Monday 7 July 2014

Demidenko - Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Medtner, 5 July 2014

Wigmore Hall

Chopin – Waltz in A-flat major, op.42; Mazurka in G-sharp minor, op.33 no.1; Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 n.1; Mazurka in D-flat major, op.30 no.3; Waltz in E-flat major, p.18 no.1; Mazurka in E-flat minor, op.6 no.4; Waltz in A-flat major, p.64 no.3; Mazurka in A minor, op.17 no.4; Waltz in C-sharp minor, op.64 no.2; Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.30 no.4; Waltz in D-flat major, op.64 no.1; Mazurka in A minor, op.67 no.4; Waltz in A minor, op.34 no.2; Mazurka in A minor, op.posth.; Waltz in E minor, op.posth.
Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme of Corelli, p.42
Medtner – Tema con variazoni, op.55; Dithyramb in E-flat major, op.10 no.2

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

This was a puzzling recital, or rather its first half – actually rather more than a half – was. It sounded very much as though Nikolai Demidenko had done something unusual with the regulation of his Fazioli piano (an instrument for which I have never shared the enthusiasm expressed by some, but that is another matter). Tone often sounded oddly dampened, albeit with clarity. Whether that were actually the case, I cannot say for sure, but I cannot otherwise account for what I heard. And ‘why?’ remains another question again: a quasi-‘period’ approach, perhaps?

At any rate, the sequence of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas which made up the first ‘half’ generally had a good deal of sense to it in terms of tonal progression. This was rarely performance of a grand, public nature. Indeed, at times I wondered whether it had too much of salon charm, or at least not enough beneath the surface, especially in the case of the waltzes, though it might reasonably be objected that they do have quite a bit of the salon about them. The first A-flat major Waltz, op.42, opened the programme with insouciant facility and a seemingly effortless, ‘natural’ rubato. The G-sharp minor Mazurka, op.33 no.1, which followed, very slowly, offered contrast in its far greater metrical freedom, akin to a prose poem. And such tended to be the pattern of the waltz-mazurka progression, far from unreasonably. Light brilliance was certainly the hallmark of op.64 no.1, the so-called ‘Minute’ Waltz and the E-flat major Waltz, op.18 no.1. However, the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2, suffered a surprising number of slips and hesitations.

The D-flat major Mazurka, op.30 no.3 was more forthright than many; it was certainly not a case of one-size-fits-all, at least within the generally muted approach. It managed, moreover, to retain its mystery. Its E-flat minor cousin, op.6 no.4, emerged splendidly persistent over its short time-frame, seeming almost to presage Bartók’s music. One of my favourite Mazurkas, op.17 no.4 in A minor smiled through its sadness; tears were conveyed both above and through its ambiguous harmonies. The C-sharp minor Mazurka, op.30 no.4, is on a grander scale than many, and sounded as such, Demidenko offering a rare instance of a more ‘public’ face. I found the ending to op.67 no.4 in A minor, too abrupt, but its sadness had earlier shone through, likewise the visionary, almost Lisztian quality it seemed to share with the following waltz in the same key. The final Mazurka to be heard, again in A minor, a posthumous work, registered both sameness of tonality and difference in the nature of its dance, even at the sublimated level Chopin’s inspiration had reached.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli may well be his finest work for solo piano. Demidenko offered a committed performance, perhaps slightly detached, but not excessively so, and one which benefited from a fuller, richer piano sound. (Alas, not having been present in the hall during the interval, I cannot report whether anything had been done to the instrument.) Even from the theme to the first and second variations, there was a rightful sense of growing ‘involvement’. There was no doubt that this was characteristic Rachmaninov – indeed, the third variation frankly looked back to some of the Preludes – but there was also a hint of Neue Sachlichkeit. Echoes of Mendelssohn were to be heard in the ‘Allegro scherzando’, whilst neo-Lisztian vigour, perhaps also echoes of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, were to be heard in the eighteenth variation,. Dissolving chromaticism characterised its successor, a proper sense of final flowering, of opening out marking the coda to the twentieth and final variation.

It was fascinating to hear Rachmaninov’s variations followed by a set by Medtner, his op.55 Tema con variazoni. Demidenko’s performance was perhaps the highlight of the recital, revealing a strong musical mind beyond or rather behind what might superficially seem to be yet another piece of too-late-Romanticism. Structure and character worked together rather than standing awkwardly side by side, or even opposed. The E-flat major Dithyramb, op.10 no.2, sounded somewhat splashy by comparison. Demidenko certainly lavished full ‘Romantic’ piano tone and colour upon a piece which, in this context, assumed something of the character of an encore. It was interesting to hear it, but I should not rush to do so again.