English translation by Michael J McCann (www.infomarex.com) and John Tyler Tuttle.
Saturday 16 June 2012
The Parc de Bagatelle's Chopin Festival opened on 16 June 2012 with one of those concerts that remain engraved in one’s memory: a seigneur of the piano came by to play in the all-too-small Orangerie. Even from his youth, Nikolai Demidenko (born on 1 July 1955) has occupied a place all his own in the prestigious Russian school. Every musical implication, guided by mature thought, has led him to blend into his playing the fruits of new experiences stemming either from the broadening of his repertoire or from confronting instrumental aspects of piano design. Whether turning to unfamiliar 18th‐century musical scores or contemporary music, there is not even a reputedly minor piece that does not reveal an unexpected spark of genius under his touch.
As this Chopin Festival had chosen to feature unfairly neglected Russian composers in the lineage of the brilliant Pole, Nikolai Demidenko gave depth and lyricism to Anton Rubinstein’s Barcarolle in A minor, Op. 93 no. 4 and to Felix Blumenfeld’s Nocturne- Fantasie in E major, Op. 20, pieces that many of us were hearing for the very first time and which can no longer be considered secondary after the impressive breath that swelled the sails of their admirably executed musical journey.
One can but imagine to what heights Nikolai Demidenko’s intimacy with the pillars of the repertoire might carry us! While many Russian pianists brutalise Chopin, he constantly scrutinises him, literally incorporating the most miniscule subtleties of Chopin’s masterpieces. Given the challenge that Chopin imposes, under the guise of a Berceuse, of deploying an infinite quilt of ornamentation over an unchanging bass note, this pianist guided us, through revelations of phrasing, towards the observation of concealed innermost channels. In the Sonata in B flat minor, he resolved the difficult tempi relationships through absolute control of its architecture and of the internal, organic nexus of factors in its dramatic projection. Indeed, therein lies the secret: faced with four movements assembled by the imagination of a creator little given to large forms, it is necessary to find the means for harmonising the seeming heterogeneity by the powerful suggestion of the dramatic message. This plunge into an expressive abyss allowed Nikolai Demidenko to take us in a single bound through tragic episodes to supreme grandeur without ever lapsing into outdated pathos.
With its solemn tempo, the funeral march thrust every step to the depths of the piano and of the heart, avoiding any artifice that would have altered the unwavering sincerity. Then, the insoluble Presto seemed to awaken from darkness without fully dispelling the shadows, its waves roll over us whilst holding back unexpected effects of contrasting excess so as not to break any of the diffused emotion.
A second half, devoted entirely to Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90 no. 1 and his Sonata, D. 958, both in C minor, soared high over all the problems linked to pianistic interpretations of the time: a plague on any Viennese approach or historicising debates on the closeness to the pianoforte of the period! Demidenko’s Schubert projects itself in prophetic accents, foreshadowing with virile authority the soaring development of the Romantic piano that will ‘orchestrate’ the keyboard.
As an encore, the intense, secretive mood of a similarly minded Chopin matched the nocturnal hour while the firm design pursued by Schubert was re-emerging.
Listening to the playing of this extraordinary pianist led us to wonder what has always prompted us to consider Demidenko ‘different’. Today, what remains of whatever made Moscow’s byways a road paved for giants? Those formidable, well-oiled robots with effective, and sometimes brutal, technique, handling the music with cold panache. Where are the great lions of the calibre of Sofronitzky, Gilels et al.? As such, the very ‘western’ success of Boris Berezovsky, for example, results from a grave error of perspective: we heard him again at Salle Pleyel on 13 June 2012, with the Orchestre de Paris, playing Prokofiev’s formidable Piano Concerto No. 2. Oh, admittedly, there was not a note out of place, and the percussive machine was running at full speed, but rarely have we heard this work, so dear to our heart, so devoid of emotional content! Then, as an encore, and wanting to demonstrate by a judicious pairing that the conservative Medtner was capable of following the pathways of modernity, Berezovsky brought back to mind, by contrast, how this same Fairy Tale created far more disturbing and prophetic waves under Nikolai Demidenko’s fingers as an encore on 3 May 2012 after a stunning Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto (with the Orchestre National de France, under a conductor unfortunately unable to create a symbiosis with the pianist).
