Khatia Buniatishvili. Colour: red

We have a history together, me and Khatia.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but what a sweet, pleasant exaggeration – and the truth is I was blown away by this wonderful lady in the spring of 2016, when she wasn’t even the centre of attention.

Remember: Ice Legends was a skating gala, not a piano recital.

„Je ne suis pas une patineuse”, she’d say smiling, fluttering her beautiful black curls in the air, in a short video preceding Le Poème. „Je joue juste du piano”.

Juste du piano?

Make no mistake here: Khatia is a splendor – and if the spectators of Ice Legends came to Geneva for Stéphane, Mao, Daisuke, Carolina, they left with Khatia on their minds as well when the show in Patinoire des Vernets reached its end.

Because this hugely talented artist breathed life, soul, melancholy into the poem on ice imagined by Stéphane Lambiel, and she herself became a part of it – one with Ice Legends, one with the beauty of it.

And so who is this pianist who wasn’t overshadowed by the skaters she played for? Who is Khatia Buniatishvili?

The readers of Inside Skating have the wonderful opportunity to know a little more, as much as Khatia offered in a short yet nuanced conversation last autumn, when she came to Bucharest to play Schumann’s Piano Concerto alongside Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

by Florentina Tone

We meet a day before the concert in the hotel she’s staying, one of the iconic buildings of the city – and no better place for our talk than a sumptuous ballroom, beautifully adorned, ceiling made of stained glass.

High-heels, long, loose velvet pants, wavy, veil blouse, all-black except for the red lipstick, Khatia Buniatishvili has this queenly appearance, and she seems at home in this historic place, dating back to 1914, the final time of La Belle Époque.

And while I’m waiting for my turn – there’s always a long line of journalists wanting to interview some of the most expected guests of George Enescu Festival –, a photographer comes to share his enthusiasm, and show us a few shots, „She’s fabulous, really!”, and his pictures of Khatia look almost like paintings. Flemish paintings, if you may.

And a beautiful, low-voice conversation follows.

Her first memories with the piano, 8-year old Khatia and the „dreams’ tree” near Tbilisi, her country, Georgia, in the ’90ties – the wars, the chaos, the parents’ concerns and the everlasting optimism of her mother. The piano as a symbol of musical solitude, its freedom, richness, independence. A stop for finding out the stories of a certain hall in Bucharest – the one she was about to play in during Enescu Festival. And Khatia’s special projects, her talent and enthusiasm going into different directions; and one of those roads led her to Stéphane Lambiel – pay special attention to this part.

And so this is a journey through music, through history, through metaphors, through skating. And one that is thoroughly enjoyable, you’ll see. Because Khatia talks exactly like she plays Debussy’s Clair de lune: smooth and soft, more like a confidence.

Florentina Tone: Let’s start with that – what’s the first recollection of you and the piano? I read that you started to play when you were 3 – I don’t have memories from when I was 3 years old, do you have any?

Khatia Buniatishvili [smiling]: From 3, no. But I have some audio recordings from when we were at that age: my mother playing with us [Khatia and her sister, Gvantsa]. And, also, when I see old things, or paintings I have drawn, or familiar smells… it brings you the memories you might have had. But my first very strong memories with the piano are an exam I had, or my first concert, or my first meeting with a professor… These things I remember very well.

Your first post on instagram is a picture from when you were 8 – you look so beautiful and dreamy in that photo. What were your dreams at 8, if I may ask, and how many of those dreams came true?

I had lots of dreams then: I wanted a beautiful life, I wanted to have a big love and things like that… I was very dreamy [smiling].

In Georgia we have this tree called the dreams’ tree. It’s not in Tbilisi, you have to go outside the city, and the kids are putting their tissues there and thinking of a dream. And we were at the same period of that picture, and I remember I went into an excursion with my sister’s group one day – there’s one year difference between us, and I went with them to the dreams’ tree – and I remember hanging there my dream. And, somehow, my dream was the world peace.

It’s weird, I know… But the thing is I saw so many things happening in Georgia, unpleasant things… And it’s painful to see that children might dream of this kind of things, you know? To have dreams like no poverty in the world, no war in the world – that was my dream. Ever since I was a child I wanted everybody to be happy so that I could allow myself to be happy.

But how was your childhood? How was it growing up in Georgia in the ’90ties?

I remember nice things, but I also remember… Political-wise, it was very bad – it was this chaotic period of different wars, and different government changes…

Did you sense all that in the family, in the overall atmosphere?

My parents were not talking about politics with us when we were at that age. Later, when we were teenagers, definitely, a lot – but, earlier, no. But I remember having a little bit of fear of tomorrow. Our parents were trying not to show it too much, but, at the same time, you hear things, or see some facts, or sometimes they’re just nervous, and you fear of what might be tomorrow. But my mother was always very strong – she was saying: If we work hard, tomorrow something good is gonna happen.

