Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
July 2, 2017

Burmese cats are often referred to as bricks wrapped in velvet and this analogy sprang to mind while watching the young Uzbek maestro Behzod Abduraimov open this concert with a fiery and masterful performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata No 23.

Behzod Abduraimov. Photograph © Nissor Abdourazakov

The 26-year-old had listeners leaning forward in their seats from the opening tragic downward motif to the brilliant flourish before the main tune is introduced. The crashing bass chords which interrupt the theme were dispatched with muscular pent-up energy, but these were beautifully contrasted by his handling of the nobler, more poetic passages.

The hymn-like variations of the middle movement showed Abduraimov’s magisterial grasp of structure and velvety beauty of line and there was an almost reckless momentum to the famous final movement, inspiration for which is said to have come to the composer while he was out walking with his friend and pupil Ferdinand Ries, during which Beethoven started “humming and sometimes howling … without singing any actual notes”.

The concert had originally been advertised to start with Liszt’s B minor sonata, and many people were perhaps disappointed when they looked at the replacement programme. I’m willing to bet that was all forgiven after this spellbinding Appassionata.

One of Abduraimov’s strengths is that he knows when less is more. He shows remarkable maturity for one so young, albeit he started playing at age six and has been giving concerts since he was 18.

This ability to peg back and let the composer do the work was no better illustrated than in two of Schubert’s Moments musicaux – the second and third from the set of six. In the second, if one closed one’s eyes one could be listening to a young Alfred Brendel and in the third the American-based virtuoso managed a miraculous combination of jauntiness and delicacy with subtle pedal use.

But the most spectacular was saved until last with a riveting survey of Prokofiev’s first “war sonata”, the sixth, with its alternating currents of electric anger, lyricism and occasional biting sarcasm.

Abduraimov stamped the floor in the frenetic vivace passages of the finale while taking time for a quick glance at the harbour outside the window in the gently rocking waltz of the third movement.

Abduraimov is very much at home with Prokofiev, as he showed when he made his Sydney Symphony debut in 2012 under the admiring eye of his champion, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

That was a show-stopper performance and this recital five years later shows us that here is an artist whose star is even more in the ascendant. Really, there are no limits to what he can achieve and the Utzon Room audience shared a sense of privilege at being able to see and hear him in such intimate surroundings.