Abduraimov paints vivid “Pictures” in thrilling Candlelight recital

Sun Jan 22, 2023 at 12:55 pm
By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Photo of pianist Behzod Abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov performed Saturday night at Linehan Hall. Photo: Mira Huang

Modest Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition for the piano, but classical fans typically hear it in Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription nowadays. Behzod Abduraimov gave a tremendously entertaining performance of Pictures in its original form on Saturday night in Linehan Concert Hall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reminding the audience that, in sufficiently skilled hands, the piano can match the color and grandeur of an entire orchestra.

Candlelight Concert Society provided this treat of hearing an internationally famous pianist in an intimate hall. Abduraimov had been scheduled to perform with Candlelight in March 2020, until the pandemic hit. He made up for lost time beginning with the program’s opener, Florence Price’s Fantasie Nègre No. 1.

In this piece, Price takes the spiritual tune “Sinner, Don’t Let This Harvest Pass” and throws tons of keyboard-spanning Chopinesque figuration at it. There was a tension between the blue harmonies of the spiritual and the Central European approach to them that Price didn’t quite resolve. Here Abduraimov showed fantastically clean articulation: the runs up and down the piano could sound like individual jewels falling on a table or the hoofbeats of a herd of wild horses, as needed. Yet he always brought the melody to the forefront wherever possible, anchoring the fireworks in real feeling.

Somewhat surprisingly, given that dramatic start to the program, Abduraimov seemed to hold back at times in Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana. The opening rushes up the keyboard sounded tame, and the scrambling, crabbed melody of the third section, marked “Sehr aufgeregt” (very agitated), felt a little ironed-out. Abduraimov shone, however, in the contrasting slower music, with beautiful tone and well-turned phrasing in the “Sehr langsam” (very slow) sections. In the last two sections, a little welcome agita crept in, with Abduraimov’s left hand expertly surfacing its harmonies in the finale to impart additional unease to an already unsettled melody.

Uzbek composer Dilorom Saidaminova took inspiration from Mussorgsky’s Pictures in The Walls of Ancient Bukhara, musical depictions of scenes from that historic city, from which Abduraimov played five selections on Saturday. Saidaminova’s evocations sounded more abstract and less immediately memorable than Mussorgsky’s, but they still provided much to enjoy, in particular the bare, sustained melodic line, evoking the human voice, in “Mosque Kalan,” and the glittery upper-register arpeggios of “Stars over Bukhara.” Abduraimov played with utter commitment, giving his fellow countrywoman the best possible advocacy.

Yet the fullest test of Abduraimov’s powers came in Pictures at an Exhibition, and from the transition of the first Promenade into “The Gnome,” where Abduraimov summoned a commanding, stony tone to run up the keyboard and cut short the leisurely stroll, it was obvious this was going to be a spectacular performance. This pianist can do it all: “Tuileries” and “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” showed Abduraimov playing fast, quiet music with wit and precision, and he summoned a lonesome scene with gorgeous rounded tone and impeccable trills in “The Old Castle.” He dug into the rustic harmonies of “Bydlo” with enthusiasm and brought to the fore the spikiness of Mussorgsky’s music, occasionally smoothed out in the Ravel transcription for orchestra.

Abduraimov saved the biggest thrills for the final two pieces. “Baba Yaga’s Hut on Chicken Legs” had a genuinely menacing stomp as Abduraimov generated jaw-dropping power from the piano. In “The Great Gate at Kiev,” Abduraimov went even farther, stacking up chords upon chords, louder and louder, like he was trying to build the gate from music, and he filled the hall with ecstatic sound.

In the three encores Abduraimov played afterward—Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4), Liszt’s La Campanella, and Tchaikovsky’s Neapolitan Song—one of the piano’s keys was audibly out of tune. It was worth it.

Accordionist Hanzhi Wang, saxophonist Steven Banks, and pianist Xak Bjerken perform music by Handel, Bach, Penderecki, and others 7:30 p.m. February 25. candlelightconcerts.org

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