So much might be said about the clarity that Demidenko brings to Rachmaninov without giving up any of its sonorous sweep! Beginning with the brilliant idea of employing a single pedal for the famous first eight bars of the Second Piano Concerto, without the resulting sonorous halo that enriches the harmony blurring its progression in the least (one might as well say that everything depends on the very controlled level of clarity of touch thwarting neither the depth nor the clarity of tone)!
Demidenko's art is instantly recognisable in his way of imparting flesh to every note. His use of the so-called 'forte pedal'—adjective as improper as it is incapable of describing the pedal’s technical function and mechanics!—comes from an incredible finely controlled lifting of the dampers, so as to ‘glaze’ the sound with just the right amount of halo needed for its colouring, as by encompassing entire phrases in very long pedalling whilst, at the same time, clarifying their contours with the balance of his touch—the famous saying of Ricardo Viñes, ‘Play clearly in a flood of pedals’.
The alchemy of pianistic sonority is based on that continuous dosage of weight or directivity of touch and pedalling. In this, Demidenko is an absolute master.
With Demidenko, the power and immense propagation of sound unique to the Russian school take on a subtle enhancement of sonority, a clarity in the design of the musical trajectories, emotionally-borne mysteries in the bass notes, which make each concert— or CD, if faithfully recorded—an initiatory experience, both in the magical as well as the technical sense of the term. To this is added a sense of phrasing that reveals a meticulous analysis of the direction of each voice so as to accentuate this or that hidden intention. In the end, one comes out of one of his performances with the feeling of having learnt what one had previously failed to see in the works...
All too rarely heard in France, Nikolai Demidenko will have honoured the Paris region with three visits this year, the last on 18 November 2012 at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic.
Tuesday 24 January 2012
Schubertiads were what Franz Schubert’s friends called the soirees at which he played his works on the piano, and by all accounts they were joyous occasions.
The Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko invited us to a Schubertiad of his own. This consisted of works culled from the composer’s last year, when, knowing how cruelly his days were numbered, he was beset by headaches and fits of giddiness: this Schubertiad was necessarily a grave affair.
Demidenko’s showed in the first bars of the first Impromptu of the D899 group how big a canvas he proposed to work on: the bare opening chord was like a melancholy call to attention, with the answering phrase like a faint cry in the distance. His tone had a singing warmth, and his pace was gentle: the long sustained lines and the shifts between minor and major were brought out with ballade-like grace. The runs and scales of the second piece were so pearlised and swift that they went like the wind; the third – the rippling one everybody knows, even if they don’t know it’s by Schubert – and the arpeggiated fourth came and went in an exquisite blur. These are not virtuoso pieces, but they benefited enormously from Demidenko’s discreet virtuosity.
Next came the Three Piano Pieces D946 which pianists usually pass over as being too eccentric. Demidenko showed how closely they are related to Beethoven’s Bagatelles – which Schubert would have known – in their concentrated firecracker intensity, but also how completely they belonged to the somnambulistic world of Schubert’s imagination. Then it was time for the C minor sonata D958, with its heroic Beethovenian echoes. Demidenko took the first two movements at tempi so slow that they might in other hands have caused the audience to nod off, but this performance was riveting: the truncated phrases and sudden silences spoke of memories, regrets, and the grave. Then came rebirth, with the galloping exuberance of the Tarantella climaxing in a blaze of brilliance. Only when Demidenko was presented with his bouquet – typical he should have chosen that, rather than the standard bottle of bubbly – did his lugubrious features briefly crack into a smile. First encore: an unfamiliar piece by Medtner, piling mountains of notes into a dark edifice. Second encore: Chopin’s D sharp minor Nocturne, beautiful beyond words.
Michael Church / “The Independent” / Tuesday 24 January 2012
Tuesday 24 January 2012
Nikolai Demidenko's all-Schubert programme consisted entirely of music written in the last 18 months of the composer's life, with a first half comprising the Four Impromptus D899 and the Three Piano Pieces D946, and the second devoted to the C minor Sonata.
Throughout, the Russian pianist's platform manner remained perfectly contained, without a hint of unnecessary movement or any suggestion of advertising his musical intentions by visual means. Indeed, so inward and intimate was his playing at times that it felt as if we were eavesdropping on some private communion between performer and composer; yet the result never felt in any way short-changed.
