From phenomenal Yuja Wang to well-established Daniil Trifonov to young Jan Lisiecki, there is a tremendous generation of pianists in their twenties making their mark in the most distinguished concert halls of the world. Less renowned in the United States than others, the 26-year-old Behzod Abduraimov has never been the Wunderkind type of artist. Since winning the grand prize at the 2009 London International Piano Competition, his career and his repertoire have grown organically, sometimes away from the harshest limelight. Moving from his native Uzbekistan to the United States to pursue his musical studies, he didn’t pick one of the famous conservatoires but the little known Park University in Kansas City where Stanislav Ioudenitch, of Van Cliburn competition fame, was his second piano teacher. Following his successful debut recital in the small Weill Hall, two years ago, Carnegie Hall has now offered him the chance to open its prestigious “Keyboard Virtuosos I” recital series in the Stern Auditorium.

Behzod Abduraimov © Nissor Abdourazakov
Behzod Abduraimov
© Nissor Abdourazakov

The program he selected, mixing composers and styles, went well beyond just being a showcase for his extraordinary technical skills. He started the evening with two Bach pieces: "Siciliano" from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596 and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 as arranged by two 20th-century masters of the keyboard, Alfred Cortot and Ferruccio Busoni respectively. It was an ominous sign for things to come, as if the pianist wanted to place his recital from the very beginning under the magic spell of both Cortot’s poetic sensibility and Busoni’s virtuosic grandeur.

If, in order to invoke the sound of an organ, Abduraimov used a little bit too much of the pedal in his Bach, the two Schubert Moments musicaux that followed were examples of restraint. The way the pianist explored every nuance, every shift in tone was remarkably mature.

The first part of the program ended with Beethoven’s Appassionata. Here, the constantly shifting moods are experienced on a much grander scale. Abduraimov used the full range of dynamics in order to convey the pervasive feeling of intense instability that distinguishes the Allegro assai with its somehow related, instead of sharply contrasting, main themes. He alternated a noble tone with passages of relentless drive. Placed between two romantic pillars, the Andante could have sounded more contrasting, more Haydn than premonitory Schubert, but the transition to the finale, with the forcefully repeated diminished seventh chords, was exemplary. The coda, setting syncopated sforzandi on top of a manically Presto accompaniment was breathtaking.

After intermission, Abduraimov dived into Russian music, for which he obviously has a special affinity. Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 6 in A major, the first of his so-called “war trilogy”, was composed in 1939, a period of both historical and personal tumult. Remarkably for such a young artist, Abduraimov brought forward the deep bleakness and desperation that pervades this music, the perception of someone fighting his own demons, trying to raise from – but falling back into – the darkness. Controlling every single note, he played with abandonment, letting his sensibility shine through even in the most demanding of circumstances.

The evening was supposed to end on a more cheerful note, with the colorful fireworks of Balakirev’s Islamey. At the public’s demand, Abduraimov played two encores – Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne and Liszt’s La campanella, after Paganini, reiterating the poetic virtuosity that characterizes his pianism.

This young musician is evidently a seeker of substance and meaning beyond the surface of the works he is interpreting. Everyone interested in the art of piano playing should follow his next steps.