Nikolai Demidenko at Upper Hutt’s Classical Expressions

Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt presents:
Nikolai Demidenko – Carnivals and Sonatas

SCHUMANN – Carnival Jest from Vienna (Faschinsschwank aus Wien) Op.26
Carnaval – Scenes mignonnes sur quatre notes Op.9
SCHUBERT – Sonata in A D.664 / Sonata in A Minor D.748

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Classical Expressions Upper Hutt

Monday 29th July 2013

It was an occasion which brought home to me the refreshing reality of live music-making as opposed to the ethos presented by presentations of the artist “on record”. I had not previously heard Nikolai Demidenko in the concert-hall (though he’s been to New Zealand before), encountering him only through recordings.

It wasn’t so much what I’d heard that surprised me, as what I imagined the artist would be like. Photographs of the pianist seemed to suggest some kind of wild, intense, volatile spirit, aloof, uncompromising and ultra-romantic in a kind of “Wuthering Heights” sense. And, of course, the music he seemed to carry a particular torch for – that of Nikolai Medtner’s – itself had a similar aura – enigmatic, exotic and slightly out of the mainstream.

So, I was preparing myself for the entrance of some kind of Dostoyevskian figure, when a dapper, bearded, bespectacled man walked quickly, even a little nervously, onto the platform and bowed courteously to his audience – he had a somewhat ruddy complexion and his hair was reddish-brown, or appeared so in the light. Surely – surely not? – was this my wild, uncompromising, romantic artist from the land of the endless steppes? How could this be? It wasn’t long before Demidenko’s actual playing restored some of my equanimity, conveying to me (in a way that his initial appearance certainly didn’t) plenty of the volatility, energy and grand manner that I was expecting.

He began, at first none too commandingly, with Robert Schumann’s Carnival Jest in Vienna (Faschingsschwank aus Wien), ever-so-slightly smudging the treacherous opening flourishes; but his playing soon settled – his tones deepened and his focus sharpened. In between the fanfare-like reprises of the opening were beautifully-contrasted interludes, one of which was a delicious “strutting” rhythm, which eventually built up to a defiant quote of the opening of La Marseillaise (the song had been banned by the Austrian censor) – Demidenko hurled the tune forth with the greatest of gusto.

The suite of movements has plenty of variety; and Demidenko gave us essences of each one in turn – the fanciful dream-world of the Romanze was followed by the gaily-spirited, repetitive “skip” of the Scherzino, with its alternations of playfulness and pageantry. Then came the darker purpose of the Intermezzo, all swirling agitation at the outset, but with the pianist superbly delineating the individual currents so as to allow the embedded melody to sing forth – great playing!

After this the finale’s opening exploded with energy, causing Demidenko’s fingers to momentarily “jump the rails” (it all added to the excitement!) – it was, like Sviatoslav Richter’s playing on his famous “live” Italian recording of the piece, extremely forceful, “free-wheeling pianism” as one might put it, but exactly what the music itself suggested – Schumann at his most exuberant.

There was more of the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm throughout Demidenko’s playing of Carnaval, that fantastical procession of characters, both make-believe and from among the composer’s own friends and colleagues. Demidenko’s view of this “portrait-gallery” was as absorbing as any I’ve heard, right from the beginning, with his grand and rhetorical Préambule, and – playing for maximum contrast – fascinatingly halting and nervous Pierrot, leading to a teasing, mercurial (if none too accurately-played) Arlequin!

To go through the work and give Demidenko credit for every single moment of illumination of Schumann’s wonderful writing would tax the reader’s patience to excess – nevertheless, one must make mention of the pianist’s ghostly evocation of the rarely-played Sphinxes, a brief kind of “appendix” to the Coquette/Replique sequences, which Schumann didn’t intend to be performed, even if luminaries such as Rachmaninov, Cortot, Horowitz and Gieseking chose to include it in their recordings, for our delight.

Usually it’s the final section of the work, the Davidsbundler putting the Philistines to flight, which guarantees plenty of keyboard thrills – but Demidenko cut loose earlier with Paganini, Schumann’s tribute to the violinist’s overwhelming presence and virtuosity – a veritable onslaught, with cascades of notes, leaving us all open-mouthed with astonishment! The Davidsbundler triumph at the end thus had a slightly less “death-and-glory” and more ritualistic aspect to its energies, as much a summing-up as an actual coup de grace stroke, the piano tones properly rich and satisfying.

In the second half, Schubert’s A Major Sonata D.664 was balm to the senses after Schumann’s invigorations! Here was another side of Demidenko’s pianism, one of lyrical poetry, the player bringing out both the music’s weight and its weightlessness, the contrasts bound together with the same ease of flow. Schubert was able to bear us away upon the wings of whatever mood he chose to explore, sometimes setting tranquility and anxiety cheek-by-jowl, as in the first movement’s sounding of bass figurations beneath the filigree treble ones at the recapitulation, and the second movement’s melancholy darkening after the rich loveliness of the opening.

Demidenko brought out the “bigness” rather than the drawing-room aspect of the finale, contrasting the prettiness of the opening theme with great rolling colonnades of sound serving as flourishes between the lyrical moments – these purposeful energies dominated the central section of the movement, and playfully vied with the melodic impulses right at the end – an approach which arrested and held, rather than stretched out one’s attention, right to the final chords.

In some ways the previous work’s antithesis, the A Minor Sonata D.784 which followed began as it meant to go on, with furrowed brow and grim forward motion, then plunging into agitated figurations involving cascading octaves and heart-stopping sforzandi tremolandos.

Demidenko preferred urgency to portentousness throughout, but wonderfully controlled all of the different dynamic levels of the various statements, so that each had a slightly different “weight” of character. In places I thought he pushed the music too fast, as with the arrival of the resplendent fanfares at the climax of the development, where the effect was a shade brusque rather than truly climactic – but the agitato element was certainly maintained, if at the expense of some of the music’s “haunted” stillness.

The pianist gave us an exquisitely-voiced melodic line at the slow movement’s beginning, before allowing the shadow of the twisted chromatic figure to darken the ambience and hold it in thrall. I liked the heartfelt surge of feeling mid-movement, as well as the lyrical response, the opening theme taking flight as it were, trying to escape those chromatic growlings in the bass – all very exploratory and wonderful!

As for the finale, under Demidenko’s fingers it became a whirling dervish of a movement, weaving together strands of panic, nervousness, determination and wide-eyed exhilaration – the pianist got plenty of glint in some of his flourishes and a real “ring” on the tone of his topmost notes, making up for some occasional fumbling of the syncopation in the midst of the excitement. The music’s second subject was a poor, consoling thing, easily swept away on the recurring tide, its uneasy calm already “spooked” by the music’s sudden irruptions of desperation, which die as quickly as they appear.

After the return of the wretched, consoling theme the music erupted for the last time, with extra weight and emphasis, perhaps the most desultory ending of any of the composer’s sonatas for piano. What strife, what trouble, and what grim resolve! Fortunately Demidenko redeemed our troubled spirits with a couple of encores, firstly a Chopin Nocturne, giving its melody a deliciously wayward trajectory, and then a stirring piece by Medtner – whose music the pianist has magnificently and resolutely championed over the years. The music sounded like it was a first cousin to one of the Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux – and Demidenko’s playing of it brought the house down.

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