In a rather safe programme, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall saw Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto sandwiched between two slices of Brahms. The first of those pieces was the Academic Festival Overture. Ostensibly a celebration of student life in all its rambunctious revelry, the overture is a popular work to get a concert underway, warming the orchestra – and audience – up with spirit and vigour. However, on this occasion it was rather a sober affair despite conductor François Leleux’s best efforts. It was played well enough by the excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and one could make compliments about such things as the strong balance between the different sections of the orchestra, but despite Leleux’s exaggerated torso twists, it never really took off. It was well-tempered, but a little too much emphasis was placed on the academic moniker and not quite enough on the associated festival. Nonetheless, it did the job of getting the audience and orchestra settled in for the concert’s main event, Behzod Abduraimov’s performance of Rachmaninov’s crowd-pleasing piano masterpiece.

Behzod Abduraimov
© Nissor Abdourazakov

Abduraimov is undoubtedly a virtuoso ivory-tickler with impeccable technique. His interpretation had a distinctly punctuated and occasionally strident left-hand that drove the more rhythmical sections with great impetus, and he demonstrated a wonderful ability to phrase the beauty of the melodies without being overly sentimental. His cadenzas showcased his dynamic agility in switching with imperceptible ease from lightning-fast fortissimo powerhouse playing to tender trilling at pianissimo. He was also sympathetic to the orchestra, though at times he played a little under them in terms of volume. The orchestra were in good form for this piece, particularly in the second movement and finale. Of note were the French horns and the flute, who were excellent all night, and in the Adagio sostenuto the clarinet stated and phrased the melody gorgeously. The swelling strings of the CBSO were tightly controlled and at one with Leleux’s baton, and the unrestrained romance of the concerto shone through.

After the interval we were back to Brahms and his Serenade no. 1 in D major. The programme choice of ending with the Serenade was curious. Given the enormous popularity and power of the Rachmaninov, it seemed an anti-climax in terms of a second half. In six movements, it afforded Leleux the opportunity to bring out some of the orchestral colours and tones which the CBSO is very capable of providing. There’s not too much for the brass and percussion beyond a bit of dynamic punch, but there are lots of lovely little conversations between the horns, the woodwind and the strings. Again, the horn, clarinet and flute featured prominently, but also the interesting bassoon parts emerged loud and proud, with ample projection and clarity. The Serenade started reasonably well and carried on improving movement by movement. Leleux managed to get the very best out of the CBSO when playing tutti, and this is probably due to the control and restraint he exercised in the quieter sections of the work, affording him the capacity to increase contrast. By the finale of the Rondo – Allegro the CBSO were at last running on all twelve cylinders, although briefly. However, despite Leleux’s enthusiastic presentation of the Serenade, the lasting memory of the evening was Abduraimov’s performance.