Russian virtuoso offers a Father’s Day present Toronto simply couldn’t resist
The Sharon Temple Museum, Ontario
06/17/2007 - and 06/04/2007 (Oldham, UK)
Johann Sebastian Bach/Franz Liszt : Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
Johann Sebastian Bach : Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971
Franz Liszt : Variations on a Theme of J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”, S.179
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in D Major, D.850
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
When you attend a rare recital featuring a long-overdue soloist, performing on the grounds of a rare concert venue, coupled with a set of rarely heard repertory (at least in the soils of Canada), the additive results could only be described in one word: Extraordinaire! Despite the poor acoustics and distorted views on the piano (due to the very symbolic twelve pillars representing the Twelve Apostles standing erect at the center of the Sharon Temple), Father’s Day in Toronto has yet to be remembered for a piano recital featuring the works of Bach, Liszt and Schubert, until today with the return of Russian pianist, Nikolai Demidenko.
What fascinated a listener with an immediate reaction, as Mr. Demidenko’s outpoured his heart in the interpretations of Bach’s organ works, were the intense religious quality and cleverly attempts to mimic the very sonorities and tone colours of the 17th-18th century organ. The choice of the Bach-Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor and the Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” clearly accommodated this hidden agenda. To represent Bach under the microscope of our contemporary age, what better than the piano - the most popular instrument favored for its highly expressive qualities for communicating emotional mannerisms, for delivering the widest possible ranges to its audience amounting over a crowd of 300? Surely, Mr. Demidenko’s selections on these Arts of Transcription were not random, but most likely, hand-picked for accommodating the venue to which he played. As an interpreter, paying tribute to both the grand masters of Bach and Liszt, Mr. Demidenko intelligently portrayed organ music on the piano by restructuring the many fine textures that simulate organ sonorities, juxtaposed by the ability to generate the many layers of sounds capable from a 88-keys instrument. Despite the limited view, many audiences have complained afterwards by the overtly excessive pedaling and iron-fist pounding in these two pieces, perhaps in part, the common symptoms arising from trainees of the Russian Piano School.
Mr. Demidenko’s Italian Concerto was a studiously prepared, all-in-all, slightly overpowered performance. A very different approach, to say Glenn Gould’s infamous 1959 live recording, Mr. Demidenko was full of effectuation, lively in the spirit à la Baroque, and at times with crystal clarity as heard in the opening Allegro giusto. To the ears of the author, Mr. Demidenko’s approach closely paralleled the “modernist” approaches of this work, for example, as heard in the interpretations of Rudolf Serkin. But, equally, Mr. Demidenko’s approach was light-years apart to the contemporary accounts from Wanda Landowska (1936) or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1942). To each his own pianism!
The Piano Sonata in D Major was written during the prolific period of Schubert’s last years in 1825, just a notch before the birth of the very “Great” Symphony in C Major (No.9). In the second half recital, Mr. Demidenko displayed the opening Allegro vivace with its unusually swift and ardent character. Like his predecessor Beethoven, Schubert, too, demanded a great deal of intense virtuosity from his pianists. Surely, for a piano virtuoso of the Russian School at the stature of Mr. Demidenko’s, such technical obstacles were clearly informidable.
Easily identified as the largest body of material equally appalling for the greatest difficulty, Schubert’s Piano Sonatas are rarely performed for sheer exhibitionism. Like his other works of this genre, including this very D Major Sonata, Schubert emphasized the need of expression by having his pianist concentrate on the “what,” rather than the “how.” When Schubert took his pencil to sketch the score, he left behind a legacy, which we now taken for granted, summarized as the three important “Schubertian” trademarks: a) the dynamic rhythmic features of the dances; b) the melodic vocal lines of the songs, and in between, c) the flamboyance of improvisation. Here was how Mr. Demidenko illustrated these characteristics:
The material during the first pages of this Sonata assumed a majestic and almost orchestral hallmark, as the First Movement opens, and eventually resolved to an extended coda. The bold and illustrative Second Movement, marked Con moto, was performed like child’s play under the titanic fingerworks of Mr. Demidenko. It was off to a hastened start, even at a faster tempo surpassing what his past Russian compatriots Sviatoslav Richter, or, that of Emil Gilels’s, as heard in the latter’s landmark 1960 RCA recording. Like a tape-record pressed on fast-forward, the supersonic speed gave rise to a surprising inner-pulse and continuity that, nonetheless, underscored this movement. Here, one could listen to two intertwining rhythmic motives interchanging between primary and secondary themes, like two individuals taking part in a conversation. Could this movement be an off-spring of Mendelssohn’s Songs without words, equally represented by a pure and flowing melody?
