Khatia Buniatishvili: the pianist behind the glitter

Khatia Buniatishvili is one of the most highly sought after pianists, both by the media and by the world's most prestigious concert halls... Here is the portrait of a musical phenomenon.

Khatia Buniatishvili: the pianist behind the glitter
Khatia Buniatishvili: the pianist behind the glitter, © Maxppp / ROBERT GHEMENT

She can be seen on television sets or the front covers of magazines: the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is part of the small group of classical music artists who reputation reaches far beyond the limits of their genre.

The pianist experienced a rapid rise to fame, quickly becoming a beloved but nonetheless divisive artist: with each of her performances and musical choices, Khatia Buniatishvili has made it clear she is determined to follow her own path. 

Berkovich and childhood

Khatia Buniatishvili was born on 21 June 1987, in the town of Batoumi near the Black Sea. Georgia was still under Soviet authority, and although the pianist remembers growing up in a safe family environment, she remembers the difficulties endured by the Georgian people during the Soviet period. In 1991, the year of Khatia's fourth birthday, Georgia finally proclaimed its independence. 

At the age of 6, Khatia Buniatishvili gave her first public concert. She performed the Concerto Op.44 by Isaac Berkovich, a composer closely associated with the Soviet regime. The work performed by the young Khatia rang like an echo of the past, of her family, and of her native Georgia. 

Brahms and the rise to fame

Khatia Buniatishvili's rapid rise to fame began in 2008, when she was awarded the 3rd prize and the Public prize by the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel-Aviv. The character and force of the young pianist's performance hardly went unnoticed, and she was invited that same year to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York, and a year later at the Festival de la Roque-d’Anthéron in the south of France.

Though Khatia Buniatishvili did not win the First prize, her career was nonetheless well and truly launched. In 2011, she admitted to not having been fully prepared for the Rubinstein Competition since she was little interested in the imposed works, and only chose to perform the Piano Concert no.2 by Brahms for the finale simply for her own pleasure!

Liszt and a taste for showmanship

In 2011, Khatia Buniatishvili released her first album with Sony, a recording of the works of Franz Liszt, Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist, known for the spectacular nature of his piano performances.

Qualities which can also be found in the style of Khatia Buniatishvili: once at the piano, everything is permitted, be it attitude, emotion, or outfit. Her dresses and often plunging necklines in particular have often sparked controversy and debate: her look "titillates the classical public [...] shakes and disrupts this fragile world", explains Renaud Villain in the publication Stupéfiant!. Her style and appearance have even earned her various nicknames including the "Betty Boop of the piano" and the "the pop star of the classical music world".

In the 19th century, Franz Liszt was criticised for succumbing to the use of the spectacular and other theatrics, at the cost of the music. Two hundred years later, Khatia Buniatishvili is also judged for the romanticism and freedom of her performances. In the face of such critics, the pianist has stayed the course and defended her right to reappropriate each work and to perform them without necessarily respecting the tradition or model imposed by her predecessors.  

Chopin and Paris

Khatia Buniatishvili's second album was dedicated to the music of Frédéric Chopin, a choice that revealed her affinity for the Romantic period, all the while demonstrating her capacity to adapt to a more intimate repertoire. "It's a double-game", she explained in 2017 during an interview with Radio France. "We can subtly reveal our emotions all the while staying perfectly intimate with our instrument."

Emotion seems to be Khatia Buniatishvili's guiding and motivating force. Her choices are made out of pleasure and affinity, both musically and personally. Much like Frédéric Chopin 180 years earlier, the pianist decided to live in Paris, capital city in which she is happy, put simply; in 2017, the pianist even became a French citizen.

Buniatishvili & co.

We are familiar with Khatia Buniatishvili the (super)soloist, in front of the orchestra, but we are less familiar with Khatia Buniatishvili the chamber musician: a duet with Renaud Capuçon, a trio with the violinist Gidon Kremer and the cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite, and even four-hand piano with her sister Gvantsa Buniatishvili.

Khatia Buniatishvili expresses through the chamber music repertoire her fidelity to the Romantic composers (Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Franck, Dvorak) but nonetheless explores other repertoires, both as a chamber musician and a soloist, as can be seen in her two following albums Motherland (2015) and Kaleidoscope (2016). 

Rachmaninov and Russia

Khatia Buniatishvili's most recent album was centred upon Sergei Rachmaninoff, recording his piano concertos in 2017. A parallel is often drawn between the composer and the pianist: he left the Soviet Union following the October Revolution in 1917, she refuses all invitations to perform in Russia on account of the political regime of its president Vladimir Putin: "For me, the situation is clear: you don't invade a country that doesn't belong to you", she explained with regards to the invasion of Crimea during an interview with the newspaper Libération.

However, Khatia Buniatishvili does not approve of such a parallel for fear of encouraging the politicisation of classical music composers. In 2016, she reminded during an interview on the French television show 28 Minutes, that what interests her first and foremost about Rachmaninoff is his music.

In 2018 at Radio France, Khatia Buniatishvili performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no.2, a work close to the pianist's heart in which she sees "a true complexity, hidden behind great charm and generosity". A concerto in the pianist's image... 

*Khatia Buniatishvili en avril 2017, dans la Récréation de Vincent Josse sur France Inter