Classical Music: Nikolai Demidenko Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
`A Romantic Voyage" is what they've called Nikolai Demidenko's series of three piano recitals, pitching a bit low, surely, for the Wigmore Hall audience. The programmes aren't at all like that. They're of Romantic music, with a capital "R", certainly, but the first, on Wednesday evening, included music that is not played very often at all. It had its own title, too - "The Ardent Friendship", which was between Schumann and Brahms. Why Schumann's eight Novelletten should have become such rarities beats me. They don't have to be played as a set, but even single pieces are hard to catch, so this was a real treat.

Or promised to be. Demidenko has all the right qualities for these wonderful, ebullient pieces: a virtuoso technique, imagination, and a passionate nature. His performance wasn't short on the first and third qualities, but it didn't always show him at his most colourful or sensitive. You would expect to be exhausted at the end, but not quite so bludgeoned, for he did play a lot of the time very loudly. Not the crisply humorous sixth Novellette - that began surprisingly gently, despite its accents - but the third and fifth were huge and heavy, more like Brahms than Schumann, and the "voice from afar", as Schumann marks it in the last piece, was all-too upfront.

I like to think there's a light-headed, tipsy character to the fifth piece, too, whose swaggering opening section can take a lot of rubato and variety of touch, while Schumann's direction of "lebhaft" later on calls for elation rather than force - Demidenko rode through it like a bulldozer.

Brahms was represented by works at the two ends of his career. In the late set of three Intermezzi, Op 117, Demidenko was inclined to be sluggish, stretching Brahms's obsession with motivic unity beyond the point of endurance. These really are pieces poised on a knife edge: they need a lot of help, but of the most discreet and subtle kind, otherwise their introspective character easily becomes maudlin. Demidenko did the middle one justice, because he played it simply, with gentle fluency, then rose to the climax powerfully.

He ended with the second of Brahms's three youthful Sonatas, in F sharp minor, Op 2. It's much more concise than the better-known third Sonata, but is flawed by a very strange finale, which has an attractive main theme, once it gets going, but breaks up in a rambling, cadenza-like section just before an uncouthly abrupt ending. (It was good to have a programme note that admitted the music's oddities - after all, we might otherwise have suspected the pianist had a memory lapse.) The first movement, though, is gripping, with unusual use of rapid repeated chords and a tight overall shape and, after the concentrated slow movement, the scherzo is a typically doomy, belligerent piece. It can't be said Demidenko made all of the sonata sound inevitable, or a masterpiece and, unlike Schumann's Novelletten, you could imagine this Sturm und Drang music raging like a forest fire, but at least he lit the match.

The next recitals in the series are Thursday 22 May (Mendelssohn and Liszt) and Tuesday 24 June (Scriabin and Prokofiev)

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