Nikolai Demidenko

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Published: 4th June, 2017

London-based Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko is a frequent and welcome visitor to our shores. As part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s successful Great Performer Series he replaced the previously advertised French pianist Hélène Grimaud, offering a program of Scarlatti and Schubert and, as expected, did not disappoint the large audience in attendance at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Born in the same year as J. S. Bach and Handel, Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti composed some 550 single-movement keyboard sonatas that constitute one of the treasures of Baroque keyboard repertoire. Very different in style to the more overtly contrapuntal music of his German counter-parts, they are filled with a sense of unalloyed joie de vivre, both for listener and performer. Scholars continue to argue amongst themselves as to whether they were intended for harpsichord or for Italian inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori’s new invention the fortepiano, but in the end who cares really? Certainly not modern-day pianists who delight in their many and varied wonders. Baroque keyboard repertoire would be much poorer for their absence. Curiously, lacking any original manuscripts, and given that only a small portion were published during Scarlatti’s lifetime, we have to thank the celebrated castrato Farinelli, who possessed two copies of the bulk of the sonatas, for our knowledge of Scarlatti’s oeuvre.  

The sonatas feature many novel compositional effects – startling key changes, exotic harmonies with clashing tones – and equally novel keyboard effects – imitations of Flamenco guitars, rapid repeated notes, and dazzling acrobatic leaps and crossed handed effects. That these effects transfer so well to the modern piano explains why Scarlatti is often credited with being the first composer to write idiomatically for the keyboard. Sadly we tend to hear the same small handful of sonatas both in recital and on CD, yet there remains amongst the 550 an enormous diversity of style and expression. In choosing to offer twelve of these bi-partite gems it was incumbent upon Demidenko to highlight such diversity and this he did in spades, moreover and thankfully choosing twelve less well-known sonatas.

Throughout, Demidenko displayed nimble fingerwork and immaculate articulation, all the while reveling in the delight of Scarlatti’s scalic and arpeggio-based passagework. He used to advantage the full resources of the modern piano effectively employing both una corda and sostenuto pedals, and explored a richly varied tonal palette, yet never to excess. Trills were dashed off exuberantly, while perilous leaps were nailedwith ease. Of interest, Demidenko who frequently enjoys playing on a Fazioli piano (as Angela Hewitt did with her Scarlatti offering a few weeks ago) elected for the standard concert hall Steinway on this occasion.

After interval Demidenko gave a limpid account of Schubert’s popular and compact Impromptu in A flat, his deftly managed ethereal arpeggio figuration encircling a more dramatically charged central episode.

 Then came the main course – Schubert’s late C minor Sonata D 958 – one of a triptych composed with ludicrous alacrity in the Viennese composer’s final months in 1828. The least played of the three, it is always referred to as being his most Beethovenian – primarily, but not exclusively, due to a strong rhythmic similarity to the recently departed composer’s middle period Variations in C minor – reputedly Beethoven’s least favoured piano composition. It is always rewarding to hear what a mature artist such as Demidenko, imbued with a lifetime of experience, research and reflection, can bring to the rhetoric of such expansive musical canvases as the C minor Sonata, and equally its more favoured siblings.

Eschewing all excessive body gestures, seemingly the fashion of many younger generation pianists, the poker-faced Russian sits quietly yet intently at the keyboard, primed to let his finely-tuned fingers do his musical talking. From the outset, Demidenko brought a tangible sense of gravitas to this sonata. The arresting opening chords very much set the scene for the musical conflict that follows, ranging from the demonic passion of the opening theme to the more consoling lyricism of the second subject with its unexpected harmonic digressions. Somewhat unexpectedly the movement ends surreptitiously, yet Demidenko managed to create a sense of organic inevitability.

The Rondo-form Adagio that followed – one of Schubert’s rare genuinely slow instrumental movements – reminded us yet again that Schubert, whatever medium he is writing for, can never really stray far from his lieder roots. Magisterially paced, and delicately nuanced, Demidenko savoured the frequent harmonic twists and turns, yet always in an understatedly inviting manner – this was exemplary responsive rather than didactic playing. The third movement – a Menuetto in name only – was characterised by stark dynamic contrasts and abrupt silences that successfully captured the essence of what is one of Schubert’s most capricious pieces. The expansive Tarantelle-like finale, with its cross-handed acrobatics in some ways brought us back full circle to where the recital began with Scarlatti’s daring pianistic innovations, however this is music cloaked in Romantic turbulence rather than in Baroque joie de vivre. A movement that can easily sound repetitive, on this occasion always sustained interest as Demidenko subtly navigated the many surprising harmonic byways, maintaining a taut control over pulse and line, leading the sonata and the recital on to its inevitable and satisfying denouement.

 Three brief encores followed. After the conclusion of the third – a neatly spun Minute Waltz – Demidenko allowed himself to break into a half-smile. We could all leave satisfied now.

Glenn Riddle reviewed Demidenko’s recital at the MRC, on May 29, 2017.