Often regarded as charming but small, the works in the first half seemed far more substantial than usual, Demidenko revealing their essential character in playing that was focused in execution and subtly gradated in colouring.
The opening C minor Impromptu was finely controlled, its lyricism gently luminous. The butterfly-like arabesques of its E flat successor soared freely but without ostentation, and Demidenko caught precisely the sudden anguish of the middle section. The first of the Three Piano Pieces had a driven quality reminiscent of the nightmarish song Erlköig. The curious folk-dance-like interventions of the third seemed viewed as if in a nostalgic glow.
The big C minor Sonata was on a much grander scale. Here Demidenko's playing took on a symphonic aspect that matched the almost orchestral richness of Schubert's textures in this ambitious and emotionally complex piece. Despite occasional untidiness, the vast structure was handled with imaginative command. The result had a dramatic breadth that never lost sight of voicing or colouring, maintaining a fine balance between a sustained overview and attention to smaller features in the landscape.
George Hall / “The Guardian” / Tuesday 24 January 2012
The orchestra was at last back in their places on stage, playing music that obviously meant something to them and to an audience that was openly welcoming. Even more, for the morale of the musicians, and we in the audience, for that matter, they were on top of their playing, confident, and enjoying themselves.
The Aurora Centre was full, and because of that, there was a feeling of intimacy, playing big music in a small hall.
It would be hard to find a more fully late romantic and popular programme, Rachmaninov's second piano concerto and second symphony, preceded by the popular Don Juan by Richard Strauss. There was every opportunity for copious emoting. The Rachmaninov concerto, with its mesmeric opening and massive build-ups, and Don Juan's oozing of expressive self-confidence are tailor-made for an exciting musical evening.
And this is not to overlook the wonderful melodies of both composers, occasionally on the verge of the vulgar, though never quite crossing the boundaries.
The players revelled in the musical demands of all three works. They were the first substantial works they had had the opportunity of playing this year, putting aside the ill-judged and unfortunate experience of Beethoven's third symphony in April.
I felt that Tom Woods was a trifle restrained in his approach to Don Juan. The ravishing was not quite ravishing enough, and the bold, especially the powerful horns theme about half-way through, not commanding enough. But his command and control of the two Rachmaninov works was impeccable.
Nikolai Demidenko was a winner with the audience. A well-established Russian pianist with an impressive musical pedigree, Demidenko brought to the Rachmaninov concerto all that one could expect.
This was a concert that brought out the support that Christchurch people have for our own orchestra. It didn't let us down.
David Sell / "Christchurch Arts Festival 2011" / August 2011
The climax of Chopin’s 200th birthday celebrations held in Warsaw late last February, this concert featured two Russian pianists offering contrasting views of the composer from the perspective of his two (also contrasting) concertos.
Having been present at this event, I am happy to find all its excitement and musical depth preserved – and even amplified – on DVD. Nikolai Demidenko’s account of the Concerto in E minor is searching and expansive, livening up with dancing lightness in the krakowiak-infused finale.
Anyone who (like me) has found themselves resistant to Evgeny Kissin’s toy-soldier showmanship, particularly in his earlier career, needs to hear his brilliant account of the Concerto in F minor. Playing with great depth, his music-making has an innocent freshness that, coupled with sparkling poise and attack, is ideally suited to this work. In pianism of bel canto beauty, Kissin uncovers all the yearning of the slow movement, and delivers a crisp finale notable for its elastic buoyancy and perfectly judged rubatos.
The first of his encores, the Revolutionary Etude, generates an excitement that fits the occasion. Chopin’s Concertos are bread-and-butter works for Antoni Wit and his Warsaw Philharmonic, but these collaborations inspire them to richly cultivated performances that capture the music’s hard-to-define melancholy spirit. The filming at Warsaw’s venerable Philharmonic Hall, that high temple of Chopinism, is very atmospheric.
John Allison / “BBC Music Magazine” / March 2011
Tuesday 19 October 2004
Nikolai Demidenko is one of the most physically powerful pianists around. His performance of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations turned the music into a showcase for his technical brilliance, especially in the ferocious energy of the faster variations.
However, there was more to this performance than barnstorming bravura. He made this vast, hour-long piece a study in musical contrasts, and revealed the astonishing fecundity of Beethoven's imagination. The tune on which the whole piece is based is a melody of total banality composed by the publisher Diabelli, who challenged 19th-century composers to come up with a variation on his unremarkable theme. The others - including Liszt and Schubert - wrote one variation each; Beethoven wrote a set of 33.