The Third Movement, Scherzo, introduced the listeners to: “Schubert – The Orchestrator” and “Schubert – The Ländler Master,” all in one. Here, Mr. Demidenko outlined both the symphonic scope and the waltz-based rhythmic lightness, which may be viewed as a relief of the tension built-up during the previous two movements. The lively, but at times the forceful and heavy character of this music, later paved way to the softer passages. These softer passages had a unique function challenging the ears of its listener: one could hear the many interesting harmonies that are unique in Schubert, and ingeniously so written. Moreover, if one should listen carefully, there were charming counterpoint in rhythms that are clearly “Schubertian”. Whether intentionally or not, Mr. Demidenko demarcated every second bar of this movement with heavy accents to note the beginning in each beat, as an instruction he faithfully followed, even at times going overboard as each key rebounded under his iron-like fingers. As a visual spectacle, one could follow these inherent rhythmic features as Mr. Demidenko added his own coloring to each phrase, while his hands crisscrossed between the keyboard registers. With this sensitive material, the Scherzo quietly ended and the sound evaporated into an echo off the sound-board of the old Steinway.
Without a second to waste, the Rondo finale was introduced with an air of naïveté coming from an ever-serious Mr. Demidenko. This opening certainly perplexed many of his listeners, let alone the many composers and scholars who studied this Sonata in the past. Here, Schubert introduced the main theme of this Sonata in a higher upper register, with improvised ornamentations, bringing forth the sound effects of twinkles and sparkles. Mr. Demidenko, and his iron fingers, completely subsided and surrendered during the closing pages to effectively relief the contrasting atmospheres. Effectively, it brought a turbulent middle section to an unprecedented solitude, which ended in rave applause as this remarkably difficult Sonata came to a close.
How could an audience be satisfied without being entertained by encores? To satisfy a salivating crowd after cheers and applause, Mr. Demidenko returned to stage. First, he offered an encore which his teacher, Nikolai Bashkirov, used to play as the first entrance piece to his recital programme: Chopin’s Rondo in C Minor. And with the crowd clearly insatiate, he completed his performance with a short Scarlatti Sonata in G Major (L.146).
In closing, here was a fellow companion’s immediate reaction, after attending Mr. Demidenko’s recital:
“…I think there is no question about his [Demidenko’s] Russian heritage; he may be one of the closest bridges between the classical and the modern Russian school. But while his Slavic predecessors demonstrate more stylistic differences, one does not find a lot of distinctiveness between his [Demidenko’s] Bach, Liszt, and Schubert … Then, comparing him with that chameleon [Grigory] Sokolov, who is equally convincing in whatever repertoire he plays (hence, cannot be pinned to any school), he [Demidenko] is still miles away. For sure, he could deliver awesome technique and richness of tone, but lacking the necessary intellectual and emotional depth. So, while one is excited by the beauty of his sound and the fluidity of his execution, the reaction is more physical than sublime.” By: Anonymous
Despite the outstanding controversy on Mr. Demidenko’s approach, one aspect that interrupted his playing was definitely certain: the Sharon Temple Hall did not do Mr. Demidenko justice, as his technical power could fill up many Roy Thomson Halls combined. The heavy pedaling throughout his performances, especially noted in his Fantasy and Fugue, may be viewed as excessive by others, but to the “ears” of the beholder, this might be Mr. Demidenko’s interpretation to emulate the organ-like effect for sustained sonority. Given the poor acoustics of this hall, the blame could not be completely that of Mr. Demidenko’s. Here was a pianist faithfully obliged to grand traditions of the “Russian School,” but given the limited space and projection to display this grandness, playing at the Sharon Temple would be synonymous to hearing “Ms. Deborah Voigt singing in a bathroom”!
Patrick P.L. Lam