SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953): Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 and PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Dance of the Four Swans (Pas de quatre) from Swan Lake (transcription by Earl Wilde), Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 23—Behzod Abduraimov, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI; Juraj Valcuha, conductor [Recorded in Auditorium RAI ‘Arturo Toscanini,’ Torino, Italy, 10 – 12 July 2013; DECCA 478 5360; 1CD, 64:19; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Regardless of the criteria applied to analyses of the health of Classical Music in the early Twenty-First Century, it cannot be denied that each generation in its turn produces a crop of Wunderkind pianists. If not game-changing prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn, many of the young pianists who have emerged in recent years have proved to be extremely gifted technicians. A prepubescent pianist can hardly be expected to possess the mature artistry of a Schnabel or a Moravec, but the most disenfranchising aspect of precocity is the frequency with which it cannot survive the relentless, often artistically irrelevant pressures of the struggle to fabricate a lasting career. Perhaps, as the example of Mozart’s thwarted youth suggests, little has changed across the years for an aspiring virtuoso:in music, as in any discipline, the formidable challenge for any child prodigy is maintaining the momentum of a career with early success. Many Wunderkinder eventually realize that youthful acclaim was never truly their own aspiration. Ultimately, the talents that prove capable of perseverance are those that simmer consistently. Those that boil quickly are exciting but often evaporate quickly and then grow cold, but the youngster whose gifts enable measured intensification has a far greater chance at retaining the warmth of true love for music throughout a long career. Unlike a number of young musicians who emerged in the past quarter-century, fully-formed like musical Minervas, but disappeared before the public learned to pronounce their names properly, Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has shown in the first years of his international career no signs of fading: his artistry is simmering steadily, and the source of the heat is the music itself.
Being the offspring of creative geniuses so closely allied with what might rather simplistically be termed the ‘Russian soul,’ it is interesting and somewhat ironic that both Prokofiev’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerti received their first public performances outside of Russia. Premièred by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1921 with the composer at the keyboard, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto was not immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, but by the time that the composer recorded the Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1932 it had found a place in the repertoires of many of the world’s preeminent pianists. Now, ninety-three years after it was first performed, the Concerto is generally acknowledged as the most popular of Prokofiev’s six piano concerti. Like many of the famously sensitive Tchaikovsky’s works, his First Piano Concerto had a turbulent genesis. The first version, composed during 1874 and 1875, was sternly critiqued by Nikolai Rubinstein, who would later become one of work’s foremost interpreters and defenders, and Tchaikovsky may have been especially inclined to authorize a première for the Concerto beyond Russia’s borders. When the composer ascertained that the acclaimed pianist Hans von Bülow, whose playing he came to admire after hearing a recital in Moscow in 1874, was preparing for an American tour, an ideal opportunity presented itself. Whether von Bülow’s first performance of the Concerto in Boston in 1875 was the result of serendipity or mere circumstance, Tchaikovsky’s correspondence reveals that he was genuinely surprised to learn that audience response to the Concerto’s première compelled von Bülow to encore the third movement. Following their American débuts and substantial revision on Tchaikovsky’s part, both Concerti are mainstays in the performance diaries of many of the most respected concert pianists. It is only natural that a relative newcomer like Mr. Abduraimov should want to prove himself in these works, and he not only confirms that he is a masterful technician but also manages even at his young age to fashion interpretations of these towering works that are worthy of comparison with those of the greatest pianists past and present.
The Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI is not an ensemble that enjoys the exalted reputations touted by orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and Wiener Philharmoniker, but the RAI players here rival the finest work of their esteemed colleagues. The orchestral parts in both concerti are often tours de force in their own right, and the RAI musicians back down from none of the challenges. Under the direction of Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, the Orchestral personnel exhibit exceptional versatility, adapting their playing to Prokofiev’s and Tchaikovsky’s individual voices. All sections of the orchestra rise to every peak in the music, and both musicians and conductor supply the structure needed for Mr. Abduraimov to focus on making magic.