Beethoven begins by decorating the tune in familiar ways, with martial rhythms and rippling figuration, but the music suddenly becomes an essay in fragmentation and discontinuity, with splinters of the theme appearing in the piano's highest and lowest registers. Demidenko dramatised this passage with brilliant timing, making the pauses between the shards of the melody thrillingly unpredictable. It was a surreal sketch of the original theme, as if the fabric of the music had temporarily disappeared.
As the variations continued, so the expressive contrasts between them became more extreme. Demidenko played Beethoven's vicious parody of the opening aria of Mozart's Don Giovanni with biting energy, but this musical humour was soon followed by the slowest and longest variation in the entire piece. In this haunting passage, the tune was transformed by florid figuration into a serene meditation. But nowhere was the lurching character of the music more powerful than at the end of the work, as the blistering energy of an enormous fugue dissipated in the genteel charm of the final minuet.
Ever alert to the volatile surface of the music, Demidenko also created a mysterious structural momentum that traversed the whole piece, and his performance illuminated the infinite possibilities contained within a single, simple tune.
Tom Service / “The Guardian” / Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Barbican / Tuesday 19 October 2004
Friday 14 November 2008
Nikolai Demidenko has always been something of a radical, and his recording of the Chopin Preludes is likely to polarise opinion. He's by no means the first pianist to pull away from the well-worn idea of Chopin as the archetypal Romantic dreamer. But there's austerity here, an emotional directness and a willingness to explore the music's percussive, rhythmic potential rather than its lyricism, all of which make Chopin sound startlingly new. We're persistently reminded that his model for the Preludes was Bach, rather than any of his contemporaries, and that, heard in its entirety, the sequence owes its impact as much to its structural logic as as to its expressive power. Demidenko's performance of the Third Sonata, however, is fractionally less successful. The Largo is comparably severe and uncompromising. The rest of it, if anything, is marginally too relaxed. Placed second, it also feels anticlimactic: it works better if you reprogramme it so that the Preludes come last.
Tim Ashley / “The Guardian” / Chopin Preludes & Sonata No 3 (Onyx) / Friday 14 November 2008
01 February 2010
Nikolai Demidenko has been a welcome visitor to Northern Ireland for over two decades.
His formidable pianistic technique is grounded in the training he received at the Moscow Conservatory — it provides the vehicle for his entirely musical and individual approach to interpretation.
His masterclass on Saturday afternoon gave the relatively large audience a glimpse of his insights into the music of Chopin through his youthful participants. But it was his recital which revealed yet again his genius. Demidenko comprehends, encompasses and communicates this music with unique authority.
Chopin was not a sick-room talent. His harmonies were revolutionary, his melodies sublime, his layers of expression deftly woven into an intricate polyphony.
The power of the modern piano is something which would have been alien to Chopin’s sound world and a Steinway Model D could obscure the nuances, the aristocratic refinement of his vision. But Demidenko is totally aware of this. He does not try to reproduce per se an “authentic” performance.
Rather he is informed by Chopin’s contemporary practice and resources and he adapts the modern instrument to reveal an internal world of subtle introspection and dazzling virtuosity with captivating precision.
His careful use of the pedal is especially intriguing; with it he multiplies the vast array of tonal colours which enhance and clarify the inevitability of every line in the music.
RATHCOL (Philip Hammond) / “Belfast Telegraph” / Chopin recital, Ulster Hall, Belfast / 01 February 2010
Monday 19 April 2010
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Taking his place in the South Bank's Chopin marathon, Nikolai Demidenko brings the kiss of Russian steel, as befits a man who emerged from the hardest school of pianism ever known.
"Pianistic virtuosity," he once told me, "is a form of Darwinism. Natural selection, with the public as arbiter." Practising at least six hours a day, he acquired his own virtuosity – volcanic in Bach-Busoni, tempestuous in Liszt, smooth as silk in Scarlatti – at Moscow's fabled Gnessin school. Invited by Yehudi Menuhin to teach at his school in Surrey, Demidenko didn't endear himself to his colleagues with his contemptuous assertion that, in comparison with the Gnessin, that school was a holiday camp.
