Classical: Like a man possessed

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THURSDAY EVENING at the Barbican Centre saw the pianist Nikolai Demidenko enjoy a quick bar-side smoke before driving Rachmaninov's Third Concerto into the fast lane. When a well-meaning onlooker thanked him for stepping in for Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Demidenko beamed mischievously, shrugged, and dismissed the challenge with a flippant "no problem - it's only Rachmaninov Three!" Now that's what I call tempting providence.

Myung-Whun Chung and the LSO provided the velvet sound-frame for Demidenko's loose-cannon pianism, and the results were both invigorating and exasperating. First came a gentle statement of the winding first theme, and yet within minutes the heat was on and the soloist was firing away on all cylinders. He would home in on interesting counter-subjects, speed through difficult passage-work and draw thunder from the bass keys - sometimes in time with the orchestra, sometimes not.

Judged purely as piano-playing, it was brilliant, provocative, uncompromising and occasionally disorderly. The LSO strings set up the Intermezzo with some ravishing sonorities but Demidenko's responses were hasty and impulsive. Grateful as I was to hear the whole score (the last two movements are frequently cut), the resulting performance seemed like an uncomfortable meeting of incompatible minds.

If Rachmaninov's Third is the best of his four concertos, the Symphonic Dances is surely the finest - certainly the most musically original - of his orchestral works. Dedicated to (and premiered by) the Philadelphia Orchestra, they combine filmic opulence with fierce rhythms and aching nostalgia.

Chung made aural beefcake of the opening "non-Allegro", stamping emphatically through the martial first theme and allowing plenty of space for the central saxophone solo. The second movement is a self-contained suite of waltzes, and the finale is a hot-headed mix of orchestral fireworks and Russian- style dance motifs. Chung charged at the closing pages like a man possessed, upping the pace excitedly, though shortening the prolonged tam-tam stroke that should rightly end the piece. It was a sensitive, well-executed performance, a little strait-laced perhaps for such a vividly suggestive work, but always effective.

I had never made the connection between Rachmaninov and Mahler, and yet one particular passage in the Second Dance - where muted brass and harp join forces - sounded distinctly Mahlerian.

Chung's credentials as a Mahler conductor were confirmed three nights later when he led a powerful though idiosyncratic account of the Resurrection Symphony. The pitch-black first movement was more a tragic Andante than a dramatic Allegro Maestoso, though the ethereal rising scale that serves as the second subject was played with trance-like application by the LSO strings. Unusually slow speeds carried through to the second movement, but the rustic Scherzo went with a real swing; the tender "Urlicht" was beautifully sung by the contralto Sara Mingardo and the long, multi-dimensional finale drew heartfelt contributions from the soprano Andrea Dankova and the LSO chorus.

Every ploy made the desired effect, whether it was atmospheric off-stage brass, pregnant silences or cataclysmic climaxes.

And while this listener finds Mahler 2 rather less than the sum of its impressive parts, most of Sunday's Barbican audience would plainly have disagreed. Indeed, Chung and his team enjoyed a rapturous ovation.