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S & H Concert Review

Glinka, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov: Nikolai Demidenko (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Yevgeny Svetlanov. RFH, January 22nd, 2002 (CC)



Arcadi Volodos was billed to appear in a rare performance of Prokofievís Second Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 16. A last minute cancellation meant a change of soloist, however, and it was Nikolai Demidenko who stepped in. Demidenko has recorded this concerto (with the London Philharmonic under Lazarev, on Hyperion CDA66858) and so is no stranger to the perilous demands of this piece. Technically, he was every bit the equal of these challenges. The (in)famous cadenza (it takes up a good part of the musical argument of the first movement) was intense and concentrated: Demidenkoís reading brought out its logic, and it led logically in to the ensuing brass peroration (although here, as sometimes elsewhere, one longed for Volodos and wondered just what he would have done).

Taken on its own terms, though, this remained a special reading. Demidenko and Svetlanov ensured the Scherzo fizzed along, brimming with energy; the angular grotesqueries of the Intermezzo came over as pure Prokofiev. Here Demidenko proved himself capable of much delicacy and lightness, making the most of the tonal properties of his chosen Fazioli piano.

The Philharmoniaís accompaniment throughout was a thing of wonder. There is clearly a special rapport between the Philharmonia and Svetlanov. Here is a conductor who really understands Prokofievís striking orchestration: the mysterious shades of the opening proved the perfect foil for the spiky piano entrance; the wind phrasing of the central, folk-like section of the finale was exceptionally beautiful.

This close relationship between conductor and orchestra was clear from the very outset of the concert. Glinkaís overture to his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla was given furious, punchy treatment. It was so busy, in fact, that it invoked a Russian Marriage of Figaro, but nevertheless it was not breathless (the second, lyrical theme was most affectionately phrased). Most impressive, perhaps, was Svetlanovís ability to balance the textures carefully, even within fortissimo. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the opportunity to hear a true pianissimo was also to be relished.

Despite the attractions of the Prokofiev, it was Svetlanovís reading of the Rachmaninov Second Symphony that was the true highlight of the evening. There are recordings by this conductor: Colin Andersonís note in the programme pointed to Svetlanov and the NHK Symphony Orchestra on King KICC3019 (available via Tower Japan), although there is a Melodiya recording from 1964 listed in the catalogue with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra on 74321 40064-2.

Svetlanovís reading is clearly the result of an intimate knowledge of this score. This performance was at times overwhelming in its intensity because of, rather than despite, Svetlanovís continual refusal to over-sentimentalise. The Adagio, in particular, benefited from this approach. It was superbly paced (as was the entire symphony) so that the climax was overwhelming, a true culmination of what had preceded it. The Philharmonia strings exhibited a glowing warmth in response to Svetlanovís effortless ebb and flow. Right from the start of the piece, it was clear the orchestra was giving its all, from the mysterious opening on lower strings to the faultlessly together wind. The brass excelled, particularly in the Allegro molto. The finale was truly inspiring as well as inspired, often jubilant in manner.

The whole concert acted as a reminder that the Philharmonia really is a great orchestra and we can count ourselves privileged to have them at the South Bank. Their collaboration with Svetlanov is a particular cause for celebration.

Colin Clarke


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