Energy and sensitivity from 22-year-old piano virtuoso

December 9, 2013

Given the hurdles of establishing an international solo career, any young artist who makes it onto the concert circuit is likely to be among the best in the world. Fortunately, art is not like the Olympics, with a handful of elite performers vying for a single crown. Unfortunately, the presence of lots of exceptional performers leads to a lot of reviews of the “phenomenal-young-talent, let’s-see-how-he-matures” variety — though no one wants to feel or sound blasé in the presence of a bundle of musicality and energy.

Behzod Abduraimov is a 22-year-old pianist who played at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, and he was the embodiment of the young virtuoso. He won the London Piano Competition in 2009; he has a recording contract with Decca (his first recording, of Liszt and Prokofiev, is a fine showcase of his technical brilliance), and he can hunch over the keys and send out fusillades of notes with the best of them.

He’s also a strikingly sensitive player. He finished Sunday’s recital with Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit,” a standby of the virtuoso repertory, and he made it sound so easy that you were left with an impression of Ravel’s gentle grace and watercolor brilliance without being even particularly aware of just how phenomenally difficult this piece is.

And a minor highlight was his reading of Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu (D. 899, no. 3), in which he managed to enclose all the coiled force of his power and talent within a glass bubble, holding it suspended on the crest of a wave of power without dislodging or breaking it.

It was the first half of the concert that seemed to involve a majority of his force and energy, and it was here that, to my ear, he is still finding his way. It was given over to two Beethoven sonatas, Op. 26, in A-flat (number 12 of the 32 sonatas), and Op. 57, the “Appassionata” (number 23). And his playing was audibly impressive: loud, flashy, intense, leaping between extremes of heat and cold. There were also breathtaking moments, such as a long progression of single notes down the keyboard in perhaps the most even “string of pearls” I have ever heard. And there were crashing, tinny moments when the themes had to fight to be heard out of the storm of notes and pedal.

It was certainly exciting; it got the loudest applause of the afternoon. It did not open up the work in an especially notable way. But I’m not sure that’s a criticism. That is: Young artists have to venture outside their comfort zones and try the music of composers who perhaps do not come naturally to them if they are to continue to grow; not every performance can or should ever be equally polished all the way through; a little raw exuberance is what one might expect, even hope for, from a 22-year-old talent. Beethoven, for this young man, still sounded like a foreign or acquired taste, and his playing made me keenly aware that this is music a couple of centuries old, and wonder what relationship it had to the rest of the world around him. He certainly put a lot of energy, and visible physical effort, into creating the accepted paradigm of a brilliant performance — though the true brilliance came through most when he contained himself and just focused on the sheer beauty of the Schubert.

Indeed, it’s rather exceptional to encounter a young whiz-bang virtuoso and feel that his strongest suit is Schubert. I’m not sure I could give higher praise. Keep your ear on this one.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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