Taking his place in the South Bank's Chopin marathon, Nikolai Demidenko brings the kiss of Russian steel, as befits a man who emerged from the hardest school of pianism ever known.
"Pianistic virtuosity," he once told me, "is a form of Darwinism. Natural selection, with the public as arbiter." Practising at least six hours a day, he acquired his own virtuosity – volcanic in Bach-Busoni, tempestuous in Liszt, smooth as silk in Scarlatti – at Moscow's fabled Gnessin school. Invited by Yehudi Menuhin to teach at his school in Surrey, Demidenko didn't endear himself to his colleagues with his contemptuous assertion that, in comparison with the Gnessin, that school was a holiday camp.
He's no Gradgrind – fast cars are among his pleasures – but he is the sworn enemy of compromise: "As a pianist, you've got to live music 24 hours a day, in traffic jams, on trains, even when you are sleeping, for that is where you sometimes solve musical problems. If I ever catch myself not thinking of music, I'll change my profession."
Judging by the packed Queen Elizabeth Hall, many people must be glad he has not done so. Demidenko has neither a critical claque nor a publicity machine, yet this was a performance to which neither Maurizio Pollini nor Krystian Zimerman, nor any of the other much-trumpeted pianists in this bicentenary series, could have held a candle. Starting with a serene account of the "Berceuse", and a "Tarantella" of staggering velocity, he then played the F sharp "Impromptu", the rarely-performed "Allegro de Concert Op 46", and the daunting variations on Mozart's "La ci darem la mano".
If this was a different Chopin from the one we are used to, the way it was delivered took the breath away. Demidenko's virtuosity has nothing to do with Liszt-style playing-to-the-gallery. Supreme technical control and high-speed accuracy are its foundations. More to the point is the clarity with which he invests the most dense and complex structures and the expressive poetry he finds. In his hands, the hackneyed "La ci darem" variations sounded new. After the break he played Schumann's rebarbative "Faschingsschwank" and his Carnaval, and here too he found new things to say. The two Chopin Nocturnes he gave as encores at the end of this unforgettable recital were flawlessly beautiful. Why aren't the big labels competing to sign him?