Uzbeck pianist Behzod Abduraimov and Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä came with big reputations, making this the strongest-looking ASO concert this year in terms of artist clout.

Greatly impressive, Abduraimov has been here before, in Guy Barrett’s International Piano Series in 2019. A high-profile Decca artist who has switched to the smaller Alpha Classics label, he is an instinctual, impassioned player whose technique is top-notch.

To hear him play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 felt immediately risky, but in all the right ways. His playing was clean and tidy but forever verging on the wildly impetuous, while able to turn on the charm when Ludwig so decides. The second movement is where the latter happens, and Abduraimov did this with genuine heart without sounding ingratiating.

The impressive Behzod Abduraimov. Photo: Saige Prime

What impressed was his artistic tact. Playing with more intimate restraint than he does with the big Romantic concertos, Abduraimov allowed all of Beethoven’s neat theatrical fun to come through. The 33-year-old is now one of the maturest of thinking pianists.

But what also pricked the ears was the orchestra. Alert and able to change direction at an instant, its playing sparked interest from the outset. So here was Vänskä’s contribution: a like willingness to relinquish a softly-softly approach and go for the bold.

The strings sounded percussive and drum-like at the beginning, their staccato rhythms agreeing exactly with the score’s directions. At times, Beethoven does get curiously militaristic in his piano concertos, as though he wants to blow away all niceties – here is but one instance.

Another plus was how Vänskä and Abduraimov shared similar inclinations on a micro level. How phrases swell and contract, how strength gives way for delicacy, and how seriousness capitulates to humour, takes twin architects to make it work. This partnership was a joy.

The ASO pushed itself to a higher plane than usual. Under Vänskä’s direction, they kept up an energy that never sagged. Their playing was exemplary, aside for one split note from the brass in the first movement’s excited finish.

Come this way, Alpha Classics, for your next recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos. Adelaide has quite a thing going on here.

An engrossingly performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture headed this concert. The tempo was slower than usual, like Carlo Maria Giulini’s Eroica Symphony, but oh, was it effective. Was Verdi thinking of this 1810 overture when he wrote Force of Destiny? It sure sounded so. Recalling the darkness of Beethoven’s minor-key symphonies, its moody undercurrent swirled around until the French horns announced its final battle-cry. Based on Goethe’s Trauerspiel, about a heroic stand against despotism, Egmont is another of Beethoven’s revolutionary works, and this cracking performance left the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air.

Vänskä is especially known for his Sibelius, so attention inevitably focused on his reading the Lemminkäinen Suite. It’s a work that predates the Finnish composer’s seven symphonies and steeps itself in the folkloristic past of his homeland. The second of its four movements, the well-known “Swan of Tuonela”, is a mythical creature who oversees the spirits of the dead.

This music’s deep mystical interior is like staring into another time. It can seem impenetrable unless Sibelius’s restless spirit and long emotional spans are conveyed with absolute clarity. Vänskä kept a flow going throughout, without imposing any structural or dramatic artifices. It was like watching a cinema reel put together by an experienced film director. Vänskä is a master at connectedness.

What wonderful music this is when played so well. This Sibelius was well-rehearsed and gorgeously enhanced by solos from clarinettist Dean Newcomb, cor anglais player Peter Duggan and cellist Sharon Grigoryan.

The The ASO pushed itself to a higher plane in the Heroic concert. Photo: Saige Prime

Considering its capabilities, the ASO could really become more adventurous in its programming. That day might come. But right now, the find of the year is Vänskä. This very capable Finnish conductor would be a dream answer to the orchestra’s most urgent problem: it lacks a principal conductor. Nicholas Carter left in 2019, and a replacement needs to be found.

Vänskä has an easy manner, is vastly experienced, and he produces great results. It would be ideal to have him back in any capacity.

This is a review of the ASO’s Symphony Series concert Heroic on May 4 in the Adelaide Town Hall. The orchestra’s She Speaks series, co-curated by Anne Cawrse and Belinda Gehlert, is on May 31 to June 1.

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