Review: A Pianist to Be Reckoned With |

Review: A Pianist to Be Reckoned With

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

This ought to be a fun Sunday, when Behzod Abduraimov takes on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in front of the Aspen Festival Orchestra. The 25-year-old pianist put on a quite a show in his recital Thursday evening in Harris Hall.

Abduraimov displayed a mastery of tone and technique. He displayed a clear idea of how he wants to phrase the music. He brought out all the power and quite a few of the nuances in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, especially relishing the composer’s rhythmic propulsion. Like a jazz master, he got into a propulsive pattern that drove the music to a shattering climax.

He also has a no-nonsense stage presence. Once at the piano, he went through a Chopin ballade, two of Schubert’s “Moments musiceaux” and a Beethoven sonata without leaving the stage, as most soloists would.

The Uzbek-born pianist replaced Vivaldi and Bach openers with Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. Unfortunately the choice revealed weaknesses, notably an over-reliance on the sustain pedal and a penchant for extreme contrasts in dynamics and tempo. Denser passages got muddy. Inner voices got lost. Chopin’s ballades tell a story through music, but the tale here seemed to stop and start.

A jolt of rhythmic energy informed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata,” however. Although the opening movement lurched a bit from passage to passage, the central slower movement moved with gentle urgency under the majestic chorale-like surface, and the finale settled into a dazzling pace that finished with a burst of extra energy.

Except when slowing down for contrast, he favored quick tempos. The slow movements of both the Beethoven and Prokofiev sonatas moved at a faster pace than one usually hears. This was especially apparent in the Prokofiev, where the “Tempo di valzer lentissimo” clocked about the same metronome reading as Beethoven’s “Andante con moto.” As a result, the Prokofiev came off as especially breathless.

All this originality enlivened the proceedings. This pianist knows where he wants the music to go.

Though the Emerson String Quartet’s lone concert this year, celebrating 40 years as an ensemble, promised to be special, what they provided Tuesday night in Harris Hall was no lighthearted celebration.

The group has a long and distinguished history here, including some of its most rewarding recording projects. Their appearances often are highlights of the Aspen Music Festival’s season. This time a somber tone emerged from all three pieces on the program, especially from Berg’s “Lyric Suite” and Brahms’ A minor quartet. Even Haydn, a composer we can usually count on for sprightliness and wit, was represented by a piece from his sober side, the Quartet in D minor, op. 76 no. 2.

The playing of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins articulated the music with their usual precision and uncanny unity. But to these ears it felt routine.

The centerpiece was the “Lyric Suite,” the title work on their most recent CD. They’ve been playing it on tour in the original version with soprano (in this case Renee Fleming). No doubt the sheer beauty of Fleming’s sound would have reflected more lyrical expressiveness than the instrumental-only approach, which brought out the steeliness of the harmonies.

The Haydn, on the other hand, focused on the richness of the chords and downplayed rhythmic elements. In the Brahms quartet they went for autumnal colors and emphasized the composer’s intricate contrapuntal writing. This clarity, however, reduced the plushness of the harmonic textures. A little deeper pile on the sofa would have been welcome. Tellingly, there was no encore.

Wednesday’s evening of music inspired by Shakespeare, also in Harris Hall, continued the week’s downer theme, but did so with more passion and enthusiasm. Accompanied by faculty members Kenneth Merrill and Elizabeth Buccheri, student singers from the Aspen Opera Center delivered a series of strong vocal and dramatic scenes, including “La mort de Cleopatre” (a lyric scene by Berlioz), the final death scene from “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” (the final act of Bellini’s opera on “Romeo and Juliet”) and Ophelia’s suicide scene from Thomas’ opera, “Hamlet.”

Things started out brightly enough with three coloratura-filled showpieces from Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen,” voiced juicily by sopranos Liv Redpath and Isobel Anthony. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowski emphasized vocal power in her portrayal of Cleopatra, showing a softer lyric side only after miming being bitten by the asp.

Faculty pianist Hung-Kuan Chen opened the second half with a sensitive account of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor “Tempest” before Bellini brought us to the tomb scene. As Romeo, mezzo-soprano Mesgan Mikailova Samarin delivered the star turn of the night, soprano Elizabeth Novella complementing her nicely. Soprano Zoe Cristina Bates Johnson finished things off with a fine sense of growing madness in Thomas’ “A vos jeux, mes amis,” Ophelia’s death scene.

As a side note, one can understand that the lighting that differentiated each piece on the program can look better when the house lights are kept dark, but then what was the point of handing out complete texts? It was too dark to read them. And while we’re on the subject, it’s pretty hard to read the program notes when the house lights in Harris Hall are kept too dim during intermissions.


Two-piano aficionados can feast on Misha and Cipa Dichter’s program of Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak and a tasty dessert of Andalusian dances tonight in Harris Hall. On Sunday’s program in the tent, aside from the Rachmaninoff concerto, Hugh Wolff conducts selections from Wagner’s “Gotterdaemmerung” and a lovely tango from Argento’s opera “Dream of Valentino.” The tango theme continues Monday evening with a recital by Hector del Curt, who has lent his soulful bandoneon to several Aspen programs in the past.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.