Behzod Abduraimov, piano: Works by Vivaldi, J. S. Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Prokofiev and Balakirev, Chan Centre, November 13, 2016.

This was our third visit by 26-year old Uzbek piano sensation Behzod Abduraimov and, judging from his playing in the second half of this concert, it was his finest showing so far. I have learned that you cannot think about this pianist entirely in terms of interpretation and style, since much of his magnetism is in displaying just how a piano can be played – with volcanic weight, scintillating speed, and larger-than-life trills and notes flying in all sorts of directions.  In some ways, one might place him in the same mould as the slightly-possessed, impulsive 19th century virtuosos – though it is not clear that even those pianists would have had pianos or technique that match what this artist has at his disposal. Nonetheless, it is always nice to come away from an Abduraimov recital with an interpretation that has concentrated and natural expression from beginning to end, and here it was the Prokofiev 6th Sonata.  This was more decisively-etched than the Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit that he gave last visit: indeed, one might expect his instincts to match better with the Russian repertoire. This concert marked a note of sadness.  It was a celebration of visionary local architect Bing Thom, who passed away recently and who brought tremendous life and ingenuity to Vancouver designs, extending his work as far as Washington, D. C. and Fort Worth, Texas. He was a close friend of the Vancouver Recital Society.

The second half of this concert was much more important from a performance standpoint.  Here Abduraimov’s pianism had a fully Russian feel, large in size, burnished and warm in tone, but also desirably fulsome in spirit and balanced in aesthetic.  The Prokofiev Sonata was marvelous, moved patiently forward in the opening Allegro, but finding a fine balance between punctuated assertion, motoric energy and lush lyrical musing.  Expressive space was opened out in the following two movements as well, developed with artful lines that penetrated the composer’s distinctive wit and bittersweet colour.  Indeed, the feeling of inexorability and absorption in the latter was memorable, the richly-hued tones creating magnificent lyrical suspension and wondrous spirit.  Everything lets loose in the Vivace, and the pianist’s rhythmic precision and point were scintillating without any feeling of exaggeration. 

Roughly the same level of artistry extended to Balakirev’s Islamey: full of neo-Lisztian flourish and pyrotechnical display, but still retaining full musical balance and a lovely keyboard touch.  And to the encores as well: a beautifully-appointed Tchaikovsky Nocturne and a Liszt ‘La Campanella’ Etude that sparkled with a vivacious, reckless spirit and dazzling trills and colour.

The first half of the concert was less obviously serious but did display Abduraimov’s cunning in designing concerts that can engage an audience through what might be called an ‘adrenalin’ or ‘wow’ effect.  These typically involve giving the music unrivalled propulsion and cataclysmic weight or, alternatively, finding consuming sentimentality in slower music.  The former clearly finds a resonance with those who have always wanted to drive a sports car on a winding road at twice the speed limit but were too scared to try.  Or, in this instance, architects that grandly envisioned building an 80-story skyscraper but never managed to do it.  Not that I find such contrivances necessary, but they do grab an audience and certainly conjure up what incredible things 19th C. piano virtuosos might have done with their instrument.   

The opening transcription of the Vivaldi Siciliana served as a fittingly-reserved tribute to Bing Thom: beautifully played, romantic in conception, and conveying an appropriate sense of timelessness.  Nonetheless, after a nicely contoured start to the Busoni transcription of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Lisztian flourish quickly took over, culminating in absolutely massive fireworks. This was the ‘wow’ effect: demonic earth-shattering pedaling, sustained with a white heat right to the end.  Those with a gnawing visceral deficit certainly got their due, as did those who might have wanted to hear a full organ pedal played on the piano.  Yes, lots of fun as spectacle, though the piece hardly maintained its austere grandeur and likely ended up more elephantine than Busoni could have ever visualized.

After recalling Igor Levit’s very inward account of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux last spring, Abduraimov’s more externally-adorned treatment of two pieces from this set was perhaps less involving.  No. 2 had no shortage of serene, beautiful playing but ultimately retreated to a sentimental posture.  Even the sprightly No. 3 had something of a romantic veneer placed over it, with accents too self-consciously projected. In retrospect, this was simply our timeout before the storm that ended the first half of the concert, Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata.

The ‘Appassionata’ has been one of Abduraimov’s ‘wow’ staples since he played it to great acclaim in his London Southbank debut over five years ago.  One of the memoirs of that concert, often recounted, is that he almost fell off the piano bench negotiating its ending.  For me, the inspiration for his performance still remains elusive. I have always loved the classic Russian performances of the work by Sviatoslav Richter, Lazar Berman, and Emil Gilels – all of which were utterly electric and commanding – and there I knew without a shadow of doubt that they were playing ‘real’ Beethoven.  With Abduraimov, I am not so sure. Many of his fleet-fingered motoric passages remind me in different ways of Prokofiev and Liszt, plus the pianist puts everything together in such a linear way that, combined with his impulsiveness, the musical line seems short-winded. Similarly, his lyrical line appears reigned in, lacking recognition of the verticality of Beethoven’s harmonics and phrasing. 

For all its gleaming motion, I thought his first movement lacked character while the heavy pedaling and prettiness in the Andante seemed out of style. The finale was the ‘wow’ movement, propelled with molten energy and absolute abandon. I still did not find much internal tension or communication in this stunning display – but perhaps I have to judge it by other criteria. From the resounding applause, at least it may have converted part of this diverse audience to classical music. Second, perhaps it did give us a tangible whiff of 19th century ‘wildness’. And third, the pianist successfully avoided falling off the piano bench. Sometimes I wish this sonata did not have a nickname: it invites too many enfants terribles.

The substantive pianism in this recital was in the second half – and splendid it was too. Bing Thom would have been enthralled.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016