Philharmonia Orchestra/Vásquez [Roman Carnival Overture … Pathétique Symphony … Nikolai Demidenko plays Rachmaninov]

Overture, Le carnaval romain, Op.9
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christian Vásquez

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 30 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Rafael Nadal recently made the headlines for a foot injury that threatened his Wimbledon chances this year. He dragged himself onto Centre Court, though, to polish off the Great British Hope, Andy Murray. We don’t know what type of foot injury afflicted Denis Matsuev, the advertised soloist for the Rachmaninov Third here, but it was serious enough for him to cancel, and to make way for Nikolai Demidenko.

Nikolai Demidenko. Photograph: Jill FurmanovskyDemidenko has proved repeatedly that his strength lies in pianistic brawn and not in subtlety, and so it proved. His tone was rather shallow from the start. Finger-strength was never in doubt, but the sound was clangy and, as the performance progressed, some lines were over-projected in the manner of a bad Chopin player. The first movement cadenza was the climax of his mode of delivery – dry and motoric. Perhaps most unforgivably, there was no magic to Demidenko’s rippling arpeggio accompaniment to the woodind contributions either side of the solo showpiece. A mention should go to oboist Christopher Cowie for his contribution to the central Intermezzo. In fact the orchestral playing was stylishly presented; alas tender is not in Demidenko’s vocabulary, so the atmosphere dissipated. His sound was remarkably (and miscalculatedly) bass-light, robbing the music of some of its emotional depth. The finale continued the trends – often wooden in delivery.

Christian VásquezChristian Vásquez (born 1984) is a product of the now-famous El Sistema of Venezuela. He is active on the podium and clearly conversant with the scores he conducts. It didn’t help him that a sequence of images were inexplicably projected behind the orchestra (a Scottish glen amongst them) during the Overture. The highlight of the Berlioz was the cor anglais melody; for the rest, there was the nagging feeling that this was the Philharmonia Orchestra on autopilot. Absolute clarity of texture was compromised, too, as was any real sense of mystery. The Tchaikovsky was similarly mixed. Vásquez was unable to make the music carry through the silences of the opening Adagio, so the effect became fragmented. One sat, admiring the individual sections of the Orchestra (radiant violas, resplendent brass, superbly controlled clarinet) yet there were problems. Scrappy trombones towards the end of the first movement, an Allegro con grazia markedly lacking in charm, a less than confident start to the ‘March’ (its tempo just under and therefore unconvincing) and strings that uncharacteristically lacked depth. The very end of the symphony, with its throbbing double basses, worked well enough, but there was no sense of the bleak end to a chilling journey. A flaccid way for the Philharmonia Orchestra to end its 2010-11 Southbank Centre season.

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