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Feature Autumn 2023

Alim Beisembayev: an unplanned Proms debut

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On Friday 4 August 2023, recently graduated RCM pianist Alim Beisembayev was looking forward to a relaxing weekend, complete with home-cooked dinner on Sunday night. He planned to accompany his meal with BBC Radio 3’s live broadcast of Prom 30: a performance of Rachmaninov by Benjamin Grosvenor, under the baton of John Wilson. Little did Alim know, he’d be playing a rather more active part in the evening’s entertainment.  

‘Ever since I first played the piano at the age of five, I seemed to fall in love with it and immediately wanted to become a musician,’ Alim told Upbeat when we caught up with him over the summer of 2023. ‘A few years later I went to my first concert, which inspired me to become a performer and a concert pianist.’ 

Alim’s parents were supportive of his dream and he left his native Kazakhstan to undertake early studies at the Purcell School with Tessa Nicholson. Competition success came thick and fast, with 17-year-old Alim winning First Prize at the Junior Cliburn International Competition in 2015. He would go on to win First Prize at The Leeds International Piano Competition 2021 and continue his studies with Tessa Nicholson at the Royal Academy of Music, and with Professor Vanessa Latarche at the Royal College of Music, where he completed his Masters and Artist Diploma in Performance in 2023, aged 25, supported by the Reinhold-Blüthner Scholarship.

Alim said of his time at the RCM: ’The Royal College of Music is a very special place to me. It is where I first heard masterclasses given by incredible musicians such as Sir András Schiff and Maxim Vengerov – they were nothing short of inspiring. The RCM’s prestigious and illustrious Keyboard Faculty was one of the reasons I wanted to attend.’


Launching a career 

Alim made notable debuts as a recitalist at the Chopin Institute in Warsaw, Oxford Piano Festival, Wigmore Hall and Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. He undertook tours in Europe with the Steinway Prizewinner Concerts Network and in Korea with the World Culture Network. As well as his RCM teacher Professor Vanessa Latarche and the celebrated musicians he witnessed first-hand at the College, Alim cites legendary pianists Richter, Pollini, Kissin and Argerich as his biggest influences: ‘I used to listen to their recordings over and over again, especially those of works by Chopin!’

However, it was not Chopin himself, but one of his contemporaries who featured on Alim’s debut album. Alim released all 12 of Liszt’s Études to critical acclaim on the Warner Classics label in 2022. There is throughout no doubt about the pianist’s affection for and affinity with this wonderful score, reported Gramophone of Liszt: Transcendental Études, labelling the album an impressive calling card for this outstanding young pianist.

‘There is a lot to take into account when trying to maintain and progress a career, so the last couple of years have been a huge learning curve,’ says Alim. ‘It has been especially interesting managing to perform in vastly different acoustics on a regular basis; your style, programming and your general artistic vision is developed when you perform regularly. There is nothing that is not enjoyable when making and sharing music.’ 

[quote quote="The Royal College of Music is a very special place to me. It is where I first heard masterclasses given by incredible musicians such as Sir András Schiff and Maxim Vengerov – they were nothing short of inspiring. The RCM’s prestige and illustrious Keyboard Faculty was one of the reasons I wanted to attend." author="Alim Beisembayev"]

An unexpected phone call 

It was Alim’s reputation as a real musical personality (The Guardian) that saw his plans on that fateful Sunday change so dramatically, thanks to an unexpected phone call. ‘I was simply asked whether I could play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in two days’ time at the BBC Proms.’ 

It transpired that Benjamin Grosvenor had been taken ill and was no longer able to perform to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall. ‘Of course, my heart skipped a beat... but I said yes. A few minutes later, I was also warned it would be televised – my answer remained the same.’  

Alim’s ability to remain cool under the pressure of two days’ notice for arguably the biggest performance of his life is hard to comprehend for those of us who haven’t been chasing that dream since age five. Although Alim’s extensive musical training had prepared him for this moment, a sold-out Proms debut with the Sinfonia of London, conducted by the illustrious John Wilson (also an RCM alumnus) and broadcast live on the BBC, is clearly no insignificant undertaking. With only three rehearsals between him and the concert, Alim had a nerve-wracking challenge ahead.  

‘In a way, I was thankful there was so little time until the performance, which gave me even less time to be nervous, so there was no choice but to be focused,’ he explains. ‘Just two hours after the phone call I was in Maida Vale Studios ready to rehearse. It was fairly straightforward to put such a difficult work together thanks to such a high-level orchestra and John Wilson.’ 

How did he approach playing a piece that is so well-loved among Proms audiences? 

‘It’s important to maintain a fresh approach for such a work. I have to imagine playing it as if for the first time. This is what I do in order to keep things fresh sounding. Then I combine it with giving my 110%,’ he adds modestly, ‘which I hope is sufficient.’ 

A BBC article about Alim’s performance notes that the pianist’s hands were visibly trembling as he lay them across the keyboard and prepared to play. But – as his natural talent, dedication and training had prepared him to do – Alim played brilliantly.  

Watch Alim's BBC Proms performance on BBCiPlayer

Beisembayev reeled off the concerto as if he was to the manner born, said The Guardian, with reviewer Martin Kettle praising his sparkling technique, rhythmic control and dynamic range. The Times’ Rebecca Franks called him hugely impressiveand a name to follow after a high-stakes, electrifying performance. The i further complimented Alim’s encore: an ear-boggling transcription of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird

Alim himself is characteristically modest: ‘I felt incredibly fortunate after the performance to have the audience react so warmly, as I had just performed a dream piece in my dream venue. Of course, I also felt relieved.’ 


What’s next? 

So, what’s next for the young rising star? Well, he was recently announced as one of the 2023 BBC New Generation Artists, which he describes as ‘a huge privilege given [the scheme’s] history of names that now have the biggest careers imaginable. I look forward to many engagements across the company as well as working with the BBC orchestras. It also provides great exposure on BBC Radio 3.’ 

Forthcoming recitals include his debut at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Birmingham Town Hall and return visits to the Seoul Arts Centre and Wigmore Hall, among others. He’s also ‘very excited to start work on a brand-new piano concerto by composer Eleanor Alberga, which I will premiere with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in April 2024. It’ll be a great experience to play something that’s never been played before, let alone with an orchestra!’ 

Asked what advice he has for recent RCM graduates, Alim says, ‘there will be different kinds of difficulties for everyone. For those lacking in inspiration, I would encourage finding it through broadening your horizons through different art forms and meeting interesting people. For those lacking in time and its management, I would advise learning to plan very carefully and realistically. Constant exploring, planning and good time management should keep everybody busy and reaching new stages in their careers.’ 

What does an average day look like for professional performer Alim Beisembayev now?  

‘Fortunately – or unfortunately – I don’t have typical days. The only regularity is spending at least some time at a piano!’ 

And, hopefully, the occasional home-cooked meal on a Sunday evening. 


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