United Kingdom Schubert, Liszt, Mussorgsky: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.9.2015 (RB)
Schubert – Four Impromptus, D 935
Liszt – Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
The last time I saw Uzbek pianist, Behzod Abduraimov, he had just won the London International Piano Competition and he gave an electrifying performance of Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Minor Concerto, earning himself a well-deserved standing ovation. He is a virtuoso firebrand in the Cziffra mould but I was pleased to see him flexing his musical as well as his technical muscles at this recital.
He opened the recital with Schubert’s second set of Impromptus, which were published ten years after the composer’s death. Many commentators at the time and since have seen the set as a sonata in disguise although they are clearly labelled as impromptus in Schubert’s manuscript. There have been some glorious interpretations of this music by pianists such as Lupu and Curzon so the bar is set very high. Abduraimov had his velvet gloves firmly in place for the opening F Minor Impromptu and I enjoyed his handling of the rustling semiquavers and the silky touch he brought to the central section. I wondered if he might have made a little more of the dynamic and tonal contrasts in the piece, particularly in the outer sections. The opening of the A Flat Impromptu was very polished and elegant but I would have liked Abduraimov to have a lighter spring in his step. I liked more his playing of the trio where the triplets were played with admirable refinement and a glistening range of colours. The playing of the B Flat Impromptu was solid although I missed some of the sparkle and playful qualities in the major key variations while the variation in B flat minor did not have the poetic depth that one hears in great performances of the piece. I enjoyed the opening of the final Impromptu, which was capricious and mercurial and the piece had enormous rhythmic vitality and energy. There was much to admire here although I was not completely convinced by these interpretations – Abduraimov could usefully return to this music at a later stage of his career.
I thought the Liszt and Mussorgsky would play to Abduraimov’s strengths more and he certainly did not disappoint. Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz was inspired by Nikolaus Lenau’s poem about the Faust legend. The action takes place at the village inn where Mephistopheles plays on the violin and works up the assembled peasants into an orgiastic dance. Faust leads one of the girls out of the inn with the aim of seducing her in the woods as they listen to the sound of nightingales. In the opening section Abduraimov gave us some breathtaking fingerwork as the music raced along at a blistering pace. The amoroso section had a voluptuous decadent quality and a whiff of sulphur as Abduraimov coaxed gorgeous colours and spine tingling sensations from his Steinway. The spell was dissolved by peals of demonic laughter and Abduraimov proceeded to give us what can only be described as an absolutely sensational display of thrilling virtuosity – I always think you can hear the Devil in this piece and Satan was summoned up here in all his infernal majesty. It was a barnstorming piece of playing and a great way to end the first half of the recital.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most original piano works from the 19th Century and it contains piano writing that was and remains highly unconventional. It is of course based on the composer’s response to a gallery of diverse paintings by Viktor Hartmann, including a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome, an old castle, an ox-drawn cart, two portraits of Polish Jews and a portrait of the man-eating witch, Baba-Yaga. Abduraimov showed us what a wide palette of tone colours he has at his disposal in the various transformations of the Promenade theme. ‘Gnomus’ had a tight angularity and sinister overtones which became increasingly threatening. ‘Tuileries’ was an artful evocation of innocence replete with a spontaneous sense of the fun and rivalry involved in childhood games. In ‘Bydlo’ Abduraimov conveyed the sense of heaviness and effort involved in driving the lumbering ox-cart across the field before the driver’s song melted away in the distance. The portrait of Schmulye was truly pitiful as we heard his pathetic quivering in the right hand and it contrasted markedly with the imperious Samuel Goldenberg. The chicks were clucking joyously and with an unfettered exuberance in their surreal ballet and the market place at Limoges was a bustling toccata full of whirling rhythmic energy. Abduraimov did a brilliant job conjuring up the darkness and gargantuan grandeur of the catacombs while the re-emergence of the Promenade theme had an eerie feel. ‘Baba-Yaga’ needs to be ferocious and ferocity is what we heard – Mussorgsky’s witch was a dangerous character full of primal fury and out to do some real damage. Abduraimov presented imposing architecture followed by extraordinary bell reverberations and resonances in ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ before driving the piece to its climactic conclusion. I have to say this is one of the best live performances of Pictures that I have ever heard.
Once again the audience responded by giving Adburaimov a standing ovation and we heard a dazzling account of Liszt’s La Campanella as an encore. Overall, the playing of the Liszt and Mussorgsky was exceptional but I was less convinced by the Schubert.