Sylviane Falcinelli, Saturday 16 June 2012

Nikolai Demidenko, a seigneur in Paris

“The Parc de Bagatelle’s Chopin Festival opened on 16 June 2012 with one of those concerts that remain engraved in one’s memory: a seigneur of the piano came by to play in the all-too-small Orangerie. Even from his youth, Nikolai Demidenko (born on 1 July 1955) has occupied a place all his own in the prestigious Russian school. Every musical implication, guided by mature thought, has led him to blend into his playing the fruits of new experiences stemming either from the broadening of his repertoire or from confronting instrumental aspects of piano design. Whether turning to unfamiliar 18th‐century musical scores or contemporary music, there is not even a reputedly minor piece that does not reveal an unexpected spark of genius under his touch.

As this Chopin Festival had chosen to feature unfairly neglected Russian composers in the lineage of the brilliant Pole, Nikolai Demidenko gave depth and lyricism to Anton Rubinstein’s Barcarolle in A minor, Op. 93 no. 4 and to Felix Blumenfeld’s Nocturne- Fantasie in E major, Op. 20, pieces that many of us were hearing for the very first time and which can no longer be considered secondary after the impressive breath that swelled the sails of their admirably executed musical journey.

One can but imagine to what heights Nikolai Demidenko’s intimacy with the pillars of the repertoire might carry us! While many Russian pianists brutalise Chopin, he constantly scrutinises him, literally incorporating the most miniscule subtleties of Chopin’s masterpieces. Given the challenge that Chopin imposes, under the guise of a Berceuse, of deploying an infinite quilt of ornamentation over an unchanging bass note, this pianist guided us, through revelations of phrasing, towards the observation of concealed innermost channels. In the Sonata in B flat minor, he resolved the difficult tempi relationships through absolute control of its architecture and of the internal, organic nexus of factors in its dramatic projection. Indeed, therein lies the secret: faced with four movements assembled by the imagination of a creator little given to large forms, it is necessary to find the means for harmonising the seeming heterogeneity by the powerful suggestion of the dramatic message. This plunge into an expressive abyss allowed Nikolai Demidenko to take us in a single bound through tragic episodes to supreme grandeur without ever lapsing into outdated pathos.

With its solemn tempo, the funeral march thrust every step to the depths of the piano and of the heart, avoiding any artifice that would have altered the unwavering sincerity. Then, the insoluble Presto seemed to awaken from darkness without fully dispelling the shadows, its waves roll over us whilst holding back unexpected effects of contrasting excess so as not to break any of the diffused emotion.

A second half, devoted entirely to Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90 no. 1 and his Sonata, D. 958, both in C minor, soared high over all the problems linked to pianistic interpretations of the time: a plague on any Viennese approach or historicising debates on the closeness to the pianoforte of the period! Demidenko’s Schubert projects itself in prophetic accents, foreshadowing with virile authority the soaring development of the Romantic piano that will ‘orchestrate’ the keyboard.

As an encore, the intense, secretive mood of a similarly minded Chopin matched the nocturnal hour while the firm design pursued by Schubert was re-emerging.

Listening to the playing of this extraordinary pianist led us to wonder what has always prompted us to consider Demidenko ‘different’. Today, what remains of whatever made Moscow’s byways a road paved for giants? Those formidable, well-oiled robots with effective, and sometimes brutal, technique, handling the music with cold panache. Where are the great lions of the calibre of Sofronitzky, Gilels et al.? As such, the very ‘western’ success of Boris Berezovsky, for example, results from a grave error of perspective: we heard him again at Salle Pleyel on 13 June 2012, with the Orchestre de Paris, playing Prokofiev’s formidable Piano Concerto No. 2. Oh, admittedly, there was not a note out of place, and the percussive machine was running at full speed, but rarely have we heard this work, so dear to our heart, so devoid of emotional content! Then, as an encore, and wanting to demonstrate by a judicious pairing that the conservative Medtner was capable of following the pathways of modernity, Berezovsky brought back to mind, by contrast, how this same Fairy Tale created far more disturbing and prophetic waves under Nikolai Demidenko’s fingers as an encore on 3 May 2012 after a stunning Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto (with the Orchestre National de France, under a conductor unfortunately unable to create a symbiosis with the pianist).

So much might be said about the clarity that Demidenko brings to Rachmaninov without giving up any of its sonorous sweep! Beginning with the brilliant idea of employing a single pedal for the famous first eight bars of the Second Piano Concerto, without the resulting sonorous halo that enriches the harmony blurring its progression in the least (one might as well say that everything depends on the very controlled level of clarity of touch thwarting neither the depth nor the clarity of tone)!

Demidenko’s art is instantly recognisable in his way of imparting flesh to every note. His use of the so-called ‘forte pedal’—adjective as improper as it is incapable of describing the pedal’s technical function and mechanics!—comes from an incredible finely controlled lifting of the dampers, so as to ‘glaze’ the sound with just the right amount of halo needed for its colouring, as by encompassing entire phrases in very long pedalling whilst, at the same time, clarifying their contours with the balance of his touch—the famous saying of Ricardo Viñes, ‘Play clearly in a flood of pedals’.

With Demidenko, the power and immense propagation of sound unique to the Russian school take on a subtle enhancement of sonority, a clarity in the design of the musical trajectories, emotionally-borne mysteries in the bass notes, which make each concert— or CD, if faithfully recorded—an initiatory experience, both in the magical as well as the technical sense of the term. To this is added a sense of phrasing that reveals a meticulous analysis of the direction of each voice so as to accentuate this or that hidden intention. In the end, one comes out of one of his performances with the feeling of having learnt what one had previously failed to see in the works…

All too rarely heard in France, Nikolai Demidenko will have honoured the Paris region with three visits this year, the last on 18 November 2012 at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic.”

Sylviane Falcinelli
English translation by Michael J McCann ( and John Tyler Tuttle