Classical Nikolai Demidenko Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Superlatives have lost most of their savour, and announcing a recital as a "celebrity" event is unlikely to impress regular concert- goers, at least in London. Nikolai Demidenko, trained (if that's the right word for someone so clearly his own man) at the Moscow Conservatoire, now qualifies as a local boy, teaching as he does at the Yehudi Menuhin School and Surrey University. Yet his Barbican recital on Sunday afternoon was certainly fit to be called something special.

The first half was all Chopin, the second Schumann, and each began with an early work. The more you hear Chopin's youthful Sonata in C minor, the more characteristic it seems. Its pianistic textures and harmonies, and the aristocratic hauteur of its style, are close to the two piano concertos which Chopin composed two or so years later. The first movement steps high and proud, tossing its mane like a thoroughbred horse. Demidenko projected all that, and gave it a virile impulse too, with an exciting sense of dialogue between right and left hands. The Minuet second movement seemed a bit stolid, perhaps a bit slow. But after the rather low-profile, dreamy slow movement, the finale sprang to life, brilliant and transparent.

Transparency is one of Demidenko's sterling virtues: he not only made the Barbican's Steinway sound sleek, but he also got it to sing - entirely naturally, it seemed, in two Nocturnes, in C sharp minor, Op 27 No 1, and in F sharp minor, Op 48 No 2. All the usual cliches of interpretation vanished with his very controlled use of vibrato; in the C sharp minor Nocturne, a wonderfully even left hand supported his relatively simple but eloquent shaping of the melody in the right; the heroic middle section was heated. The F sharp minor Nocturne fairly glided along. Which led effectively to the long-spun line of Chopin's Andante spianato, followed by the Grande Polonaise Brillante, in which Demidenko pushed himself to the limits of his power.

It needed that kind of forthright vigour to redeem the pretty-pretty element in Schumann's early Abegg Variations, though the theme's trivial, salonish character is soon tossed aside in the brilliance and energy of what follows. Demidenko made the most of the brilliance, but also gave the music an effortless elegance.

His approach to Schumann's Etudes symphoniques - or Etudes en forme de variations, as the revision published in Schumann's own lifetime called itself - was, from the outset, something altogether more serious, and Demidenko gave us generous measure, with all five posthumously published variations interpolated among the "standard" numbers. The Etudes have such a confusing publishing history that the whole set, with its alternative readings and optional numbers, might just as well be treated as a "variable" work: for the extra pieces there's really no ideal sequence.

Demidenko was surprisingly forceful, to the point of anger at times - for instance, in the second Etude, with its inner part of throbbing triplets. The scherzando fifth Etude was effortless, unfussy; the hectic, presto possibile ninth Etude almost over the edge, just enough to give a thrilling sense of danger.

The audience was large but surprisingly lazy in its applause, so Demidenko reproached them by plunging furiously into Schumann's Aufschwung, then walked off with an air of philosophical nonchalance.

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