Aspen Music Festival: Abduraimov finds majesty in Mussorgsky

United StatesUnited States Various: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), presented virtually by Aspen Music Festival, streaming from Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado, 2.8.2020. (HS)

Behzod Abduraimov at the Aspen Music Festival

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor Op.27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’

Debussy – Children’s Corner

MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition

The Virtual Aspen Music Festival’s Sunday concerts have been going from strength to strength in a year with no audience in the seats. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s program, the most recent success, made something special out of familiar music. Most impressively, a performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition coaxed out all the color and scene-painting drama that 88 keys can muster.

Abduraimov who, like Daniil Trifonov last week, has yet to reach his thirtieth birthday, has become a regular at the summer festival. And why not? His no-nonsense stage presence wins over audiences with a mastery of tone and technique, clear ideas of how he wants to phrase the music and thrilling jolts of rhythmic energy.

All of that was on display in this hour-long concert. Streamed from the Harris Hall stage in Aspen, he opened with a gauzy take on Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, had gentle fun with Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite and drove Pictures to a titanic finish.

Most music lovers know Pictures from Ravel’s iconic orchestration – or dozens of other composers’ instrumentations – but Mussorgsky was inspired by a posthumous exhibition of paintings by his friend Viktor Hartmann to create a series of musical impressions for solo piano. The technically challenging and masterfully crafted music brought out the best in Abduraimov, who sought differences in the various iterations of the familiar Promenade that introduces and separates most of the movements; found appropriate tempos throughout; and applied a different touch to each scene.

Early on, he sprinkled some delicate magic over ‘Tuileries,’ plodded ominously through the persistent slog of ‘Bydlo’ and brought a sparkle to the version of the Promenade that followed. The camera caught him using the soft pedal to add contrast to ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’. The rhythmic lift in ‘Baba Yaga’ led to a majestic reading of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, which kept gathering in intensity until the final stretched-out chords.

That mastery of details wasn’t quite there in the opening work. Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata emerged as dreamy and understated in the contemplative first movement, given some depth by judicious rubato and visual interest by creative fingering that at times brought to mind that twentieth-century master Chico Marx. A sound balance that felt like it turned down the treble a bit too much robbed the delicate dance of the Allegretto of its lilt, and toned down the vigor of the Presto Agitato finale.

In conversation with festival CEO Alan Fletcher on Monday’s High Notes discussion, Abduraimov revealed that he had only recently learned this sonata, a piece that aspiring pianists usually tackle early. He turned to it during his isolation in the current pandemic. No doubt he’ll find more details (and apply less pedal to it) as he continues to program it.

Debussy’s charming Children’s Corner provided a welcome change of pace between the temperamental Beethoven and dramatic Mussorgsky. Though muted a bit by the sound balance, the amiable scene-painting in the Debussy contrasted smartly with the pieces around it. ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ revealed a sweet touch, and the intricate interplay of ‘The Snow Is Dancing’ made its own magic. The finale, ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk,’ strutted winningly.

As an aside, one thing these virtual concerts miss is an encore. Traditionally, of course, an encore is a musician’s gift to an audience for its enthusiasm. With no live audience present, throwing one in would seem presumptuous, but damn, a soothing Chopin nocturne or quiet Mendelssohn song without words would have made a nice bookend to calm things down after that resplendent ‘Great Gate of Kiev’.

The concert repeats on the festival’s website and YouTube channel Tuesday 4 August at 7 p.m. MDT

Harvey Steiman

For more about Aspen Music Festival click here.

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