United States Kendall, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Juraj Valčuha (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 4.11.2022. (HS)
Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances
Neither pianist Behzod Abduraimov nor conductor Juraj Valčuha are strangers to the San Francisco Symphony stage. Together for the first time here, they delivered a high-wattage concert centered on Russian showpieces.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances can easily make their points with high-level execution of their demands on players’ virtuosity. This concert raised the ante with extra depth, especially from soloist and conductor, and alert playing from the orchestra. Everyone seemed tuned in on the same frequency in Friday’s concert in Davies Symphony Hall, the second performance in three of this program.
Abduraimov, who made his San Francisco Symphony debut in 2018 playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, not only proved he has the chops to handle the freakish technical demands of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto, but he also shaped them into much more than an athletic workout. He caressed the sparer, softer sections with warmth and humility, which made the explosions of crashing notes (brilliantly articulated) all the more impactful.
The concerto itself has a backstory. It was composed in 1913, when Prokofiev was in his twenties, and the original score was lost in a fire during the revolution of 1917. The composer rewrote it from memory in 1923 for a re-debut. Reviewers of the first performance were not kind, repelled by the cacophonous dissonances and torrents of notes. The second debut, in Paris and conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, fared not much better.
Abduraimov, now in his thirties, embraced the clangor but found a way through the crowds of notes and showoff virtuosic passages to communicate a deeper sense of purpose. The long cadenza toward the end of the first movement, when the pianist takes over the show for several minutes, grew organically from quiet ruminations on tunes and gestures we had just heard to a crashing and extended climax that felt totally justified.
The second movement’s perpetual-motion flurry, which can quickly become tiresome, had so much life to it that it actually felt like it was too short. The fierce third movement Intermezzo was relentlessly restless, as if anxious to get to the bigger, broader, boisterous finale. When Abduraimov arrived there, he relished the contrasts between the more lyrical segments, reminiscent of parts of the first movement, and the buildups to towering climaxes.
Valčuha, who debuted at Davies Hall in 2013, was in step with the soloist, guiding the orchestra with precision into treacherous tutti with the piano while finding the same shadings as the soloist did. After another brilliantly shaped cadenza, the rousing, clattering finish brought the rapt audience to its feet.
When the applause refused to subside after four curtain calls, Abduraimov returned to the piano to play a favorite encore of his – ‘La Campanella’ from Liszt’s Paganini Études. He played the opening octaves with consummate delicacy without losing any of Liszt’s bravado, a tour-de-force of a different style from the Prokofiev. If anything, it was even more impressive.
Rachmaninoff’s last completed new work, the Symphonic Dances, was his first in nearly a decade. It had different aspects to relish, notably Valčuha’s graceful and expressive conducting. The composer was inspired to write it in 1940 after working with Michel Fokine, the principal choreographer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, on the dance master’s ballet, Paganini (set to Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Fokine died before he could choreograph this new dance music, but the piece has a swagger and depth that is unmistakably Rachmaninoff at his rhythmic and sonic peak.
Valčuha’s precise and expansive podium presence captured all that, and the musicians seemed delighted to be along on the ride. The opening march gave off a sinister aura and, when the coda turned the corner into a theme full of harp and glockenspiel tinkling, it seemed as though all was right with the world.
The second movement’s waltz glided smoothly, and brimmed with dusky orchestral color, especially from woodwinds and brass, and it was easy to imagine dancers’ elegant, expressive gestures in the finale. When the brass sneak in references to the ‘Dies Irae’ in the final measures, it did not feel like the usual warning of impending doom but a declaration of persistence and warmth.
The concert’s opener, The Spark Catchers by the English composer Hannah Kendall, got a crisp and detailed reading, even if it was overmatched by what followed.