Behzod Abduraimov, piano, Works by Beethoven, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Schubert and Ravel, Chan Centre, March 9, 2014.

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 thereafter with very few let-downs in concentration.  The slow tread of the following movement was established convincingly in a treatment that was noticeably warmer than some.  Here there was almost a sultry quality operating over the chilling proceedings.  I probably would have expected the concluding Scarbo to be driven hard and demonstratively, with unremitting intensity, somewhat like Danse Macabre.   But this was not the case.  What we heard was really quite a balanced, deliberate exposition, clearly segmenting the virtuoso outbursts from the quieter, more mysterious glimmerings, with considerable attention to detail.  Here intelligence and judgment took precedence over virtuosity; a richly satisfying reading overall.

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 flow, 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.  Some of the emotional extremes projected here may have been slightly too great for these little pieces, but so much of this playing was undeniably striking and beautiful.  

The early part of the programme, involving Beethoven’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata and the Chopin Fantasie, Op. 49, I found less distinctive and somewhat more removed in feeling.  There were certainly moments of ingenious pianism, and flashes of power, but overall the interpretations seemed some distance from being fully formed.  Maybe Behzod was just getting warmed up!  In any case, who can expect a 23 year old pianist to have completely mastered everything?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this concert is that, except for his Saint-Saens calling card, we really saw relatively few moments where the unbridled ‘neuro-motor responses of a jungle cat’ were present.  Concertgoers in London refer lovingly to the time he just about fell off his piano seat playing Beethoven.  But there was nothing like that here.  Perhaps we are witnessing the ‘new’ Behzod, leaving his Olympic medals at home selectively to seek more enduring riches.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014