Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor
Symphony No.2 in E minor
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov
Reviewed by: Mark E Croasdale
Reviewed: 22 January, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The Philharmonia Orchestra made a lightening start with this well-drilled performance of the often-played overture to Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla. A little loud at first, the players quickly toned down; except the brass section, which never caught on and tended to bellow.
In place of Volodos, Nikolai Demidenko brought his reputation as a heavyweight virtuoso to Prokofiev’s concerto with its considerable technical and physical demands. The refreshingly slow opening ’Andantino’ found Demidenko delicately, even gingerly coaxing the first theme against an empathetically balanced orchestra. It would not be the last time in this concert that a slow tempo would be persuasive. Despite the bright tone of the Fazioli piano, Demidenko found a sweetness of expression that was compelling. In the second subject the orchestra swamped the soloist; this proved a transient aberration. Indeed, Svetlanov and Demidenko were of one mind on how this concerto should develop; both made their points without forcing tone or pace.
Demidenko’s contemplative and almost ballad-like approach flowed seamlessly into the ferocious cadenza. He built the tension with a false climax before unleashing full power with a thunderous barrage of arpeggios. This was not crash-bang, but toned articulation and melodic shape; what Demidenko lost in speed he gained in drama while making sense of the fearsome array of notes. The rapport between soloist and orchestra was tested fully in the bustle and frenetic dashing of the scherzo. Demidenko’s immaculate ’moto perpetuo’, with its impressively graduated dynamics, set against clarion calls from the woodwind and brass, sounded vibrant, piercing and precise. If Demidenko eschewed flashiness and truculence, the dexterity with which he dispatched crossed-hand passages was sensational. The broken chords that begin the ’Intermezzo’, tonally dampened and exactly in time with the orchestra, contrasted with his extraordinary chordal playing – blocks of sound evenly weighted. The ’Allegro tempestoso’ finale, a melee of dynamic octave leaps syncopated against a cascading orchestra, defined the quality of musicianship on display.
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 was no less persuasive if less consistent. Although the first movement’s introductory ’Largo’ was very slow, it was always atmospheric. Convincing climaxes were achieved through dynamics rather than changes to internal melodic structure, which Svetlanov was to do in the ’Allegro’. What the introduction lost in angst – sometimes it felt more of a melancholy stroll than the brooding of an anguished spirit – it made up for in tension. Svetlanov achieved something very similar in the ’Adagio’ where the tempo was again slow and came close to outstaying its welcome a little. What kept Svetlanov’s conception alive was sustained intimacy and sentimentality, which never cloyed; therein lay a great achievement.
What detracted most in the first movement was the insistence on stretching out the big tunes with agonising ritardandos. Lingering over those sonorous melodies did not make the tunes more memorable, only lyrically shapeless. The final ’Allegro vivace’ was steadier and ebullient. The second movement scherzo, extremely fast, was incredibly executed by the strings.
Tempo inconsistencies aside this was a charismatic and virtuoso performance. The first movement’s central climax was marred by a glaringly bombastic crescendo prefaced by an almighty clatter from cymbals and followed by a deluge from the brass. This apocalyptic conspiracy obliterated the strings’ anguished descending notes. Otherwise this section was sympathetic, robust and tempestuous and beautiful-toned; the woodwind was sonorous and unostentatious.