Behzod Abduraimov Returns

CanadaCanada Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Saint-Saens and Ravel: Behzod Abduraimov, piano, Chan Centre, Vancouver, 9.3.2014.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 (‘Funeral March’)
Chopin: Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49
Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (arr. Liszt/ Horowitz)
Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90, Nos. 2 and 3
Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit

There are few hotter commodities in the world right now than pianist Behzod Abduraimov from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This young, 23 year old pianist has overwhelmed audiences in London and throughout the world, and is already sufficiently influential that at the beginning of this concert — a return engagement by popular demand — the artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society came on stage wearing exotically-coloured boots made in his home country.    The obviously compelling attribute of this pianist is his ability to really ‘storm’ the piano with exceptional speed, clarity and volcanic weight, all with seemingly spontaneity and fully-consuming intensity. But then there is his beautiful, flowing treatment of soft passages too, creating wonderful textures, elasticity and flow, given his deft touch.

 No wonder the Gramophone referred to his Decca debut disc as revealing a new face with ‘bags of talent’ and his Queen Elizabeth Hall appearance in December 2012 was deemed the ‘concert of the year’.   In turn, a reviewer in the International Record Review highlighted one obvious reason why he can blow audiences away:  ‘He has the neuro-motor responses of a jungle cat and the energy reserves of an Olympic athlete on peak form’.

 Let’s move right way to the virtuoso piece: the Liszt/ Horowitz arrangement of Saint-Saens ‘Danse Macabre’. Simply stunning, in turns macabre, weighty, volatile and gleaming, Behzod’s long fingers literally consumed the keyboard, and all with a freshness of vision too!  For many, this performance alone would have been worth the price of admission.  At the intermission, I heard comments amidst the ‘buzz’ like “Did you hear those trills?’ and ‘I never though anyone could play that passage at that speed?’

 But Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit was equally interesting.  Certainly we have had no shortage of artists wanting to perform this summit of pianism, hearing Yevgeny Sudbin, Steven Osborne, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in recent years.  The opening of Ondine was most successful, a miracle of soft, gossamer-like texture (possibly rivalling the classic Pogorelich in this regard), maintaining strong control until almost its end.  Perhaps putting too much into the major climax, the pianist’s concentration faltered slightly at that point and he did not fully recover his earlier repose.  Nonetheless, the slow tread of the following movement was established convincingly in a treatment that was warmer and thicker in texture than some.  Here there was almost a sultry quality: the chilling effects of the repeated ‘tolling bell’ were accordingly less obvious than in, say, Steven Osborne’s remarkable account.  It is comforting to report that the concluding Scarbo was not just a ‘flurry of notes’ as it might be in very passionate hands.  What we heard was really quite a careful and deliberate exposition, segmenting the virtuoso outbursts from the quieter, more mysterious glimmerings more than normally. But an intelligent line through the movement and very commendable overall; it takes years to integrate everything here the way that Osborne and Bavouzet seemingly do.

 Two Schubert Impromptus are not enough to give insight into a true Schubertian spirit, but these interpretations were also interesting, exploiting a wide range of feeling and texture.  The lovely, Op. 90, No. 3 featured some meltingly-beautiful lyrical expression, while its companion No. 2 went in the other direction, starting with strongly-projected, gleaming runs at a fast pace and ending in distilled, impressionistic textures that I can only describe as Ravellian.  Striking and beautiful, but perhaps slightly over-adorned.  I did feel that some of the natural simplicity and balance of these little pieces was lost in this richer emotional journey.

 The Chopin Fantasie, Op. 49 in the earlier part of the programme gave us a slightly different take: very big-boned, powerful and flamboyant indeed.  In fact, somewhat old school, taking me back in some ways to earlier masters such as Witold Malcuzynski and Gyorgy Cziffra.  I think I even noticed some hand separation.  I did enjoy this somewhat déja vu experience but, for this era, this type of interpretation is probably too loose structurally, lacking crystalline elegance.

 Perhaps Behzod was just getting warmed up with the Chopin, and indeed with the Beethoven ‘Funeral March’ Sonata with which we began.  While he is known for a brilliant ‘Appassionata’, here the Beethoven’s start was somewhat unsettled, with too much rubato and often trying for too large a scale.  The following Scherzo was however excellent in its fluidity and rhythmic point.  But the ‘Marcia Funebre’ movement once again had problems of scale and style, starting with the romantic glow of Brahms and sometimes even venturing in the direction of Chopin’s famous dirge.  The finale had lots of momentum but little of Beethoven’s wit.

 So perhaps a predictable verdict for Behzod:  remarkable pianism, and control of keyboard motion, weight and colour, but the artist’s spontaneity and reactive emotionalism undoubtedly work better in some things than others.  While his ability to penetrate on the nerve-ends of more modern works seems exceptional even at this point, for my taste he still needs to bring a more disciplined emotional response, and a longer sight-line, to works of earlier traditions.

 © Geoffrey Newman 2014

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