But every day there were obstacles for my parents. Not for us, because we were kids, so we just needed to practice and be nice kids [smiling]… but kids are sensitive. And even if parents don’t show it, you feel it.

You have this beautiful story with the piano – and you once said piano is the symbol of musical solitude. And I can’t help but wanting to know more, dive in this metaphor…

Piano is a very strong instrument in the first place. And when an instrument is strong, it’s also independent. It’s not like the violin, or the cello, or other instruments that need some big crowd, that need other accompanists… Piano can survive, and it can be absolutely sublime, all alone.

And this independence, this freedom also means a kind of solitude. Melancholy is part of that solitude – and it’s not something negative, not at all…

And piano has this huge intellectual potential… But, on the other hand, it’s made of strings inside, so it gives this emotional touch, and this mixture of different things makes it even more original.

This richness, and this independence, freedom, strength, but also this loneliness, melancholy, which are all related to each other, make this instrument so special and so interesting for me.

Back to history now, Romanian history – since the hall in which you’ll be playing in Bucharest [in September 2017, during George Enescu Festival] is not really a proper concert hall: made in the ’60ties, it mainly accommodated the communist party’s congresses, meetings, so it has a lot of history imprinted on it already.

[and you see Khatia’s eyes amazed: „Really?”]

That brings me to my question: does it matter to you in what hall you’re playing? Or you manage to be on your own, you with the music, with the piano, no matter the hall, the history of it?

Actually, apart from Musikverein and Carnegie Hall and Italian theatres which are really old and legendary, most of the concert halls we’re playing nowadays are quite new, right? So there is not much history in them, we have to build a new history.

And you’re saying this was a communist…

…the Palace Hall in Bucharest played host to the party’s official meetings, yes – that was its main purpose until the fall of communism, in 1989.

Wow! But you know, when we change things for the better, we don’t need to destroy them, we can just give them a different life – for a new, better beginning. I think it’s better than destroying everything.

We might change governments and politics, and go more and more to the democratic way of thinking, but, at the same time, I think revenge is not a good thing. And revenge for the architecture is not a good thing either, so I think [having concerts here] is the right thing to do.

…and, a day later, Khatia will do just that, play Schumann’s Piano Concerto in the Palace Hall, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta

Khatia, allow me to finish with those special projects you were involved in: in 2014, you were a part of Art on Ice, a show famous worldwide for its amazing blend of live music and skating. And then, in 2016, you were a precious guest of Stéphane Lambiel’s Ice Legends – playing Chopin, Debussy, Ravel in what stayed in the mind of the skating fans as Le Poème. Your presence in these shows was truly a joy – how did you become a part of them?

[smiling] I was approached by Art on Ice producer and he suggested me to do something with that, and I said: Yeah, of course! And I was very interested because I love mixing different arts and I wanted to experiment things – and I said Yes just to experiment.

And then I met Stéphane Lambiel and I thought: He’s such a genius! And he’s such a dancer!, he’s not just a sportsman, so with him I would love to do other projects too – so when he suggested me to do Ice Legends, I just said Yes!

I didn’t ask what it was about – first I said Yes! and then we made the concept! [laughing heartily]

Meeting Stéphane Lambiel at Art on Ice, in 2014. Two years later, in the spring of 2016, they’ll meet again, at Ice Legends – and Khatia Buniatishvili will be the „music-teller”, playing Chopin, Debussy and Ravel in what was known as Le Poème.

What do you see, what do you remember when looking back, when thinking at Ice Legends?

I think about Stéphane Lambiel, of course. For me, he is a ballerin! You know? He’s so special! And Carolina Kostner… she is amazing! And she was just magnificent in Debussy – it was really a pure moment of happiness.

To see her so romantic, and so fine, and subtle on ice, and so attentive to music… She was so in connection with the sounds…

Carolina Kostner skating to Debussy’s Clair de lune, as played – like a haze, a bouquet of colours, a caress – by Khatia Buniatishivili

Carolina and Stéphane, creating a beautiful „poème” with Khatia


A day after this interview, on the night of her concert in Bucharest, Khatia is wearing red. Flamboyant, sparkling red – and she’s a flame herself while playing Schumann, and then Bach and Liszt as the encores, while changing for the better, for good, the history of the Palace Hall.

Receiving in return a burst of joy, enthusiastic cheers – and bouquets of roses and sword lilies.

No doubt about it: Khatia Buniatishvili adds magic to a city, a festival, a concert, an encounter… and even to a skating show.

And Stéphane Lambiel says it better, with accomplice smile: „Khatia? C’est une mé-ga-star!”

[Photos accompanying the interview were taken at 2014 Art on Ice, 2016 Ice Legends and 2017 George Enescu Festival]


Stéphane Lambiel’s Ice Legends: A Midspring Night’s Dream

Carolina Kostner: “I can search for my own best version, and then that’s my gift”