The Virtual Aspen Music Festival’s Sunday concerts have been going from strength to strength in a year without audiences in the seats. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s program Sunday, the most recent live-streamed success, made something special out of familiar music. Most impressively, his intense work on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” coaxed out all the color and scene-painting drama that 88 keys can muster. Abduraimov, who like Daniil Trifonov the previous Sunday, has yet to reach his 30th birthday, has become a regular at the summer festival over the past few years. And why not? His no-nonsense stage presence wins over audiences with a mastery of tone and technique, clear ideas of how he wants to phrase the music, and thrilling jolts of rhythmic energy. All that was on display Sunday in the hourlong concert from the Harris Hall stage in Aspen. He opened with a gauzy take on Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, had gentle fun with Debussy’s “Children’s Corner” suite, and drove “Pictures” to a titanic finish.
Most music lovers know “Pictures” from Ravel’s iconic orchestration (or dozens of other composers’ instrumentations), but Mussorgsky was inspired to create this series of musical impressions for solo piano by a posthumous exhibition of paintings by his friend Viktor Hartmann. The technically challenging and masterfully crafted music brought out the best in Adburaimov, who sought differences in the various iterations of the familiar “Promenade” that introduces and separates most of the movements, found appropriate tempos throughout, and applied a different touch to each scene.
Early on, he sprinkled some delicate magic over “Tuileries,” plodded ominously through the persistent slog of “Bydlo,” and brought a sparkle to the version of the “Promenade” that followed. The camera caught him using soft pedal to add contrast to “Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle.” The rhythmic lift in “Baba-Yaga” led to a majestic reading of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” which kept gathering in intensity until the final stretched-out chords. That mastery of details wasn’t quite there for the opening work. Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata emerged as dreamy and understated in the contemplative first movement, given some depth by judicious rubato and visual interest by creative fingering that at times brought to mind that 20th-century master Chico Marx. A sound balance that felt like it turned down the treble a bit too much robbed the delicate dance of the allegretto of its lilt, and toned down the vigor of the presto agitato finale.
In conversation with festival CEO Alan Fletcher on Monday’s High Notes discussion, Abduraimov revealed that he had only recently learned this sonata, a piece nearly aspiring pianists usually tackle early. He turned to it during his isolation due to the current pandemic. No doubt he’ll find more details (and apply less pedal to it) as he continues to program it.
Debussy’s charming “Children’s Corner” provided a welcome change of pace between the temperamental Beethoven and dramatic Mussorgsky. Though muted a bit by the sound balance, the amiable scene-painting in Debussy’s earlier piano work contrasted smartly with pieces around it. “Jimbo’s Lullaby” revealed a sweet touch, and the intricate interplay of “The Snow Is Dancing” made its own magic. The finale, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” strutted winningly.
As an aside, one thing these virtual concerts miss is an encore. Traditionally, of course, an encore is a musician’s gift to an audience for its enthusiasm. With no live audience present, throwing one in would seem presumptuous, but damn, a soothing Chopin nocturne or quiet Mendelssohn song without words would have made a nice bookend to calm things down after that resplendent “Great Gate of Kiev.”
The concert repeats on the festival’s website and YouTube channel at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Coming up this week: Next Sunday’s featured concert at 3 p.m. brings back more Aspen regulars. Violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk take on three of Charles Ives sonatas, works that they interpreted brilliantly before an appreciative audience in a previous season. Midweek, two longtime faculty stalwarts provide glimpses of their teaching process in 5 p.m. showcases: harpist Nancy Allen Wednesday and oboist Elaine Douvas on Thursday.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the early 1990s. His reviews appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.