REVIEW / Stoking the fires of virtuosity: Nikolai Demidenko concludes his 'Piano Masterworks' series in London: Nikolai Demidenko - Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
Wednesday's was the sixth of Nikolai Demidenko's recitals in a brief history of pianism called Piano Masterworks at the Wigmore Hall. This final programme, Legacies and Prophecies, was a heroic climb over mountains of notes, wrapping up the 20th century in slightly fusty 19th-century glamour.

First came a prophecy. The broken, straying, chromatic melodies in Liszt's Funerailles foreshadowed the dissonance of the next 100 years. This was a sensational start for Demidenko, who generates power in the bass line like a stoker firing up an ocean liner below decks. The gathering force of section four, the Quick March, with its hectic left-hand pattern building to a cataclysmic roar of octaves in both hands, was memorable, astonishing.

That Demidenko can deliver such grand tragic / virtuosic effects seems to have been the key to the planning of the six programmes, with pianistic heavies well to the fore (French music, for instance, being represented only by Alkan and Messiaen). Historicity, showcasing, packaging: well, what's the difference in 1993? But since the programme note made such claims for the way the material was planned, it is worth murmuring out of the side of one's mouth that perhaps it wasn't wise to open on Wednesday with a barnstorming piece that made huge demands on the soloist's nervous energy and concentration.

One of the interesting things about Demidenko is that he does not separate virtuosity from passion. Even Messiaen's Canteyodjaya was not, as its fragmented structure might suggest, a glittering processional mosaic, but a continuous emotional arc where rapid outbursts were full of spring and surprise and where loud bits were built as climaxes, not imposed de facto. Sometimes the drive could profitably have been relaxed. Although Demidenko's Scriabin playing has deservedly been praised, there was room for softer, more curious colours in the Three Etudes, Op 65, while Berg's Sonata, wonderfully rhapsodic, would have been still better if falling phrases had been less tense. The choice of Sofia Gubaidulina's Busoni-esque Ciaccona to represent all composers not yet dead was in line with the virtuoso ethos of the whole. It was an intricately hammered-out, shiny, recycled construct of all the best keyboard engine-work from Bach to Prokofiev, and Demidenko played it with all possible boldness and brilliance.

Not all of the night's best moments were loud. Demidenko clearly adores dramatic peculiarity, irony and surprise. The sudden move at the beginning of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition from the Promenade straight into the dark, fidgety motif that plants the Gnome centre stage, was thrilling. The Gnome's dark, oily octaves were seriously bizarre. The dryish sound chosen for the Old Castle was, like the soft grey colour with which the funeral march had been introduced in Liszt's piece, evidence of an exceptional imagination. That's the side of Demidenko one would now like to know more about.