Demidenko Beethoven

Sonata in F sharp, Op.78
Sonata in G, Op.31/1
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Nikolai Demidenko’s view of Beethoven at this recital proved both individual and very complete, compelling during the performance and leaving a lasting and positive impression. Certainly one exited the Barbican Hall – its acoustic refurbishment now making the solo piano an altogether more vibrant proposition than in the past – in equal awe of the Diabelli Variations and Demidenko’s conception of it.

This thoughtfully programmed recital brought together the concentrated F sharp sonata and the sprawling and witty G major, these disparate works making a complementary prelude to the width and range of the Variations. Great imagination signalled Demidenko’s view of all this music, one both long-term in matters of structure and resolution, and with an infinite range of touch, colour, inflexion and dynamics that sustained the music with variety – most importantly, Demidenko’s decisions were pertinent to the music and avoided novelty for its own sake.

Demidenko breathed the F sharp Sonata into life with a rare order of sensitivity, improvisatory, cosseted even, a finesse that never prettified or made precious the music; contrasts abounded and notable too was how Demidenko found different things to say in repeating the first movement’s exposition and development. The first of the Opus 31 sonatas was unusually convincing, Demidenko sustaining what can seem longeurs in each of the three movements, not least the numerous false endings. The dryly witty Demidenko varied repetitions with enough fancy to ensure that Beethoven’s whimsy seemed entirely persuasive and amusing; the central Adagio grazioso, broadly conceived, didn’t outstay its welcome, and Demidenko’s tenacious account of the first movement, its syncopation aptly swinging and the development’s cascades of arpeggios realised with unswerving panache, found its easeful counterpart with the finale, Demidenko relishing the music’s lyricism.

Demidenko’s epic account of the Diabelli Variations seemed at first to be too strictly unified, Diabelli’s little waltz dispatched as a trifle and the march-like first variation being propelled along without rhetoric but with a commanding fortissimo. It was here, for the first time during the recital, that Demidenko really opened up the full power of his beautiful-sounding Fazioli piano. In a performance that entered fully into the myriad and astonishing commentaries that comprise Beethoven’s Opus 120, Demidenko played with a vitality, conviction and individuality that seemed entirely right, suggesting that Beethoven was feverishly inscribing manuscript paper with his compulsive designs on Diabelli’s waltz, the ink still wet, and conceived from every conceivable angle, sometimes very much off the radar.

Demidenko peered deeply into the slower variations very spaciously and with profound utterance. He even made the reference to Leporello in Variation 22 (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) appear integrated rather than an exasperating misfit – although maybe Beethoven intended exactly that impression! But, then, what does one make of this work? Here it seemed like a vast sonata containing some of the most visionary and gravest music Beethoven ever composed, and some of the most wacky too, Demidenko at-one with the vast range of emotions and entirely on top of the immense technical challenges. That great trilogy of slow variations (29-31), once again hypnotically intense, and the succeeding Fugue with its intimations of the Hammerklavier’s finale, gave way to one of the lightest and most flowing accounts of the closing minuet, a wonderfully judged envoi. Maybe it was all a dream!

An astonishing performance, then, and a musical revelation. Demidenko wasn’t finished. He doesn’t milk applause, none of that irritating striding back and forth teasing the audience. Actually, an encore really wasn’t anticipated – until he played two, Beethoven’s B minor Bagatelle (Op.126/4), fleet and articulate, and a Scarlatti sonata, which in some respects was the recital’s highlight (!), an amazing example of two hands meshing perfectly and every note, again at speed, being crystal-clear.

On the strength of this recital, one sadly with no microphones present and therefore solely the preserve of the intently-listening audience, Demidenko’s recordings of music outside of the Russian repertoire suddenly become very enticing. He has recorded Scarlatti and Schumann for Sanctus (CDs very difficult to acquire!), a Hammerklavier is just announced on the AGPL label (with a second Scarlatti release planned), and Demidenko will record the Diabelli for ASV this year.

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