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Pianist Behzod Abduraimov again proves to be a super sub

Pianist Behzod Abduraimov again proves to be a super sub
Juanjo Mena conducts the Los Angeles Phil Harmonic during a matinee show at Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles Times)

Behzod Abduraimov, the 24-year-old breakout pianist from Uzbekistan, is making a formidable name for himself in Los Angeles through the time-honored means of subbing.

In July, he stepped in for Yefim Bronfman at the Hollywood Bowl and made a big impression with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Saturday afternoon, he did it again at Walt Disney Concert Hall, replacing pregnant violinist Leila Josefowicz. Obviously, this required a switch in the program.

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Abduraimov's vehicle this time was the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3, which has been getting a lot of exposure in L.A. lately. Lang Lang played it in May, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet did so with the London Philharmonic last week. But I doubt if even the most jaded, super-saturated listener could have resisted Abduraimov's spectacular take on the Prokofiev with Juanjo Mena and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In a preview, a beautifully recorded CD of Abduraimov's Prokofiev 3 came out last month on Decca — one of the best new recordings of the concerto, superior to Lang's recent version (which doesn't really show what Lang can do with the piece). Abduraimov's performance Saturday took it further to the extremes, with wider dynamic contrasts and stronger, tougher accents and rhythms. The lyrical stretches rippled and floated as if on a cloud; the stretch runs of the first and third movements were wild rides to the finish line.

Already, the magic name of Horowitz has come up in the media as a comparison, and perhaps those huge hammered octaves and a few coloristic pedaling effects do suggest this, but Abduraimov is a far more physically demonstrative pianist than was the deceptively composed Horowitz. Mena faithfully followed each and every rhapsodic rubato, and the young Uzbek pianist chipped in a lovely encore, Tchaikovsky's Nocturne in C-sharp minor.

More Prokofiev, the "Classical" Symphony, led off the concert, but Mena fell into the trap of playing the first movement too slowly, which robs the music of its sparkle and wit. Almost all conductors drag the tempo these days, ignoring Prokofiev's own metronome marking and the examples of wonderful early recordings by Koussevitzky, Ormandy, Toscanini or Steinberg (which are a bit faster than the marking and all the more effective for it). The second and third movements were slow and heavy too, but the fourth zipped along at a good clip.

In Dvorák's Symphony No. 7, Mena's mostly extroverted, even at times raucous approach served the piece well, and he used the entire podium for some excitable footwork. I think there was even a hint of a moonwalk at one point.

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