First Half of Demidenko Recital Proves Puzzling

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Medtner: Nikolai Demidenko (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 5.7.2014 (MB)

Chopin:Waltz in A-flat major, op.42; Mazurka in G-sharp minor, op.33 no.1; Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 n.1; Mazurka in D-flat major, op.30 no.3; Waltz in E-flat major, p.18 no.1; Mazurka in E-flat minor, op.6 no.4; Waltz in A-flat major, p.64 no.3; Mazurka in A minor, op.17 no.4; Waltz in C-sharp minor, op.64 no.2; Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.30 no.4; Waltz in D-flat major, op.64 no.1; Mazurka in A minor, op.67 no.4; Waltz in A minor, op.34 no.2; Mazurka in A minor, op.posth.; Waltz in E minor, op.posth.
Rachmaninov:Variations on a Theme of Corelli, p.42
Medtner:Tema con variazoni, op.55; Dithyramb in E-flat major, op.10 no.2

This was a puzzling recital, or rather its first half – actually rather more than a half – was. It sounded very much as though Nikolai Demidenko had done something unusual with the regulation of his Fazioli piano (an instrument for which I have never shared the enthusiasm expressed by some, but that is another matter). Tone often sounded oddly dampened, albeit with clarity. Whether that is actually the case, I cannot say for sure, but I cannot otherwise account for what I heard. And ‘why?’ remains another question again: a quasi-‘period’ approach, perhaps?

At any rate, the sequence of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas which made up the first ‘half’ generally had a good deal of sense to it in terms of tonal progression. This was rarely a performance of a grand, public nature. Indeed, at times I wondered whether it had too much of salon charm, or at least not enough beneath the surface, especially in the case of the waltzes – though it might reasonably be objected that they do have quite a bit of the salon about them. The first A-flat major Waltz, op.42, opened the programme with insouciant facility and a seemingly effortless, ‘natural’ rubato. The G-sharp minor Mazurka, op.33 no.1, which followed, very slowly, offered contrast in its far greater metrical freedom, akin to a prose poem. And such tended to be the pattern of the waltz-mazurka progression, far from unreasonably. Light brilliance was certainly the hallmark of op.64 no.1, the so-called ‘Minute’ Waltz and the E-flat major Waltz, op.18 no.1. However, the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2, suffered a surprising number of slips and hesitations.

The D-flat major Mazurka, op.30 no.3 was more forthright than many; it was certainly not a case of one-size-fits-all, at least within the generally muted approach. It managed, moreover, to retain its mystery. Its E-flat minor cousin, op.6 no.4, emerged splendidly persistent over its short time-frame, seeming almost to presage Bartók’s music. One of my favourite mazurkas, op.17 no.4 in A minor smiled through its sadness; tears were conveyed both above and through its ambiguous harmonies. The C-sharp minor Mazurka, op.30 no.4, is on a grander scale than many, and sounded as such, Demidenko offering a rare instance of a more ‘public’ face. I found the ending to op.67 no.4 in A minor too abrupt, but its sadness had earlier shone through; likewise the visionary, almost Lisztian quality it seemed to share with the following waltz in the same key. The final Mazurka to be heard, again in A minor (a posthumous work), registered both sameness of tonality and difference in the nature of its dance, even at the sublimated level Chopin’s inspiration had reached.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli may well be his finest work for solo piano. Demidenko offered a committed performance, perhaps slightly detached, but not excessively so, and one which benefited from a fuller, richer piano sound. (Alas, not having been present in the hall during the interval, I cannot report whether anything had been done to the instrument.) Even from the theme to the first and second variations, there was a rightful sense of growing ‘involvement’. There was no doubt that this was characteristic Rachmaninov – indeed, the third variation frankly looked back to some of the Preludes – but there was also a hint of Neue Sachlichkeit. Echoes of Mendelssohn were to be heard in the ‘Allegro scherzando’, whilst neo-Lisztian vigour, perhaps also echoes of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, were to be heard in the eighteenth variation,. Dissolving chromaticism characterised its successor, a proper sense of final flowering, of opening out marking the coda to the twentieth and final variation.

It was fascinating to hear Rachmaninov’s variations followed by a set by Medtner, his op.55 Tema con variazoni. Demidenko’s performance of this was perhaps the highlight of the recital, revealing a strong musical mind beyond or rather behind what might superficially seem to be yet another piece of too-late-Romanticism. Structure and character worked together rather than standing awkwardly side by side – or even opposed. The E-flat major Dithyramb, op.10 no.2, sounded somewhat splashy by comparison. Demidenko certainly lavished full ‘Romantic’ piano tone and colour upon a piece which, in this context, assumed something of the character of an encore. It was interesting to hear it, but I should not rush to do so again.

Mark Berry

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