Nikolai Demidenko at Blackheath

demidenko.jpgThe Burghers of Blackheath did themselves proud this morning – so many tickets sold for Nikolai Demidenko’s Blackheath Sunday recital that they had to move the gig downstairs into the Big Hall. Or was that just a pretext to hire in a big clangy Steinway (I guess) and leave the lovely little Bösendorfer sulking upstairs?

(There’s something about Demidenko’s appearance – short, hunched, bear-like, little beard, businesslike, unsmiling but not humourless – that reminded me of someone. I can’t quite think who it is: Malcolm Lowry? Arnold Dolmetsch? Peter Warlock? John Ogdon?)

I am forever grateful to the Powers that Be for setting Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2, on our O-level syllabus a hundred years ago – so I know it well, or so I thought. Nick Breckenfield’s fascinating programme note dismissed the ‘moonlight’ tag, but revealed that the first movement is a meditation on the music for the death of the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a fact which I certainly had not come across before. This makes sense of the Sonata’s subtitle – ‘quasi una fantasia’: meaning not ‘an apology for not being in the sort of sonata form you’re used to’, but ‘like an improvisation’ on an idea by Mozart. An illuminating insight into Beethoven’s creative processes.

A friendly Burgher of Blackheath (who shall be nameless) was absent, as she’d been to a previous recital by Demidenko and said she couldn’t stand the way he played – he ‘bashed the hell out of Schubert’. In the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’, my worst fears seemed to be confirmed. The sound was dry, too loud, and broken up by little hesitations before barlines or even beats – the opposite of the constant flow of triplets the music surely needs. I guess (I couldn’t see his feet) that Demidenko was using hardly any pedal – in contradiction of Beethoven’s instruction to play ‘without dampers’, i.e. with the pedal down all the time (which admittedly wouldn’t work on a resonant modern piano, producing an impossibly muddy effect). Not pleasant.

Liszt called the tiny middle movement ‘une fleur entre deux abîmes’ (a quote I always trot out to fox dinner guests whenever I find myself seated between two ladies, who have invariably just called me ‘a thorn between two roses’. But I digress). Here, Demidenko seemed to move into the right gear at last. I liked his ‘attacca’ from the first movement and his slightly-too-slow tempo, as if failing to awaken completely from the mood of reverie. And suddenly he proved himself capable of poetic tone and a light touch. The last movement was absolutely his thing, as he powered through the volcanic arpeggios allowing the sound of the piano to build up naturally to a mighty roar. A fine finale (if not 100% digitally accurate); and he doesn’t grunt or sing along, although sometimes he introduces phrases with a kind of tuneless whistle.

He followed the ‘Moonlight’ with another Beethoven, the E minor Sonata Op. 90 – a clever choice, as it’s in only two movements, so making for a not too indigestible first half before the interval. It also gave further insights into Beethoven’s cryptic imagination, with its sudden abrupt contrasts and its insouciant song-like second movement (at first I thought his tempo too fast, but as it’s marked ‘nicht zu geschwind’ – ‘non troppo presto’ – perhaps it has to be a bit ‘quick’ anyway?). Demidenko convinced me: lots of character and contrast, nice throwaway endings. Another fascinating (possibly too informative) programme note detailed the background story of its dedicatee, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky (who was ‘marrying beneath his station’, so ‘Beethoven provided a musical argument between head and heart in the first movement’ and a ‘conversation between the lovers’ in the second… well, who knows).

After the interval (appallingly slow service at the coffee counter…), Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 – another fiery work full of contrasts, and an intelligent bit of programming to follow the two Beethovens. No wonder Friedrich Wieck tried so hard to keep his teenage daughter Clara away from this crazy composer, with his huge outbursts of passion and violence interspersed with disarming tenderness. Whether or not he knew or guessed that Schumann was syphilitic and/or liable to go insane, Wieck must have realised that he was what we would now call ‘bipolar’ – Schumann’s aliases of ‘Florestan’ (the extrovert one) and ‘Eusebius’ (the dreamy one) being a bit of a clue.

The Sonata is an object lesson in what it was that made Schumann a pioneering Romantic, and how he built on the hints already provided by Beethoven. Just because it’s called a Sonata, we don’t have to stick to prescribed sonata form; it doesn’t matter if we re-use music already written for a different context (a ‘Fandango’ and a song); each movement doesn’t have to live in its own ‘box’, so themes can pop up from one movement to another; and, in the Finale, it doesn’t matter if the ideas just come tumbling out one after another – just go with the flow.

Clara was unfazed by all this, and was not only up to the demands of the Sonata but also knew that she (and she alone) could cope with this tornado of genius whom she would eventually marry.

Demidenko was absolutely in his element here – the violence, the contrasts, the headlong dare-all torrents of invention, the gentleness when required… The beautiful little second-movement Aria was something of a disappointment, as again there was a lack of intimacy, and those rhythmic ‘commas’ that broke the flow. And in the Polonaisey second ‘trio’ of the Scherzo, Demidenko translated Schumann’s marking of ‘alla burla, ma pomposo’ – ‘jokingly, but pompous’ – to mean ‘too loud and with hesitations’. Still, a towering performance of an extraordinary piece.

I really could have done without the encores – three of them, delivered after the barest of perfunctory pauses for applause. Two Scarlattis I didn’t know (?) and some Chopin – perhaps that Prelude I always leave out because it’s too difficult. But I sat there thinking I would much rather have just let the Schumann and Beethoven sink in undiluted. Suddenly it seemed that the morning had been about the player, not the music, after all. Hmmm.

And so out into the bright February sunshine; crisp air, dazzling pale blue sky, spring flowers in all the front gardens, woodpeckers drilling, robins singing their hearts out, great tits ‘teacher-teacher’ing from every tree. Spring is on its way at last.

Much too nice to be sitting indoors…

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picture stolen from www.musicfestival.co.uk — thanks!

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