Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili Aspires to Present Music at Its Most Human

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 8, 2016 Updated: December 8, 2016

Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s introduction to music was natural and organic—”very easygoing,” she says.

She was born into a family with a musical atmosphere, with something always playing in the background. The room she spent most of her time in was furnished with an upright piano, and her mother made learning the instrument into a game. Buniatishvili took to the instrument with ease, marveling at how small movements could create beautiful melodies and harmonies.

But there was nothing mysterious or miraculous about it, the 29-year-old Georgian pianist says. Music was and still remains for her a very concrete and human art.

“Music is written by human beings, and it is written for human beings—so it’s a very human thing. It’s very touching for humans,” Buniatishvili said. “Everything I’m doing is for the purpose of bringing it to other humans, and back to myself. It creates a circulation between humans.”

This idea of giving something uplifting to others and receiving love and inspiration in return is Buniatishvili’s perpetual wish and her mission in music. If there is any talk of classical music not being interesting, she said, it is only because we have inadvertently created some barriers between people and the music, such as formalities like the idea that you need to be completely silent during a performance. She tries to do away with these for her audiences.  

But discussions of genres aside, the classical music repertoire happens to have many masterpieces by genius composers, Buniatishvili added. These are pieces that are important to the whole of humanity, and they will live on regardless of changes in society’s tastes.

One such piece is Mozart’s Requiem (Requiem Mass in D minor), one of Buniatishvili’s all-time favorites, which she listened to every night as a child before falling asleep.

The Requiem was the famed composer’s last work and was left unfinished at his death. It was commissioned by Count Franz Walsegg-Stupach for his late wife, through many intermediaries. Mozart, ill and feverish, began to believe he was writing the Requiem for his own funeral. According to some accounts, he performed portions of it with some friends the day before his death, and broke down sobbing during the Lacrimosa movement—of which we only have the first eight bars in Mozart’s own hand.

It’s commonly understood that Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed the work from specific instructions left on little scraps of paper by Mozart, and many musicologists have since attempted their own completions of this piece.

Buniatishvili said that while you listen to Requiem, during that process, you will come to many realizations. “You understand, listening to this piece, what really matters for humans in life, in general. You have the understanding of what is really most important,” she said. “When you are on the edge of life and death, you just understand what is painful and what is worthwhile, and what is priceless and what is not.

“I don’t know if everyone will feel the same. But for me, it makes me feel alive when I listen to this music,” Buniatishvili said. “Everything that touches us so strongly has a meaning for humans, because it makes us even better people.”

Music is a limitless art, allowing us to go as deep as necessary to tell a story, draw a description, or craft a portrayal, she said. 

And to be an artist is to bring out this humanity.


A distinct and ever-present characteristic of Buniatishvili’s playing is that it is so full of imagination. 

“To be an artist is when you are realizing your fantasy; you are doing something with your fantasy. It doesn’t just stay inside your head but you are giving shape to that,” she said. You need fantasy, inspiration-fueled imagination, and the technique and capability to bring it to life.

Buniatishvili says she is first and foremost inspired by the composer’s work, and then she takes this inspiration and imprints her own personality and interpretation back into the music as well, forming a creative circuit.

The albums she releases are a good example of this. At different points in her life, different composers or works have spoken most deeply to her, and she works to articulate these parallels, sorting them out for herself so she can create a sincere and concrete, atmospheric album.

This year, she released “Kaleidoscope,” with recordings of three movements from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” Ravel’s “La Valse,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which she will perform at a recital at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 10. These works all have orchestral arrangements that are more popular than their piano counterparts, but the piano lends a kind of intimacy to this music, she said. 

Buniatishvili, a careful and passionate curator, chose three pieces with illustrious stories attached. The roots of these stories are quite dark, but the colors and artistry through which the composers have given them life create joy, she explained.

“Petrushka,” for instance, brings dance and music together with the art of puppetry—it is a ballet about the story of a puppet, Petrushka, who loves the Ballerina, but is rejected. Hurt, he challenges the Moor, who the Ballerina loves, and is killed in the end. It is a tragic story, but it is still a fairy tale with imagination and fantasy layered on top.

In “Pictures at an Exhibition,” each movement corresponds to an image—the drawings and watercolors done by Mussorgsky’s artist friend Viktor Hartmann, like Baba Yaga’s hut on hen’s legs, or the Tuileries gardens in Paris. Hartmann’s sudden death at the age of 39 shook Mussorgsky and his contemporaries, and Mussorgsky helped put together an exhibition of Hartmann’s work the following year. The music was inspired by his experience. There are hidden ideas in these pictures, Buniatishvili said, and through the music you can see all these colors and the sources these pictures came from. 

There have been many analyses of Ravel’s “La Valse”: Some describe it as a tribute to a waltz, some as a parody, and others as a tragic allusion to post-war Vienna. Ravel’s instructions indicate that the dance begins set in mist, before the different instruments join in as waltzing couples. Buniatishvili feels it is a dance with so much passion that you cannot share with a partner, and you are dancing away alone. It is not purely joyful—there is a darkness in the beginning of it—but through imagination, it becomes festive and colored in a joyful way, she said.

“Reality can be quite dark, but through a kaleidoscope it becomes quite colorful, because with your imagination, you can make a dark reality quite colorful,” Buniatishvili said. 

Buniatishvili said the piano repertoire is vast, and early on she may have had this or that piece she was required to learn, but now it’s important to her not to waste time on something she can’t put her stamp on.

“I will choose something that is somehow mine, where I can feel love for the piece. From me, and from the piece itself,” she said.

Giving, Forgetting

While albums are carefully art directed, in concerts “it is the moment that matters, and every moment is unique, because you can never go back,” Buniatishvili said.

In a good concert, it is about “forgetting my own ego,” she said. Everything disappears—there is no pretense or control or calculation or expectations—and all that remain are the emotions of the music and the energy of the audience. 

“It’s a very important thing for me,” she said. “Forgetting and giving everything you have of yourself without controlling who you are and what you are doing here.”

It is also important that people feel a warmth from the experience and that it is a natural and easygoing experience, Buniatishvili added. There are already so many harrowing things in the world—terrorism, poverty, people having their freedoms taken away—and knowing these situations persist is something that pains her.

But music, which is so human and can move us, helps us become better people, she said, and we should make an effort to break down barriers between people and such human art.

“Everything that breathes should breathe freely and happily,” Buniatishvili said.

“I hope that [for] all my life that I could give love, and receive love from people who listen to my interpretations, and that I am able to give love—this is my biggest wish.”