Wigmore Mondays – Behzod Abduraimov: Chopin Ballades and Brahms Variations

behzod-abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 15 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07032zw

Available until 17 March

What’s the music?

Chopin (1810-1849) – Ballades:

No.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (9 minutes)

No.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (7 minutes)

No.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (7 minutes)

No.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-43) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Variations on a theme of Paganini, Book 1 Op.35 (1862-63) (12 minutes)

Spotify

Behzod Abduraimov has not recorded this repertoire as yet, so in case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains recordings of the Ballades by the legendary Artur Rubinstein – and an equally thrilling recording of the Brahms from pianist Julius Katchen:

About the music

As the name implies, the Ballade is a form that has a literary origin. Chopin seemingly opted to use this name in response to the writings of Adam Mickiewicz – and using such a name gave him freedom of expression and form. So it is that the four ballades for piano each tell their own story, sometimes deciding to apply rigorous structure but on other occasions letting their ideas run free.

More recently it has become a popular concert trend for the four to be performed together, as they span a good range of Chopin’s composing career (12 years) and because their key centres and emotional impressions are complementary. The first and fourth are the most substantial pieces and arguably the most difficult to bring off, while the second is rigorously structured and the third described as more of a ‘salon’ piece – which should not demean it in any way.

Brahms wrote two books of Paganini Variations, taking as his inspiration the composer’s very last Caprice for solo violin, which you can view below:

It was the composer’s last large scale work for solo piano, and was perhaps a surprise to those who had gotten to know him as a serious composer. Here he lets himself off the leash, writing music that seems to be for display purposes as it becomes ever more difficult – despite him referring to his writing as modest ‘finger exercises’. Brahms being Brahms, though, there is still that customary attention to detail throughout the fourteen variations.

Performance verdict

An ambitious program for a lunchtime concert, but one the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov pulled off with aplomb. He clearly knows the Chopin Ballades very well, for the melodic phrases were invested with a natural instinct that gave him a deceptive amount of room. There were some passages of play that took the breath away, such as the end of the fourth ballade, while in contrast the quieter moments, such as the very private beginning to the third ballade, were equally involving.

The first ballade flowed beautifully, a stream of consciousness that felt instinctive and gained a lot of momentum in its tempestuous central pages.

On occasion the Paganini Variations were too loud, the really fast and firm bits given out with just a bit too much force. Yet that is perhaps the best criticism, for it shows the extent to which Abduraimov was really going for his shots, as it were – nailing most of the really tricky runs and dazzling especially in the right hand of the thirteenth variation.

What should I listen out for?

Chopin

2:54 – the first Ballade begins with a call to arms that soon dims down – where we hear the main theme at 3:25. For much of the first section the pianist appears deep in thought, but soon these thoughts come to the surface, and from 5:00 onwards we hear music of great feeling, rising to a tempestuous climax and a thoroughly convincing finish.

11:45 – the second Ballade has none of the brooding expression of its predecessor, and could almost be mistaken for a Christmas piece at the start, with its blend of grace and nostalgia. Things change dramatically at 13:41 with an outburst from the right hand, a sudden whirlwind of notes that will almost certainly make you jump on headphones! The two contrasting moods alternate through to the end.

18:46 – the third Ballade starts with a beautiful theme and then turns into a graceful, almost balletic triple time dance. A second section at 20:27 is also in the mood for a dance, turning gracefully but then becoming deeper and much firmer. This starts to dominate the ballade as Chopin moves it through increasingly distant key centres, before the main theme returns joyously at 24:40.

25:47 – the fourth and final Ballade does not begin in its ‘home’ key, approaching it by way of an introduction – before arriving at 26:19 with a new theme. The final flurry to the end begins at 34:49 and is brilliantly played.

Brahms

38:16 – Paganini’s theme is heard in some distinctive voicing – and it is not long until the first variation at 38:43, with what sounds like an incredibly difficult piece of writing to play! Other notable variations are the flighty third (39:37), a much quieter and sombre fifth (40:58), and a sixth (41:48) where Brahms’ characteristic rhythms of two against three take hold. There are then some inward looking, quieter moments where the music takes time for thought.

Then at 47:58 we hear the thirteenth variation, and there are some frankly outrageous showboating with glissandi (very fast runs) in the right hand. Who said Brahms isn’t fun?! The end is pretty explosive stuff, and if you listen closely you might be able to hear Abduraimov stamping towards the finish.

Encore

51:49 – very much the calm after the storm, the encore is the pianist Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of the Sicilienne – originally composed by Vivaldi and arranged by Bach (3 minutes)

Further listening

The last Paganini caprice has sparked the imagination of a number of composers, each of whom have written variations on its melody – so at the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini from Rachmaninov, along with Variations from Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which one is best?

Meanwhile you can compare Chopin’s approach to the Ballade with that of Brahms, who published his set of four in 1854. The items are on the bottom of the playlist containing the music used in the concert:

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