Khatia Buniatishvili; Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer; London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev – review

LSO St Luke's; Wigmore Hall; Barbican, London

Hurrah for lunchtime concerts, those civilised oases where we can lay aside the stresses and strains of the working day and allow music to cool our fevered brows or inspire us on to fresh endeavour.

Well, that's their supposed intention, but judging by the audiences I see regularly at these events, today's hard-pressed workers are too busy battling to save us from the economic abyss. Instead, their seats are taken by the smug retired – the index-linked "I'm-so-busy-I-don't-know-how-I-found-time-to-go-work" brigade. Perhaps I'm being naive, but wouldn't we be better equipped to pull ourselves out of our fiscal woes if the workforce occasionally took an hour for beguiling diversion – particularly when lunchtime concerts offer such fantastic value?

Last week you might have enjoyed Haydn in Manchester, Bach in Leeds, Korngold in Cardiff, Praetorius in Edinburgh, Stravinsky in Bristol, Purcell in Oxford and Handel in Cambridge. The most expensive event in that random list was £12; most were either under £6 or totally free. If you live in any of those places and didn't give them a try you're off my Christmas card list.

I guarantee the FTSE would have risen several points if stressed-out City traders had paid a paltry £10 to hear the extraordinary Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili play three Beethoven sonatas last week. Though aged just 24, she has already been justifiably hailed as one of the great pianists of the future. She's an exciting risk-taker. In the allegro of the "Tempest" sonata, for example, she was simply audacious with the tempi and played single pianissimo lines with spooky open pedals, recreating this already revolutionary music and demanding that we reassess its plangent mystery.

Occasionally, she seemed lost in her own reverie, her hair falling across her face as she coaxed the so-called "easy" sonata in G Minor Op 49 No 1 into playful life, but when the rondo came she was entirely focused, speeding across the keyboard in a joyful blur.

That desire for breakneck speed was nearly her undoing in the daunting "Appassionata". The last movement is marked "allegro ma non troppo" but she chose to ignore "ma non troppo" and set off at like a rocket. Once or twice it threatened to derail, but it was all the more thrilling because of that ever-present danger. Buniatishvili is definitely a pianist to watch.

The romance from Grieg's violin sonata No 3 in C minor, when played by Daniel Hope with Sebastian Knauer at the keyboard, would be soothing balm for any anxious accountant, but there were few in evidence at the grey-haired Wigmore Hall last week. They mostly missed a treat. Hope possesses a lovely lower register, as rich and sonorous as a cello, which he employed to great effect in the opening allegro, though Knauer always threatened to overwhelm it in the pianissimo passages.

Their concert was billed as a celebration of Joseph Joachim – composer, violinist and dedicatee of the Brahms's violin concerto – so it was slightly odd to include Brahms's second violin sonata. Joachim never played the piece, nor indeed any of the sonatas, and had fallen out with Brahms at the time the second sonata was written. As if conscious of this tenuous connection, Hope and Knauer never quite took off in the opening allegro; Hope's phrasing was woolly and Knauer's incoherent and muddy, and while the closing allegretto grazioso fizzed well enough, the whole piece felt lumpy and uneven. Playing with their backs to each other can't help; Brahms's Hungarian Dance No 5 rattled along at 100mph but would have been even better had they made some eye contact.

Conductor Valery Gergiev knows all about eye contact. His agile face is a better indicator of his intentions than that famously feathery beat, so how the London Symphony Orchestra coped when the lights went out in Guildford last week was anybody's guess, but cope they did, playing on in the dark for several minutes after the 50p metaphorically ran out in the meter at the opening of the shiny new G Live concert hall just a few minutes into Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. Principal flautist Gareth Davies, in his LSO on Tour blog, described how a few players turned on their mobile phones to illuminate what they could and they played on until the end of the first movement. As engineers fought to gets the lights back, 20-year-old soloist Daniil Trifonov played some Chopin while Gergiev, one of the world's greatest conductors, stood beside him holding a torch to illuminate the keyboard.

There were no such problems for Gergiev and the LSO the next evening, when Nelson Freire joined them at the Barbican for Brahms's second piano concerto. He's an exquisite player, creating a gorgeous filigree in the quieter passages of the opening allegro and commanding attention in the nobler statements of the troubled second movement. Principal cellist Tim Hugh was in terrific form in the melting opening theme of the third movement, and the orchestral chorale that followed would have broken the stoniest heart, yet Freire seemed hardly aware of the passion of the orchestra, his calm presence at the keyboard giving him a curiously detached air, even in the wonderfully spiky finale.

There was no lack of passion in Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony, and no false histrionics either; Gergiev knows that it comes scorching off the page without the help of empty gestures. No wonder they roared for more.


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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