In concert – Behzod Abduraimov, CBSO / François Leleux – Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2; Brahms: Serenade no.1 & Academic Festival Overture

Behzod Abduraimov (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (below)

Brahms Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880)
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor Op.18 (1900-1901)
Brahms Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1858-9)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Its first concert since returning from a European tour saw the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a programme which tellingly placed Rachmaninoff’s most famous composition within the context of less often heard or uncharacteristically (?) humorous pieces by Brahms.

Cinematic and other extra-musical associations often obscure the purely musical qualities of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, so credit to the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov for duly underlining these in a reading full of incident and unfailingly cohesive. Among the former might be mentioned the limpid elegance of the first movement’s second theme and its improvisatory continuation before the coda, bewitching transition from the Adagio’s central scherzo back to the main melody, and those evocative interludes after the finale’s ‘big tune’ – this latter returning to cap the whole work in unforced ardour. Integration between piano and orchestra was unfailing, as too the emotional immediacy of the CBSO’s response, and who could question Abduraimov’s decision not to provide an encore after so fine a performance.

Rachmaninoff and Brahms seldom complement each other in concert, though the Academic Festival Overture provided an ideal curtain-raiser. Typically more than a potpourri of student songs (drinking or otherwise), the cunningly fashioned sonata design was deftly unfolded by François Leleux so that its portentous and uproarious elements were held in perfect accord. The percussion audibly relished its rare outing in a Brahms score, not least at the close when the hymn-like ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ emerges to see this piece through to its exhilarating close.

Following the interval, a relatively infrequent hearing for Brahms’s First Serenade. Originally planned for chamber ensemble and later rescored for late-Classical forces (with four horns), its equivocally symphonic ambitions and proportions were inevitably overshadowed by what Brahms went on to achieve, but its musical attractions are many and Leleux had its measure. Not least during an initial Allegro, its dextrous horn theme setting the tone for a movement whose impetus was engagingly maintained through to the touching insouciance of its coda.

Omitting repeats in this movement’s exposition and the first half of the Scherzo – which latter anticipates Brahms’s intermezzos in its speculative aura and understated progress – ensured a viable balance with the Adagio. A pre-echo of slow movements to come, the observance of its ‘non troppo’ marking prevented any loss of expressive focus across the methodically evolving whole. If the remaining movements are closer conceptually to serenade rather than symphony, Leleux gave them their due – whether the twin Menuettos with their enticing contrast between woodwind and strings, a second and more rhythmic Scherzo with rustic horn writing here and in the trio, then the final Rondo in which Brahms looks back to those comparable movements from early Beethoven and Schubert with a lack of inhibition he was only rarely to recapture.

Such was the effect of an account that received an enthusiastic response from the near-capacity house. The CBSO strings take the stage next Saturday for a coupling of Schubert arranged by Mahler and Vivaldi interspersed with Piazolla, directed by their leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Behzod Abduraimov and François Leleux

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