The Pianist Got Caught In A Vax Snarl; His Sub Was Picture Perfect

Behzod Abduraimov came to the rescue of the Vancouver Recital Society, replacing a Russian pianist who had to withdraw due to COVID regulations.

VANCOUVER — A recital by Behzod Abduraimov in Vancouver on Nov. 9 offered a program that might have felt like a return to normal concert life, but given a number of plot twists was anything but.

The Uzbek pianist’s sponsor, the Vancouver Recital Society, planned a full concert season earlier in the year with the pragmatic proviso that things might very well change. Change they did. The November date was reserved for the Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev’s Canadian debut in the bijou Vancouver Playhouse, the Society’s preferred recital locale.

However, as Vancouver headed into COVID wave four during the summer months, the Society’s founder and artistic director, Leila Getz, became convinced that demand for Malofeev’s recital would exceed the available seats. So she booked the Orpheum Theatre — a refurbished movie palace four times the size of the Playhouse — anticipating government mandated 50% capacity houses. Indeed, what became a five-event fall season began under those very conditions.

The season launch by the Danish Quartet — presenting the first installment of their multi-year Doppelgänger project combining Schubert and newly commissioned works — was held in the Orpheum and was very well received by patrons in socially distanced seating on the lower floor of the large hall. Further concerts, a wonderful recital by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen and a splendid solo violin program offered by Augustin Hadelich when his recital partner couldn’t be vaccinated, were held in the Playhouse at 50 percent occupancy, even though health officials by then had just announced permission for full-capacity events. (Getz’s responsible call: “Our patrons purchased seats anticipating 50 percent houses, and we will stick to that until the new year.”)

What has all this to do with Abduraimov, one might ask? Malofeev got caught up in vaccine issues. He had received the Russian Sputnik vaccine, which is unacceptable to Canadian authorities, and decided in the early fall that he would not risk re-vaccination. With a date, a hall, and an audience, Getz called on Abduraimov, who agreed to fly in and perform.

The pianist from Tashkent, now in his early 30s, has visited Vancouver before; one of the pleasures of the Recital Society is that Getz often seeks out remarkable young performers in the initial stages of their careers, then brings them back, allowing listeners to witness their progress. So it has been with Abduraimov. The local audience knew his technical prowess, his rich, big sound, and his ability to hold a house spellbound with emotion.

The program he offered this time was a mixed bag in a good sense: a pair of Scarlatti sonatas to start, then Schumann’s Kreisleriana followed by his party piece, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The program had an early start time of 7 p.m. because Abduraimov had to fly out of town that same evening. A loyal audience of regulars took their socially distanced seats with anticipation. How would Abduraimov have changed in the few years between Vancouver dates?

Quite a bit, it turned out. His initial salvo of Scarlatti was elegant, even intimate. This was, of course, Scarlatti re-imagined for the modern Steinway (a rather bright Hamburg model borrowed from the Vancouver Symphony) yet compellingly rendered with imagination and a kaleidoscopic range of colors and textures.

The pairing of two big “anthology” pieces in the same program might have raised the occasional eyebrow, but given Abduraimov’s approach, there was no sense of sameness in the results.

Abduraimov’s Schumann was, like the Scarlatti, a potent sign of a maturing musical personality. His overriding concern was color and a certain measure of restraint. If his approach was episodic, well, that is the nature of the work. Many of Schumann’s quiet epiphanies were handled with real insight and sensitivity. Such bravado as was required was kept in check, and the reading was all the better for it.

Then the last surprise of the evening. The audience expected an intermission following the final enigmatic notes of the Schumann. Abduraimov returned for what was assumed to be a quick curtain call but sat down at the piano and launched into Pictures. And almost instantly, here was the Abduraimov Vancouver audiences have enjoyed in the past: larger-than-life playing, emotional extravagance, a thrilling roller coaster ride through an extraordinary (if problematic) favorite work.

Where the episodic nature of Kriesleriana has a complicated trajectory, Abduraimov delivered Pictures almost in a single breath. Mussorgsky’s highly colored vignettes seemed to tumble out of the piano, giving listeners a sense of being caught up in a whirlwind of demonic force.

Abduraimov’s approach to the final group of pieces was telling: a particularly manic “Marketplace at Limoges,” a slightly underplayed but still darker-than-dark “Catacombs,” a terrifying “Baba Yaga,” and an extended, carefully paced build-up in “The Great Gate at Kiev.” Abduraimov is lavish in his use of pedal; the two chant interludes in the “Great Gate” were astonishingly blurred, as if he were creating the incense and echo of a great cathedral in sonic terms.

The concluding measures were, predictably, the biggest piano sound I’ve heard in ages, and the theatrical trick of letting the final resonances fade through the over-large hall was wonderfully effective. And with that, the extraordinary recital was over; a few curtain calls, but no encore — a solid, continuous 90 minutes of remarkable playing from one of the more brilliant of the young keyboard contenders of our age.