United Kingdom Bach, Schubert, Liszt – Leeds Piano Competition 2021 Prizewinner Recital: Alim Beisembayev (piano). Wigmore Hall, 12.12.2022. (CC)
Bach – French Suite No.2 in C minor, BWV 813 (c.1722-5)
Schubert – Piano Sonata No.19 in C minor, D 958 (1828)
Liszt – Études d’exécution transcendante, S 139 (pub.1852): No.3, Paysage; No.4, Mazeppa; No.5, Feux follets; No 9, Ricordanza; No.10, Appassionata; No.11, Harmonies du soir; No.12, Chasse-neige
Alim Beisembayev was the deserved winner of the 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition – I was lucky enough to hear the finals in person in Leeds Town Hall and to interview Beisembayev soon afterwards. His Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody was outstanding; speaking with him revealed a young gentleman of the utmost modesty. Here, at last, is part of his prize: a coveted Wigmore Hall recital.
The Leeds judges’ faith in him has clearly been rewarded, not least in the spectacular Liszt he offers, both live here, and on disc. The first half was perhaps a touch less exalted but nevertheless of a very, very high standard indeed.
We began with some Bach, the second of the French Suites, launching an all-C minor first half (possibly one reason why the Liszt C minor Étude, ‘Wilde Jagd’, was absent from his selection of seven études in the second half?).
Beisembayev’s Bach was characterful and beautifully projected to the back of the hall. His sound full yet capable of honouring Bach’s textures, the opening Allemande suffused with French gentilité, the finger strength in the Courante everywhere evident. The Sarabande, though, was the triumph, the tempo perfectly judged, Bach’s bare counterpoint raw, shot through with emotional pain. A light-as-a-feather Air seemed the perfect complement, the two-part counterpoint an absolute joy. The gallant seemed foregrounded in the Menuet I & II before the tricky Gigue emerged as a triumph of decoration, textures pellucid, ornaments incredibly tight. A fine account by anyone’s standards.
The late C-minor Sonata by Schubert is an acid test for any pianist. The first movement is imply marked Allegro – fast, and fast this certainly was, which necessitated the odd gear change for expressivity. The undercurrent of nervous energy was nevertheless exciting; it was the second movement Adagio that showed us both Beisembayev’s strengths and weaknesses. His way with the inner-voice hemidemisemiquaver ‘ornamentations’ perfectly articulated, was testament to his attention to detail that was heard throughout the recital. But the overall impression was that this movement, the most emotionally demanding of the four for both executant and audience, remains a work in progress, its depths only partially plumbed. With that comes the sure knowledge that they will come: Beisembayev is a pianist already way beyond his physical age in maturity. His Menuetto brought a return to the fast and clean approach; the finale too, had much to offer with superb bass staccato and a thread of energy running through it. Some of the greatest performances I have heard of this very sonata occurred at Wigmore Hall: Elisabeth Leonskaja and Imogen Cooper spring immediately to mind. If Beisembayev is not quite there yet, it is clear he is heading in the right direction.
Unlike his Schubert, Beisembayev’s Liszt sounds like it has emerged fully formed. The seven Études d’exécution transcendante programmed here offered playing of genius, just as his recording for Warner Classics of all twelve (plus ‘La leggierezza’ Étude de concert, S 144/2 and the D-flat major Consolation, S 172/3). It is interesting how Beisembayev alters his sound from one composer to another, his Liszt rich and simply beautiful, burnished and golden. His projection perfectly judged and, despite many fortissimi, never once breaking the sound of the piano, this was playing with a firm lyrical basis out of which extreme virtuosity could flow. No accident that he opted to start with one of the slower, more introspective of the études, ‘Paysage’, perfectly pedalled and with great bass clarity towards the close. How well he understood the gestural nature of No.4, ‘Mazeppa’, though, the polar opposite to the legato of ‘Paysage’. He took risks with the chords of the melody (hair-raising leaps are involved as Liszt fills the gaps with rapid packets of sound); Beisembayev’s double-octaves almost turned the piano into an organ.
The elfin lightness of ‘Feux follets’ was in itself remarkable; layer on Beisembayev’s ability to add light and shade and to bring out multiple voices, and you arguably have the perfect Liszt. Skipping several études, ‘Ricordanza’ was the most extended of those on offer, a mini-tone poem along the lines of the Sonetti di Petrarca. This was a truly memorable performance, Beisembayev’s legato properly vocal, offered in the purest piano sound and with heartfelt rubato. An extended song without words, ardent and spellbinding, this was the true highlight of the concert, whatever prestidigitation there might have been elsewhere.
And virtuosity there was, aplenty, to come. The tenth étude, ‘Appassionata’ (tempo marking Allegro agitato molto, used as the identifier on the programme sheet) was beautifully articulated, upward ascents like fireworks. Beisembayev never sounds showy, though – there is something of Alfred Brendel about this, albeit with, in Beisembayev’s case, greater innate virtuosity. Definition at ultra-high speed is clearly a Beisembayev trait, as is a real resonance with Liszt’s interior world. Although published in 1852, they have their origins earlier. And yet Beisembayev found real indications of heady, metaphysical late Liszt in ‘Harmonies du soir’, unfolded at the perfect, unhurried tempo. Beisembayev let the innate glow of every simultaneity register before the final ‘Chasse-neige’ offered shimmering stillness, its descending scales dripping down and stretching across the timeline to more Impressionist composers.
Just one encore: Chopin’s Nocturne in B, Op.9/3. An absolutely stunning second half; and his recording of the complete Études d’exécution transcendante by Liszt on Warner Classics will not disappoint either. If Beisembayev continues like this, who knows what he can go on to achieve …