He's no Gradgrind – fast cars are among his pleasures – but he is the sworn enemy of compromise: "As a pianist, you've got to live music 24 hours a day, in traffic jams, on trains, even when you are sleeping, for that is where you sometimes solve musical problems. If I ever catch myself not thinking of music, I'll change my profession."
Judging by the packed Queen Elizabeth Hall, many people must be glad he has not done so. Demidenko has neither a critical claque nor a publicity machine, yet this was a performance to which neither Maurizio Pollini nor Krystian Zimerman, nor any of the other much-trumpeted pianists in this bicentenary series, could have held a candle. Starting with a serene account of the "Berceuse", and a "Tarantella" of staggering velocity, he then played the F sharp "Impromptu", the rarely-performed "Allegro de Concert Op 46", and the daunting variations on Mozart's "La ci darem la mano".
If this was a different Chopin from the one we are used to, the way it was delivered took the breath away. Demidenko's virtuosity has nothing to do with Liszt-style playing-to-the-gallery. Supreme technical control and high-speed accuracy are its foundations. More to the point is the clarity with which he invests the most dense and complex structures and the expressive poetry he finds. In his hands, the hackneyed "La ci darem" variations sounded new. After the break he played Schumann's rebarbative "Faschingsschwank" and his Carnaval, and here too he found new things to say. The two Chopin Nocturnes he gave as encores at the end of this unforgettable recital were flawlessly beautiful. Why aren't the big labels competing to sign him ?
Michael Church / “The Independent” / Qween Elizabeth Hall, London / Monday 19 April 2010
Saturday 19 June 1993
Wednesday's was the sixth of Nikolai Demidenko's recitals in a brief history of pianism called Piano Masterworks at the Wigmore Hall. This final programme, Legacies and Prophecies, was a heroic climb over mountains of notes, wrapping up the 20th century in slightly fusty 19th-century glamour. First came a prophecy. The broken, straying, chromatic melodies in Liszt's Funerailles foreshadowed the dissonance of the next 100 years. This was a sensational start for Demidenko, who generates power in the bass line like a stoker firing up an ocean liner below decks. The gathering force of section four, the Quick March, with its hectic left-hand pattern building to a cataclysmic roar of octaves in both hands, was memorable, astonishing.
That Demidenko can deliver such grand tragic / virtuosic effects seems to have been the key to the planning of the six programmes, with pianistic heavies well to the fore (French music, for instance, being represented only by Alkan and Messiaen). Historicity, showcasing, packaging: well, what's the difference in 1993? But since the programme note made such claims for the way the material was planned, it is worth murmuring out of the side of one's mouth that perhaps it wasn't wise to open on Wednesday with a barnstorming piece that made huge demands on the soloist's nervous energy and concentration.
One of the interesting things about Demidenko is that he does not separate virtuosity from passion. Even Messiaen's Canteyodjaya was not, as its fragmented structure might suggest, a glittering processional mosaic, but a continuous emotional arc where rapid outbursts were full of spring and surprise and where loud bits were built as climaxes, not imposed de facto. Sometimes the drive could profitably have been relaxed. Although Demidenko's Scriabin playing has deservedly been praised, there was room for softer, more curious colours in the Three Etudes, Op 65, while Berg's Sonata, wonderfully rhapsodic, would have been still better if falling phrases had been less tense. The choice of Sofia Gubaidulina's Busoni-esque Ciaccona to represent all composers not yet dead was in line with the virtuoso ethos of the whole. It was an intricately hammered-out, shiny, recycled construct of all the best keyboard engine-work from Bach to Prokofiev, and Demidenko played it with all possible boldness and brilliance.
Not all of the night's best moments were loud. Demidenko clearly adores dramatic peculiarity, irony and surprise. The sudden move at the beginning of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition from the Promenade straight into the dark, fidgety motif that plants the Gnome centre stage, was thrilling. The Gnome's dark, oily octaves were seriously bizarre. The dryish sound chosen for the Old Castle was, like the soft grey colour with which the funeral march had been introduced in Liszt's piece, evidence of an exceptional imagination. That's the side of Demidenko one would now like to know more about.
Meredith Oakes / “The Independent” / Wigmore Hall 'Piano Masterworks' series, London / Saturday 19 June 1993
Information about programme and recording of this concert can be found on Discography page.