from Mozart’s era and today there is no problem with that. What I like about 20th century interpretations is their soft intensity, originality and individuality. In the 20th century everything was somehow stronger. I think today, and I’m talking about promoters and this world of classical music, it’s getting a little bit too concentrated and in this concentration is a movement away from individuality to a focus on a kind of shape that fits. They want something that is similar to that because they are afraid if they take a risk they might lose. That was not the case in the 20th century. Bernstein for example, and that’s what I like about that era. But today there are many things which I like very much. It’s difficult to say one person, but for example I like Giya Kancheli, a Georgian composer, very much and Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer. There are many things I like in other genres, for example I love Sting’s music and I like jazz.
MR: What about opera?
Khatia: Opera? I love opera, but what I love is the smell of the opera. I like the theater of opera. I like cinema more, and I like more simple arts, but I think that in the theater something should be a little more exaggerated because a person standing on a stage should be more mannered than what you see in cinema for example, and it’s the same thing for opera. But what I like about opera is the smell. How can I say it in English? To say there is a thing that hangs between the public and the stage– the smell of makeup, the tissues and materials– this is something of an old nature which I really like. Old opera I love, and course if it’s contemporary, Regietheater, that is interesting, but it has to be very convincing to make it interesting.
MR: One last question. If you could only express one or the other to your audience, would you choose drama or nostalgia?
Khatia: For the public I would choose drama. I would keep nostalgia for myself because it’s more intimate.