Music: Chopin recitals; Wigmore Hall; City of London Festival

John Cage said he disliked recording after he heard a child at a concert complain that a performance "wasn't like the disc". Having made such a superlative one of Chopin's four Ballades, Nikolai Demidenko had a lot to live up to in his Wigmore Hall recital on 6 July. It was a pity the audience only clapped after the first Ballade, for hearing all four in succession is a bit like having lamb, beef, pork and veal - though not necessarily in that order - in one meal. Still, they were remarkable performances even with the disc in mind, and the finest Ballade, the fourth, also drew the most from Demidenko. He is one of the very few pianists to slip into the opening straight out of the blue - as daring a way to begin as it is unobtrusive. He's also one of the few to sustain the bass octave beneath the pianissimo chords preceding the stormy final section, though it's a traditional, and highly effective, liberty.

The programme had the look of a catalogue, for before the interval, Demidenko played the first two sonatas. The First Sonata, dating from Chopin's student days, is a courtly piece, whose outer movements can sound doggedly elaborated, and did on this occasion, partly because Demidenko didn't sustain his tempi firmly. The B flat minor Sonata was much more authoritative. He launched the first movement splendidly, with urgent directness; but then he got rather coy about the second subject, which was too slow and retiring, and fancily re-voiced to deprive the top line of its due weight. He paced the development with assurance, as well as a certain reserve, measuring the climax, and holding back adrenalin for the coda.

In the cruelly challenging Scherzo, Demidenko booted some grace notes with uncharacteristic clumsiness, and the Funeral March was a bit too slow. But the brief finale was beautifully played, like a feathery whisper, with barely perceptible dabs of the pedal.

Maria Joao Pires replaced the Chopin advertised in her City of London Festival recital last Tuesday with Schubert. Her approach to Schubert's first Impromptu was turbulent, the pulse constantly tugged this way and that. The second impromptu hardly allowed room for the same licence, though why no one clapped, as if the piece were a mere interlude before Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, is a mystery. An artist really needs to give an audience its cues. Undaunted, Pires played the Appassionata with fiery spirit, though keeping the middle movement quite lightweight.

Such relative simplicity wasn't characteristic, because Pires is very much concerned with detailed expressive effects, and makes the most of light and shade, sometimes at the expense of a larger sense of form. She commands a wide range of colour, and there were lovely melting effects in the first movement of Schubert's B flat Sonata - for instance, in the furthest reaches of the development. But the way she squeezed the music for every imaginable nuance was fussy rather than profound, and the rhythm of the slow movement was wrung to the point of distortion, with the left hand often reduced to a mumble - like many pianists, she concentrates unduly on her right. Her encore, Schubert's G flat Impromptu, sweetly played, almost as if it had words, went some way towards releasing accumulated tension.

Liszt's great rival, Sigismond Thalberg, shouted all the way home after hearing Chopin play, because he complained he'd heard nothing but pianissimo all evening. No chance of that after Peter Donohoe's Chopin recital at the Wigmore on Saturday, when he played the Second and Third Sonatas, the third Scherzo, some Nocturnes, Waltzes and the Berceuse. His plain speaking was admirable in its way, and he even transformed that rather bald tune in the middle of the Second Sonata's Funeral March into something noble. But Nocturnes were definitely aimed at those allergic to perfumed playing and the Waltzes seemed basic.

ADRIAN JACK

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