Nikolai Demidenko

Bach transcribed Liszt
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542
Italian Concerto in F, BWV971
Variations on ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’
Piano Sonata in D, D850

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 9 October, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Nikolai Demidenko is one of those pianists who has a dedicated following, but who has never made it to super-stardom; unfortunately I was not surprised to see a large number of empty seats in even a medium-sized auditorium like the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

But there is certainly nothing medium-sized about his pianism; using a Fazioli he can produce enormous waves of sound without any crudeness or harshness. The first two pieces were superficially brilliant, if uninvolving. The Fantasia and Fugue was Romantic and very accurate, yet the dynamic and rhythmic range lacked dimension, as did the phrasing. In the Italian Concerto there was exactly the same problem, with nothing below piano or above forte in the outer movements. This was partly due to Demidenko’s unvarying use of the loudness pedal, which was applied in strict ‘down-up-down-up’ usage, and there was also a sense of uniform surface brilliance, rather than inevitability and logic. The Andante however was slow and rapt and brought some sense of spirituality.

Liszt’s tremendous set of Variations (on a theme from a Bach cantata) received a powerhouse performance. The introduction combined massive assurance with introspection, the repeated bass line was beautifully decorated, the first adagio section was contemplative and aspirational, and the closing pages brought genuine nobility, spirituality and, when needed, sheer volume and virtuoso attack. All that was missing was the sense of huge release and fulfilment when the chorale arrives, which Alfred Brendel so has so memorably brought to this music.

Of the Schubert I’m not quite sure what to say. Some years ago I heard Demidenko give a performance of the ‘Hammerklavier’ that was truly Lisztian and D850 was given in exactly the same manner. The first movement was fast and ferocious, a real maelstrom, with absolutely no attempt at Schubertian charm. That is no bad thing, for charm one can often read vacuous sentimentality, but more rise and fall in the phrasing and rhythm would have brought greater variety. Schubert’s Con moto marking for the second movement certainly allows for artistic licence and Demidenko chose a slow tempo and a whole range of pianistic effects with which to decorate. There is nothing wrong with this, in that the Variations are not about transforming the theme in the manner of Beethoven; rather it is ever-present with truly mesmerising embellishments, all of which Demidenko beautifully realised.

In the scherzo the attack of the first movement returned with a vengeance; this really was Lisztian, with the singing tone of the trio bringing a welcome contrast. The last movement’s nursery-like first theme was at a moderate tempo, but the rest of the movement was very fast, with some playful decoration and dynamic variation, but an underlying sense of seething violence. The entire performance was certainly challenging and I can imagine that many would be outraged by the approach, but it did make one hear the music in a different way, which is what interpretation and performance should be about.

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