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‘It Can Shake The Universe’ – Prokofiev’s Mighty Second Piano Concerto

24 April, 2024

Pianist Behzod Abduraimov and conductor Han-Na Chang discuss Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto ahead of their performances in Sydney in May, a work that demands such extraordinary virtuosity that it even gave the composer anxiety!

By Hugh Robertson

Musicians often speak of music like a landscape, the notes carrying them up hills and down valleys; Mahler famously said that he had captured all the sounds of the Austrian alps in his music, and Sir Donald Runnicles has compared conducting Beethoven’s Third Symphony to standing at the bottom of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, staring up and contemplating the summit.

There is no more dizzying climb in all of music than the Second Piano Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev. A thrilling cascade of notes and orchestral fireworks, it demands extraordinary virtuosity from the soloist – so much so that it even caused the composer himself to have a small panic attack. In 1927, Prokofiev wrote in his diary,

I come out to play in a more or less calm frame of mind. But I do not manage to stay calm during the most difficult parts: in the cadenza (specifically where I mark colossale), and at the beginning of the third movement, where the hands keep jumping over one another, I play badly. However, the rest I play well and with enthusiasm.

In May, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will perform the work with one of its greatest modern interpreters, the phenomenal young Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov. Described by The Independent as‘the most perfectly accomplished pianist of his generation’ and The Times of London as ‘the master of all he surveys,’ Abduraimov has longed to play this piece since he was a child, but waited until he felt he was capable enough to properly tackle it.

‘It’s one of the most challenging piano concertos ever written, but it was my dream piece from my childhood,’ he says with a smile. ‘I always compare it with another gigantic concerto, Rachmaninov’s Third, which is also, you know super virtuosic and very dramatic. In Rachmaninov Three, one can hear all the human emotions that can happen on this planet – but this Prokofiev Second goes beyond. It can shake the universe. This music always gives me goosebumps and always the greatest excitement I can feel on stage whenever I perform it.’

Behzod Abduraimov. Photo by Evgeny Eutykhov.

‘It’s crazy how anybody can play that,’ says Han-Na Chang with a laugh. ‘It’s a monster of a piece!’ The Korean conductor is returning to Sydney with this rich and intoxicating program, which also includes Tchaikovsky’s intoxicating Fifth Symphony and Glinka’s overture to his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla. As she explained in a recent interview, Chang has a great affinity for Prokofiev and other 20th century Russian composers due to her own relationship with her mentor, the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – and she is excited to be finally collaborating with Abduraimov after a few false starts.

‘I can't wait to meet Bezhod,’ she says. ‘It’s our first time performing together. We had some dates lined up, but the pandemic came. So I’m looking forward to it.’

Abduraimov has his own long and rich history with Prokofiev. His first major international success came in 2009 when he won the London International Piano Competition performing the Third Piano Concerto; he recorded the Sixth Piano Sonata for Decca in 2012, which led to The Daily Telegraph (UK) describing him as ‘an artist not only of extraordinary technical ability, but also one with a terrific musical personality and sensibility’. And Sydneysiders may well recall his debut with the Orchestra in 2009, when he performed the Third Piano Concerto with then-Principal Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, not only in Sydney but on our Asia Tour.

Behzod Abduraimov with the Sydney Symphony’s then-Principal Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, on tour in 2009.

‘Definitely that experience helped me out a lot,’ recalls Abduraimov. ‘I’ve played quite a few major pieces by Prokofiev, which obviously helped me to understand Prokofiev's unique language.’

Prokofiev can sometimes come across as an inscrutable figure, one who is hard to pin down. He is something of an amalgam of three other more knowable Russian composer archetypes: the poster boy for Soviet-era artistic suffering (Shostakovich), the cosmopolitan émigré shocking the world (Stravinsky), the tragic figure capable of transcendent melodies (Tchaikovsky). Instead he is a bit of all of these:

Chang and Abduraimov agree, but for them that is precisely the attraction to Prokofiev’s music.

‘I love Prokofiev,’ says Chang enthusiastically. ‘There’s so many aspects of him, but in this concerto especially I find his dark humour and wit, his irony and sarcasm – but not nasty sarcasm, it’s just so dark and deep and enigmatic. And it’s a fantastically orchestrated work, as with any Prokofiev.’

Han-Na Chang in concert May 2023. Photo by by Ole Wuttudal.

‘For me, he stands alone,’ says Abduraimov. ‘He’s absolutely unique. Of course Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were all geniuses. But Prokofiev’s language of writing, and then also the lyrical side of Prokofiev is so unique. Sometimes I feel like you can hear the exact words he wanted to say through these sounds, through this passage or through this phrase.’

Working out exactly what a composer wants to say in a piece of music can be a challenge, but in this case it is somewhat easier as Prokofiev dedicated the piece to the memory of a friend, Maximilian Schmidthof, who had committed suicide in 1913 – not long before this piece was composed. That sadness permeates the piece and gives it tremendous depth and richness.

‘One thing I'm very thankful to Prokofiev is that he was always being very, very clear in his intentions,’ says Abduraimov. ‘That helps the performer to understand, to get the message better.

‘[This piece] is a journey through a lifetime, through the lifetime of his friend. Prokofiev was probably trying to describe all the challenges in life, all the dark emotions that one can experience in life. So it’s a journey, it’s a story.’

Abduraimov explains that the storytelling element isn’t a matter of interpretation – Prokofiev wrote that instruction into the score.

‘In the very beginning, the first theme, as soon as the piano enters, it says ‘narrative,’ he explains. ‘So it’s not just playing, it’s not just the sound, you are telling the story. This huge story starts from nothing and then develops into something incredible.’

Ultimately, Abduraimov is thrilled that this concerto is beginning to find what he believes is its rightful place in the canon – and doubly so that he gets to be the one to bring it to Sydney, where it hasn’t been performed in 15 years.

‘For some time it was not as popular, this concerto,’ he explains, ‘But I think for me it’s one of the brightest masterworks ever for piano and orchestra.

‘Whenever something great, something new comes, and it's not always received well at the beginning. And Prokofiev was by character, he was very in a way egoistic, eccentric, and sometimes could be snobbish. But I'm glad he was this way, and we should be glad that he didn't change anything. He just kept writing his own way.’