Recording of the Week,
Behzod Abduraimov plays Debussy, Chopin and Mussorgsky
Though he’s been busy with orchestral recordings (most recently a superb Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on the composer’s own piano in Lucerne), it’s been quite a while since we heard a solo recital from the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, and today brings what he describes as a ‘kaleidoscope of miniatures’ by Debussy, Chopin and Mussorgsky – the beginning of what looks set to be an auspicious partnership on Alpha Classics.
He opens with a witty, affectionate account of Children’s Corner, showcasing his ability to paint in the sort of pastel shades that wouldn’t cut across the orchestral artillery in the heavyweight Romantic concertos in which he’s made his name; in ‘The Snow is Dancing’ he finds infinite variety within a relatively restricted dynamic range, and the elephant Jimbo and the porcelain doll are depicted with a gentle, three-dimensional charm that looks forward to his nuanced characterisations in the Mussorgsky later on in the programme. The Chopin Preludes, too, are beautifully and self-effacingly done: Abduraimov has technique to burn in the virtuoso passages, but nothing is ever splashy or brash, and his almost Classical restraint (rubato is used sparingly throughout) makes favourites like the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude come up as fresh as paint.
But it’s the stupendous account of Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition that makes this album indispensable. At a time when art galleries around the world are restricted to displaying their riches online, Abduraimov gives us a ‘virtual tour’ which captures the experience of visiting masterpieces in the flesh more vividly than any interactive exhibition I’ve encountered during my lockdown browsing. The Promenades are brilliantly differentiated to reflect the viewer’s shifts in mood and perspective, the opening section switching from brisk efficiency to slight hesitance (there’s a lovely moment where it seems our tour-guide might be scanning through a leaflet before selecting his route!) before pulling up short on sight of Gnomus: one of the marvellous things about this set is the way Abduraimov manages to conjure not just the Pictures themselves but also the space which each one inhabits, the sound suddenly opening out here to evoke an auspiciously empty, high-ceilinged atrium with appropriately crepuscular lighting.
Each subsequent transition between exhibits is just as thoughtfully coloured, the mixture of revulsion and awe which the first painting inspired lingering in the mind’s eye as the visitor makes his way to The Old Castle, and a delighted little staccato intake of breath conveying his surprise as he alights on the brightly-lit painting of children squabbling in the Tuileries garden – a welcome palate-cleanser after the sepia tones of the first two canvases.
The Pictures themselves are depicted with equal vividness, Abduraimov drawing our attention to individual colours and textures with the insightful precision of an engaging art historian (The Old Castle is especially striking in this regard, boldly-etched lines contrasting with the sort of Monet-ish Impressionism that Debussy captured in works like Nuages - one could almost pen exhibition-notes from Abduraimov’s detailed descriptions in sound). The slow progress of the ox-cart in Bydlo is hypnotically conveyed, and just one example of the pianist fleshing out a mental narrative from a static image: the beast seems to hove into view piano from the middle distance before staring us in the face at alarmingly close quarters as Abduraimov summons near-orchestral weight from his Steinway.
He also has a disarming ability to find beauty in superficial ugliness, with unexpected cantabile sweetness emerging as he re-evaluates Gnomus as something more than a one-dimensional grotesque and slowly begins to see the macabre chill of the Catacombs in a different light: more than any other pianist I’ve heard in recent years, Abduraimov shows us not just the picture itself but also the viewer’s shifting response as he stands before it. Baba Yaga, though, is revealed in all her nightmarish glory, Abduraimov clearly having a whale of a time painting thickly in the sort of crude colours he’d eschewed earlier in the journey. And the wonder of the Great Gate of Kiev evidently takes the observer’s breath away; as Abduraimov summons a whole carillon of bells from both extremes of the keyboard, I’ll wager his listeners will feel similarly awestruck.