MUSIC : A little touch of glamour

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The Independent Culture
Nikolai Demidenko; Lalo Schifrin; John Davis Royal Festival Hall/Wigmore Hall It's often said how characterless pianists are today. It's a platitude and a myth. There are plenty of characterful pianists, and one of them is Nikolai Demidenko. He is a deeply serious artist, as the first half of his Sunday afternoon recital at the Royal Festival Hall proved.

In the first movement of Beethoven's Op109 Sonata, he created a wonderful sense of spaciousness, progressing from a limpid singing line to confident assertion; he was fiery in the second movement; and, although he played the theme of the final movement dangerously slowly, he paced the following variations adroitly and built up to an intense incandescence in the climactic trills.

But Demidenko's seriousness sometimes leads him to exaggerate - a few years ago he gave an unduly ponderous account of Schubert's B flat Sonata at the Wigmore Hall, and on Sunday his Beethoven Op110 was sometimes excessively earnest. The first movement was too slow for the composer's "moderato" marking - it sounded didactic. The Scherzo was also on the steady side, though Demidenko's intensity and dynamic contrasts kept it alive. Again, he took the "arioso" sections of the final movement more slowly than many, yet sustained them by beauty of tone and concentration, while the more flowing fugal sections sang easily and built to a sublime sense of achievement.

Demidenko's sound is always supple, yet he has an exciting sense of rhythmic attack - his fingers are sprung tight with energy. He gave over the second half to Lisztian virtuosity, with transcriptions of Schubert's songs Die Forelle and Erlkonig, and Liszt's sumptuous, teeming adaptation of Schubert's Divertissement a l'hongroise, originally for duet. He also played Liszt's rarely heard Fantasia on Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, completed by Busoni, which whips up the mock-military style of "Non piu andrai" into a thunderous battle. All these torrential pieces kept Demidenko more than fully occupied, yet he never sacrificed the beauty of his tone to brute athleticism. Demidenko's playing gives the word glamorous new meaning.

Glamorous wrapping, rather than anything deeper, was the result of the equation "Jazz Meets the Symphony" presented by Lalo Schifrin with the London Philharmonic in the same hall later that evening. Schifrin's arrangements were sometimes naughty but nice, but his medleys based on greats like Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie (who once employed him as pianist/ arranger) were too often carelessly tacked together. The orchestra had to do a lot of sitting and listening, though principal trombone Warwick Tyrrellhad quite a few chances to shine, and guest jazz artists Ray Brown on bass and Grady Tate on drums drew noisy applause for their solo spots. The best integrated jazzer was also, for me, the star of the show - Australian trumpeter / trombonist James Morrison, who tossed his fancy phrases, twisting, skidding into the stratosphere with reckless joy.

Another mismatch of jazz spontaneity with yearning for permanence occurred in James P Johnson's Yamekraw: a Negro Rhapsody, played by the American pianist John Davis at the Wigmore Hall on Monday. Written three years after Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the piece's stride-style finale had some momentum but what came earlier was short-winded. Perhaps Davis wasn't the most sparkling advocate, for his account of Bartok's Out of Doors suite was devoid of colour or excitement. Glimpses of jazz burst through, as if in sheer relief, towards the end of William Albright's Pianoagogo, a less than whole-hearted essay in fractured avant-garderie of 1965. Davis made a more persuasive case for Aaron Copland's solid, powerful Variations of 1930, but then Copland wasn'ttrying to be anything he wasn't.

Correction: the chorus in Sunday's LSO Barbican concert was London Voices, not the London Symphony Chorus as stated in Robert Cowan's review yesterday