Despite an abundance of virtuosic Liszt pieces and such force in the Appassionata that he almost fell off his chair at the end, what was most impressive about Behzod Abduraimov in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday was the way he handled the softer parts. While his impulsive, coruscating virtuoso playing was that of a brilliant young pianist enjoying himself, the simple, direct tone he brought to the Schubert sonata (and the occasional moment elsewhere) was simply that of a gifted musician.
As well as his amazing level of skill, 22-year-old Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has a schoolboyish, eager air which meant the QEH audience were putty in his hands from the start. Schubert's "Little" Sonata in A major D.664 opened the concert, and it suited him wonderfully – it's a calm, carefree piece, written when Schubert himself was 22, while on holiday in the countryside. Abduraimov's capacity for softness, as well as the playful way he drew contrasts between sections, made for model early Schubert playing. The final movement showed him at his very best, working up a clear sense of drive and playing with startling rhythmic insistence. But it's a light piece, and when you know theAppassionata is around the corner, there's only so far it can go.
Putting Schubert at his most serene next to Beethoven in full-on heady drama mode is, it has to be said, not particularly original programming, and does little to combat the hackneyed stereotypes we hold of these two contemporaries and their relationship to each other. The fact that these two particular sonatas start with the same three-note rhythm is a coincidence which only reinforces the insurmountable differences between them. And as Abduraimov's Schubert playing was by and large more accomplished than his Beethoven, the sense of progression implied by the ordering of these two works wasn't too effective here. But that said, this was still a Beethoven performance which had more than a few remarkable moments, particularly as the intensity ratcheted up in the outer movements. Over short sections, Abduraimov can conjure up an unbelievable sense of propulsion in this music, with a groove to it that made me want to join in thwacking my foot down to the beat (I felt a little sorry for the sustain pedal). Over longer stretches, the same momentum didn't quite materialise, and there was nowhere really left to go after such a big start to the finale.
The slow movement is a vexing piece to hear as well as play, and Abduraimov did not get to the heart of this ambiguous set of variations. With a melody simple to the point of dreary and a plain, elemental harmony, the movement has poise but not lyricism, and so the Schubertian sense of grace Abduraimov seemed to aim for didn't quite fit. But all was happier in the outer movements, which smouldered and stirred fantastically.
The Appassionata is arguably near the start of that strange 19th-century tradition in piano writing which saw depth of meaning merge with virtuosity – a tradition of which Liszt took firm control several decades later. His Scherzo and March is a particularly difficult one, but it's far more than a showpiece, with a fascinatingly ambiguous mock-triumphal march for a conclusion. Abduraimov is clearly more than capable of making something meaningful out of flashy, whirlwind compositions such as this, and his interpretation here was more than technically impressive, even if the March felt a touch too fast to relish. The Mephisto Waltz no. 1, closing the evening, was a similarly successful effort.
Between them, Liszt's Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude demonstrated well both the most and least impressive aspects of Abduraimov's playing. Moments of spellbinding, astonishing luminescence alternated with far too many massive, jump-off-stool climaxes, and while what we got was nothing if not sincere, it was also rather blunt. But while a spot of calming down wouldn't go amiss, his skill is beyond doubt – and what's more, so is his musicality. He's a giddy ball of energy for the moment, leaping about while playing and practically sprinting off stage after each piece, but Abduraimov clearly has a lot more than this to give. He's one to watch, and is fast becoming one to hear.
His concert opens with the intimate world of Schubert's A major Sonata D664 and the heady drama of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. In the second half he offers three contrasting works by Liszt - the Scherzo and March in its virtuoso adaptation by Vladimir Horowitz, the celestial Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and the demoniac Mephisto Waltz No.1.
'Abduraimov's artistry conferred its own magic, with each phrase exquisitely shaped… covering the keyboard - and encompassing the divided trills and the scampering staccato octaves - with seemingly effortless grace.' (The Independent)
Southbank Centre: Queen Elizabeth HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Behzod Abduraimov © Benjamin Eagolvea / Decca