I last heard the Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov six years ago, in London, when the then twenty-two-year-old wizard was still in the public’s eye as winner of the London International Piano Competition (which no longer features, I notice, in his biography). Since then there have been thrilling Proms appearances, and his international star is well and truly risen. That 2012 concert was memorable for Abduraimov’s outgoing confidence and youthful derring-do. This Barbican recital (a stalls-only event) was much more revelatory for the interior quality of his musicianship. He has the ability to justify experiments and risks, and the results were compelling.
Abduraimov is something of a piano whisperer, an approach that worked wonders with Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’, which in his caressing performance, full of shimmering tremolandos and voice-leading of inimitable delicacy, transcended its orchestral origin as surely as Isolde’s love transcended Tristan’s death. It rather set the tone for the recital, significantly so in Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. Abduraimov went as far as he could away from extrovert monumentalism and romantic strain without losing his grip on the music’s epic reach. Initially, as Liszt lays out his ideas, Abduraimov didn’t, for me, quite convey how one idea complements another, but once he landed on the Grandioso section’s first hearing, his interpretation gelled in a big way. His velocity is fearless, secure and stupendously even, but it was the moments when he led the music into the furthest recesses of romantic isolation – to the extent that you wondered if it would ever find its way out – that you got the measure of a musician fully equipped with an imagination synchronised with the composer’s astounding harmonic, thematic and spiritual plan. There were fireworks aplenty in the Fugue, his regulation of dynamics was peerless, from a pianissimo more perceived than heard to rafter-trembling fff, and the close was cloaked with ambiguity. Of course, Liszt’s Sonata is a masterpiece that never stops giving, but this was one of those rare defining accounts of it.
After the interval, Schubert’s Moment musical in A-flat may be more modest in scale, but there was still that musing, withdrawn quality, reinforced by an attractive, quasi-period pallid tone from the Steinway, and Abduraimov’s performance proved, again, that the easier Schubert looks the more challenging the expressive possibilities become. The same applied to Liszt’s re-working of three Schubert Waltzes, in which Liszt pulls off a process of transformation that flatters without taking over, apart from a generous sprinkling of fairy dust at the end, played by Abduraimov with dreamy tact and affection.
It was fascinating how the prevailing mood of the evening lingered in Prokofiev’s Sonata No.6, the first of the composer’s ‘War’ Sonatas. There was plenty of weight and authority, but the dazzling pugnacity also admitted an effortfulness that gave the music a deepening context. The first movement was undeniably heroic but it was the less driven second-subject material, with a sense of exhaustion that expanded the music so memorably. And for lovers of Prokofiev’s mercurial expressionism, it sprang abundantly from Abduraimov’s magnificent virtuosity in the driving, possessed Finale. Schubert, though, had the last word in Abduraimov’s encore, the F-minor Moment musical No.3. Abduraimov has not been that frequent a flyer to the UK. On the strength of this great recital, let’s hope that changes.