Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov is one of today’s young tigers of the piano, celebrated for tearing up the keyboard in ferociously difficult Prokofiev and Rachmaninov concertos. In this solo recital at Wigmore Hall, his claws were certainly evident in an often thrilling assault on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but he also demonstrated a more tender side in velvet-pawed Schubert.

Behzod Abduraimov © Simon Jay Price
Behzod Abduraimov
© Simon Jay Price

Crouching low over the keys, Abduraimov’s performance of the four D935 Impromptus was a study in careful concentration and assured pianism. This was Schubert’s second set of impromptus, published a decade after the composer’s death, but composed in 1827 at the same time as the better-known D899 set. No. 1 in F minor is the longest of the four and in sonata form, but without development section. Abduraimov’s playing, with liberal use of the sustain pedal, was fluid, allowing the music to unfold naturally. No. 2 in A flat major is like a slow, stately minuet, played here with grace, while the triplets of the middle section grew into something rather more agitated. Teasing rubato characterized Abduraimov’s treatment of the charming Rosamunde theme and variations in the third.  The skittish Fourth Impromptu – returning us to the key of F minor – concluded the set and here the focus on dynamic variation meant that louder sections bordered on hectoring, a concern that hung over much of the remainder of the recital.

Abduraimov’s platform manner is modest, bordering on shy. The slightest of bows greeted his audience before launching into his programme, and he moved from Schubert onto Liszt with just the briefest acknowledgement of audience applause. His performance of the Mephisto Waltz no. 1 took no prisoners, speeding through Liszt’s dense score with passion, often rushing his fences. The coda, in particular, galloped to its conclusion as if pursued by the very devil himself. It was the virtuosic stuff for which Liszt was famed and Abduraimov’s performance was pulsating.

There’s more to Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition than pulsating pounding, however, and Abduraimov’s performance relied too heavily on virtuosity and volume. The thunderous first Promenade gave fair warning of what was to come: Gnomus was volatile in the extreme; the ox-cart Bydło was all brute force; the witch Baba-Yaga was all clangourous iron teeth. There portraits are all grotesques and Abduraimov’s exaggerated treatment of them is justified to a certain extent, but his performance of Pictures as a whole was like a set of noisy caricatures, crudely drawn. The troubador’s song in The Old Castle was deliberate, The Great Gate of Kiev an exercise in decibel-busting. Only in The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells was delicacy laced with a hint of humour.

After a Great Gate where peals of bells crashed down the keyboard, Abduraimov maintained the imagery with an encore of Liszt’s La Campanella, knocking several bells out of Wigmore Hall’s Steinway in the process. There’s more playfulness to be had in this repertoire. If Abduraimov can add to the technical power and mastery in his palette, then he could become a formidable pianist indeed. 

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