I’m sure I am not alone in finding Nikolai
Demidenko’s playing maddening, frustrating and enlightening
in roughly equal measures. He’s divided critical opinion in
the past, and I found much to admire but odd idiosyncrasies
to rant about in his reissued disc of Chopin’s Four Scherzi
on his one-time home label, Hyperion (see review). Well, according to his new label Onyx,
he’s somewhat re-launching his recording career with the composer
he started with, Chopin. The results are, to say the least,
We can’t complain about value for money here,
with the whole set of Op. 28 Preludes – which in the early
days of CD often featured on their own - and the Sonata No.3
thrown in for good measure. The opening C major Prelude gets
things off to a fine start, the intricate rhythmic flow well
controlled and interesting inner voices brought out; but he
then for some unaccountable reason holds the E natural of
the final chord over into the next A minor Prelude, the first
time I’ve ever heard this. It works well enough, as E becomes
the dominant of the following chord, but just sounds rather
odd at first, and I’m not sure of his evidence or authority
in doing this. He certainly brings out the harmonic daring
in this little gem, making the rocking dissonance in the left
hand sound as if it’s from a century later.
Throughout the set there are examples of little
distortions of phrasing and dynamics that will either illuminate
or get on you nerves, depending on how you view these things.
The slower Preludes seem to suffer worst in this respect.
Why so much mushy pedaling in the famous A Major (No.7)? Why
is the dynamic taken down to mezzoforte in the E major
(9)? Why is the lovely little B major (11) taken at such a
slow pace that any vivace that Chopin asks for all
but disappears? No.13 in F sharp also suffers badly from lethargy,
although the singing line is beautifully maintained. In fact,
there are plusses that are genuinely welcome. He maintains
a nice steady tempo for the glorious A flat Prelude (17) which
is so often pulled around, and he mercifully refrains from
thumping out the bottom A flat ‘tolling bells’ at the end,
the first time I’ve heard it as subtly done since Cortot.
That said, he then ruins the following F minor by pulling
the phrasing and dynamic around so much as to disfigure the
piece; instead of starting allegro molto Demidenko
is just about moderato, then speeding up to a virtual
presto by the end.
This is volatile, unpredictable playing that
would probably excite immensely in the concert hall could
be a problem for repeated listening. It was a relief to turn
to Pollini’s imperious 1974 account on DG, superb technique
allied to a steely intellect. In fact, though Demidenko’s
technique cannot seriously be questioned, by comparison he
does rather labour over some of the subtler virtuosic passages,
such as the left hand leggieramente of the G major
(3), which is a tad heavy and uneven for me.
The B minor Sonata is a relatively safe reading
at the side of the Preludes. The first three movements are
commendably ‘straight’, the pianist putting himself firmly
at the service of the composer. Highlights include a majestic
opening – complete with controversial exposition repeat -
and beautifully lyrical slow movement. However, Demidenko
can’t resist his old tricks in the introduction to the finale.
Here, what Jeremy Siepmann’s lively note calls ‘among the
most stirring calls to arms ever penned’ is once again undermined
and reduced to a whimper by starting far too softly then increasing
the dynamic over the sixteen chords. Sorry, but it just sounds
plain wrong. Once again, turn to Pollini on DG from 1986 and
you immediately realize that playing it as the score asks
for is always the safest bet. Of course we want individuality
as in, say Alex Slobodyanik’s EMI Debut account, but for me
Demidenko takes things too far too often.
The Preludes are hardly under recorded, and
for my money you should stick with Pollini, Kissin (RCA) –
who is himself unpredictable but sounds almost safe by comparison
– or the more recent Rafal Blechacz also on DG. Demidenko
fans may want this, but with rather distanced, occasionally
harsh sound from his Fazioli grand (pianist, instrument, hall
or engineer?) it all adds up to a rather unsatisfactory whole.