Mr. Abduraimov’s credentials as a thoughtful interpreter of Prokofiev’s music for piano were established in a 2011 recording for DECCA of the composer’s fiendishly difficult sixth Sonata [A major, Opus 82] and Suggestion diabolique—a devil of a piece, indeed—in which his fantastic performances of the Prokofiev pieces were complemented by equally accomplished playing of Franz Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre. The powerful tone and near-perfect negotiation of difficult intervals that made such an indelible impression in the performances on the earlier disc are even more imposing in Mr. Abduraimov’s playing of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. In the opening movement, his sensitivity enables atypical discernment of the fragmentary repetitions of the lyrical opening theme in the red-blooded piano part, and his calm command of the demanding arpeggios, glissandi, and triadic writing in the coda highlights the unconventional logic of Prokofiev’s harmonic progressions. The Andante con variazioni second movement is a light-hearted recitation of the litany of compositional techniques that Prokofiev inherited from his musical ancestors and observed in the works of his contemporaries. The cleverness of the interactions between the piano and orchestra is accentuated by the suppleness of Mr. Abduraimov’s phrasing and his close collaboration with Maestro Valcuha. The pianist’s gossamer touch in the obbligato-like response to the restatement of the principal theme adds an intriguing note of mystery to the movement’s final bars. The aggressive, almost pugilistic final movement challenges the world’s best pianists, and it is to Mr. Abduraimov’s credit that he not only survives unscathed but also plays with unflustered concentration that optimizes the impact of Prokofiev’s inventive bitonality. Despite his youth, Mr. Abduraimov’s playing discloses a first-rate comprehension of Prokofiev’s unique style.
In truth, the inclusion of Earl Wild’s arrangement of the ‘Danse des petits cygnes’ (Pas de quatre) from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake contributes little to the appreciation of Mr. Abduraimov’s artistry, but it is a lovely piece that the young pianist plays at least as well as Wild did in his celebrated recording of it. In the monumental opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, Mr. Abduraimov and Maestro Valcuha work closely to build a majestic foundation upon which the primary theme is unfurled with delicacy. Mr. Abduraimov does not linger over the thematic figure now widely thought to be a subtle reminiscence of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Désirée Artôt, nor does he allow his rhythmic fortitude to succumb to the rhapsodic nature of the familiar introduction. The wit of Tchaikovsky’s development of the Andantino semplice subject of the second movement is exposed with extraordinary effect by Mr. Abduraimov’s unsentimental phrasing, and Maestro Valcuha’s management of the transition to the prestissimo tempo of the central section of the movement maximizes the significance of the contrast. In the Allegro con fuoco final movement, both Mr. Abduraimov and Maestro Valcuha treat the ‘rise’ from the initial B♭ minor to the B♭ major in which the Concerto ultimately ends with the emotional and musical distinction that the similar conversion in the final scene of Swan Lake demands. Throughout the Concerto, Mr. Abduraimov’s technical abilities are awe-inspiring, but he also has the sort of open-hearted communicativeness that finds an ideal outlet in Tchaikovsky’s special Romanticism. His performance of the First Concerto is unique not in the sense of being offputtingly idiosyncratic but for the unassuming joy of his playing.
It is difficult to assess a young pianist’s effectiveness as a concert artist and potential for longevity solely by listening to his recordings, but this recording of Prokofiev’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerti furnishes ample evidence of Behzod Abduraimov’s vivacity and technical hegemony, particularly in Russian repertory. In short, these are outstanding performances—the kind of performances in which a young pianist proclaims, ‘I am here to stay.’
FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886), SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953), and CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921): Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (S. 173, III), Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (S. 514); Suggestion diabolique, Op. 4 No. 4, Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82; Danse macabre, Op. 40 (transcription by Liszt, adapted by Vladimir Horowitz)—Behzod Abduraimov, piano [Recorded in the Wyastone Concert Hall, The Doward, Herefordshire, England, UK, 28 June – 1 July 2011; DECCA 478 3301; 1 CD, 70:43; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]