Schubertiads were what Franz Schubert’s friends called the soirees at which he played his works on the piano, and by all accounts they were joyous occasions.
The Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko invited us to a Schubertiad of his own. This consisted of works culled from the composer’s last year, when, knowing how cruelly his days were numbered, he was beset by headaches and fits of giddiness: this Schubertiad was necessarily a grave affair.
Demidenko’s showed in the first bars of the first Impromptu of the D899 group how big a canvas he proposed to work on: the bare opening chord was like a melancholy call to attention, with the answering phrase like a faint cry in the distance. His tone had a singing warmth, and his pace was gentle: the long sustained lines and the shifts between minor and major were brought out with ballade-like grace. The runs and scales of the second piece were so pearlised and swift that they went like the wind; the third – the rippling one everybody knows, even if they don’t know it’s by Schubert – and the arpeggiated fourth came and went in an exquisite blur. These are not virtuoso pieces, but they benefited enormously from Demidenko’s discreet virtuosity.
Next came the Three Piano Pieces D946 which pianists usually pass over as being too eccentric. Demidenko showed how closely they are related to Beethoven’s Bagatelles – which Schubert would have known – in their concentrated firecracker intensity, but also how completely they belonged to the somnambulistic world of Schubert’s imagination. Then it was time for the C minor sonata D958, with its heroic Beethovenian echoes. Demidenko took the first two movements at tempi so slow that they might in other hands have caused the audience to nod off, but this performance was riveting: the truncated phrases and sudden silences spoke of memories, regrets, and the grave. Then came rebirth, with the galloping exuberance of the Tarantella climaxing in a blaze of brilliance. Only when Demidenko was presented with his bouquet – typical he should have chosen that, rather than the standard bottle of bubbly – did his lugubrious features briefly crack into a smile. First encore: an unfamiliar piece by Medtner, piling mountains of notes into a dark edifice. Second encore: Chopin’s D sharp minor Nocturne, beautiful beyond words.