Last night, Behzod Abduraimov, the young pianist from Tashkent, played a recital in Carnegie Hall. Earlier this season, in the same hall, he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the Munich Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev. (My review here.) I have never heard this concerto played better by anyone, in a lifetime of hearing it.
And last night’s recital was extraordinary, too.
Abduraimov played three great and canonical works, if the twenty-four Chopin preludes can be taken, altogether, as a “work.” I think they can. Abduraimov began with those. They are a true test of a pianist. If a pianist can play them well, he can play virtually anything.
When Abduraimov began the first prelude, in C major, I thought, “Ah—this is gonna be good.” All twenty-four, I meant. In its legato, clarity, phrasing, pedaling, and sound, the C-major prelude was pretty much perfect. I looked forward to the next twenty-three.
But the very next prelude, in A minor, was disappointing, at least to me: marred by an excess of rubato. Abduraimov went in for those little hesitations that pianists seem to favor. He was tentative. Think of a speaker, speaking uncertainly.
But the next prelude, in G major? Ideal—with just the clarity and limpidity it needs. I feared a pattern: faster preludes, such as the C-major and the G-major, would be great; slower ones, such as the A-minor, where a pianist has perhaps more choices, would be more problematic. So, I was worried about the fourth prelude, in E minor, which is marked “Largo.”
It was okay. I like it a little straighter—more straightforward—but it was fine, and a pianist is entitled to his choices.
All through the preludes, a faulty hearing aid in the hall sang out. It pierced the air. I, and others, surely, tried to shut it out.
I will not go through the preludes one by one, you’ll be relieved to know—but I will mention a few others. The Prelude in C-sharp minor was fast and spidery. Simply superb. How about the Prelude in D flat, known as the “Raindrop”? The first note—that F in the right hand—was ugly. Socked. I believe that Abduraimov would have liked to have that one over. The prelude in general went nicely. But was it compelling, spellbinding, as it can be? I don’t think so. For one thing, it had those little hesitations, which can kill music.
The Prelude in A flat was lovely and songful. And the F-major was like the G-major, and others: clear and limpid.
Writing about the Chopin Preludes in the past, I have quoted Henry Finck, an American music critic who lived from 1854 to 1926: “If all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes.” I also had this thought, as I listened last night: “I would love to have heard Chopin himself play these preludes.” (Or anything, for that matter.)
Before the second half of the recital began, an official of Carnegie Hall came out and said, in essence, “If you can do anything about that faulty hearing aid, please do.” I did not notice a problem at all for the rest of the evening.
The first half of the recital—the Chopin Preludes—was pretty good. But the second half? Oh, my. Mount Olympus.
Abduraimov began with the Children’s Corner by Debussy. The first part of that six-part suite is “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” (speaking of Greek mountains). It was beautifully calibrated. The cascade of notes toward the end was scintillating. The final notes were weirdly detached—and effective.
Abduraimov played the suite with sensitivity and appreciation. He really understands the music. He played it with affection, but never smothered it, if you know what I mean. In “Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk,” he showed his excellent rhythm.
He also showed it in the final work on the program: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He also showed judgment—great judgment—giving the work its dramatic sweep. He was excellent in detail and excellent in the big picture (big Pictures?). Also—let’s not forget this part—he has fantastic fingers.
The opening Promenade was confident and clarion. The other iterations of the Promenade were handled with equal skill and smarts. Abduraimov always managed to produce the right sound. Fortissimos were wonderfully unbanged—deep into the keys. Rich. The penultimate section of the work—about Baba Yaga’s hut—was terrifyingly fabulous.
And “The Great Gate of Kiev”? It started softly. Very softly. That was arresting. It built shrewdly. This section can be bombastic, but Abduraimov did not allow that. He chose unusual emphases at the end, and these were convincing.
As soon as he was through, I stood. I have never heard a better Pictures, and never heard one as good, except from Vladimir Feltsman, also in Carnegie Hall, many years ago.
There were encores. The first was the same one Abduraimov played after the Tchaikovsky concerto in October—a Tchaikovsky song, “Lullaby,” arranged by Rachmaninoff. I wrote in my review, “Abduraimov played it beautifully, giving a masterclass in legato and cantabile.” So it was the second time, last night. The piano was not a percussion instrument at all, just a vehicle for song.
Next, Abduraimov gave us some Prokofiev: “Mercutio,” from Romeo and Juliet (in the composer’s own transcription). Again, the young man’s sense of rhythm was acute.
He ended with “La campanella,” that dazzler by Liszt (from his Grandes études de Paganini). Like you, perhaps, I have heard this played by anyone and everyone, over the years. Never so glassily, so accurately, so amazingly.
Wow. Just wow (as they say on social media). Behzod Abduraimov. Hard to say, maybe, but worth memorizing.