Although this wasn’t an official description, it would be fair to say that the theme of Behzod Abduraimov’s Wigmore Hall recital last night was “ripples”. More or less all the works played by the 24 year old Uzbek rely for their effect on the flows and cascades of rippling phrases. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph described Mozart’s music as having “too many notes” (apocryphally, at least); one can barely imagine what he would have made of this programme.

Abduraimov showed a few signs of nerves before starting to play, but the fiendish technical demands certainly held no terrors for him. His articulation was excellent throughout the recital, and  for the vast majority of the music, one could clearly hear individual notes through the rushing streams: only seldom did the sound dissolve into mud. But the question for the night was whether all this technical merit would translate into artistic impression. The results were mixed, with a considerably more successful second half.

Behzod Abduraimov © Ben Ealovega | Decca
Behzod Abduraimov
© Ben Ealovega | Decca

The pick of the night, for me, was a pair of Schubert Impromptus from the D899 set: no. 3 in G flat followed by no. 2 in E flat. In these works, the melodies don’t have a separate existence from the ripples of notes: rather, they are embedded within them. Abduraimov was wonderful in using dynamic variation and rubato to provide broad arcs of the phrasing, while maintaining perfect smoothness and flow. The E flat impromptu shifts from the smooth section into a three-time mazurka-like dance: Abduraimov’s execution of the shift was thrilling.

The other big success was the headline number of the concert: Ravel’s three-piece suite Gaspard de la nuit. The first part, “Ondine”, was the work in this concert most explicitly depicting rippling water: here, the ripples accompany a separate, slow melody. I would have liked the melody a shade louder (the water pixie was struggling to make herself heard above the waves, I felt) but there was no doubting the serene evenness of the watery world and the sheer beauty of Ravel’s writing shone through.

The second part of Gaspard is “Le gibet”, an eerie portrait of a hanged man on a gibbet in a desert landscape, with the constant tolling of a distant bell. Less showy than the rest of the work, it’s made horrifically difficult by its polyrhythm: the tolling bell needs to be hypnotically steady in rhythm, while everything else that’s going on at the same time needs to be shaped by rubato. Abduraimov made a good fist of it, certainly capturing the haunting nature of the bell. The third part, the madcap “Scarbo”, was played with verve and aplomb, the pianist making light of the immense demands of dexterity required. Overall, this was a fine demonstration of the wonderful expressiveness and variety in Gaspard de la nuit.

The first half of the concert was played perfectly competently, but contained less to light my emotional fires. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 12 in A flat major was exciting and gave us our first taste of Abduraimov’s excellent articulation of the notes, but I didn’t really get a sense of direction in the music. Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, Op.49 and Ballade in F minor, Op.52 didn’t convince me that Abduraimov is able to bring out the nuances in Chopin, a composer who, famously, was frequently accused of not playing loud enough. Abduraimov played these pieces very loud indeed, and while his playing was not without dynamic and rhythmic variation, I didn’t really hear a pianissimo that thrilled me with a featherlight touch, or a rubato that kept me deliciously tense waiting for the note to resolve: effects which, for me at least, are essential to getting the best out of Chopin.

Abduraimov is very young. He has totally mastered the technical aspects of his instrument and, in the case of the Schubert and Ravel, converted that into really thrilling performances. I’m sure there’s a lot more to come from him in future.