Khatia Buniatishvili, Wigmore Hall (*****) / Alice Sara Ott, Royal Festival Hall (**)


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The Independent Culture

Khatia Buniatishvili and Alice Sara Ott have more than their youth and keyboard skill in common: they both enjoy the dubious privilege of being their record companies’ pianistic pin-ups.

Buniatishvili is a fiery Georgian who made her name with Liszt. Her playing has sometimes been erratic, but this Wigmore recital reflected an Olympian assurance. One had doubts as the opening phrases of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2 came and went in impetuous little gusts, but as the first movement took shape her strategy proved to have a persuasive logic. And that carried over into the machine-gun staccatos and demonic chromatic-octave runs of the second movement, before sailing into the sweetly-drifting lyrical section. The contours of the funeral march were deftly limned, with the martial theme approaching through the mists, ringing out majestically, then receding back into them; Buniatishvili’s preternaturally smooth solution to the perennial challenge of the Presto took the breath away. And so it went on, with Chopin’s second and third Scherzos delivered with a touch by turns subtle and electrifying, and all rounded off with accounts of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ and a Prokofiev toccata which - despite their crazy momentum - were technically flawless. Here we could see why Martha Argerich had singled her out as a successor, because this was world-beating stuff.

German-Japanese Alice Sara Ott made her name with a phenomenal recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. She opened her Southbank recital with Schumann’s seldom-performed Allegro in B minor Opus 8, but her lack-lustre account meant that the case for this Cinderella piece wasn’t made. And what she did – or didn’t do - with Schubert’s Sonata in D major D850 was even more of a let-down, with the mysterious twists and turns of its musical thought scrambled and trivialised. The slow movement should have a Lied-like expressiveness, but here it was coldly detached, and the Scherzo had no fizz. With Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ she did at least let in some colour, but her basic approach to that work was heavy-handed and mechanical; only in her encore did she reveal a flash of her original Lisztean brilliance. The hall was full – vigorous marketing, plus her trademark bare feet and scarlet ball-dress, had seen to that – but the performance itself was miserably charisma-free.