PCM4/Prom 34 – Buniatishvili/Roth/BBC NOW, Cadogan Hall/Royal Albert Hall (5/5, 3/5)

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The Independent Culture

No question about the most impressive Proms debut to date: Khatia Buniatishvili, a mermaid in a black sequinned ball-gown, wowing a packed Cadogan Hall.

This 23-year-old Georgian pianist had already made Liszt’s ‘Sonata in B minor’ her calling-card, but I was still bowled over by what she did with it here. This tumultuous work demands a huge canvas, and by taking the opening exceptionally slowly – which made the ensuing cascades even more dramatic - Buniatishvili brought everything into bold close-up. She made Liszt’s emotional journey a stream-of-consciousness, maintaining a fine balance between unhinged wildness and lyrical introspection, and adding a brilliant edge to the tone as the storms blew up; her dynamics were exquisitely calibrated, with the fugato section at once savage and smart as a whip.

For Prokofiev’s seventh sonata, with its multiple references to the angst of war, Buniatishvili found a hard, dry, metallic touch perfectly suited to the first movement’s mechanistic quality; the slow movement became a tone-poem, and the finale a hurtling toccata. Liszt’s third ‘Liebestraum’ made an island of calm between these awesome works; Chopin’s fourth Prelude rounded things off with dreamy grace.

Meanwhile Prom 34 brought three exhumations, Saint-Saens’s crowd-pleasing ‘Organ’ symphony, and a new work by Simon Holt entitled ‘Centauromachy’ (‘battle of the centaurs’). Holt’s works often come with a literary gloss: this one drew on classical mythology to evoke a series of Arcadian scenes, with the protagonists represented by Robert Plane’s clarinet and Philippe Schartz’s flugelhorn.

Holt created a miniature double-concerto by setting these nicely-contrasted instruments against a variety of orchestral backdrops. Each movement had its own sound-world, and some were indeed evocative, but the piece would be better served – indeed, illuminated – by a coloured light-show than it ever could be by words. Maybe next time? Think out of the box.

I can’t imagine why anyone should have wanted to exhume Dupre’s banal little ‘Cortege et litanie’, and Proms director Roger Wright’s other rediscoveries – by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) – were a disappointment. On the basis of ‘Enter Spring’ and ‘Blow out, you bugles’, Wright’s point is not yet made: yes, Bridge was closer in spirit to Ravel and Debussy than to his English compatriots, but no, he wasn’t remotely in the French composers’ league. Valiant performances from tenor Ben Johnson, conductor Francois-Xavier Roth, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.