Strange Adventures in Schubert

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The New York Sun

The parade at Mannes College’s piano festival continued on Wednesday night. Onstage was a Russian, Nikolai Demidenko. But I should be more accurate: Mr.Demidenko has long been resident in England, and is, in fact, a British citizen.

The first half of his Mannes program was all-Bach, in a way. He opened with Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s Fantasy & Fugue in G minor.The fugue is one of the most famous Bach ever wrote; you would recognize it instantly.Its partner, the fantasy, is less well-known.

Mr. Demidenko played it superbly. First, the opening chord was absolutely together. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be reassuring at the beginning of a recital. As he continued, Mr. Demidenko took care to be both Bachian and Lisztian, as one must, in these transcriptions. He was measured, dignified, elegant. A downward chordal progression had notable tension. At times, he threatened to overpedal, but only threatened. In general, this playing was both grand and clean — just what the doctor ordered.

The fugue was not so fine. Its opening statement was played rather wispily, and it was overly staccato. Throughout the fugue, Mr. Demidenko leaned toward the punchy and detached. And some of the inner voices failed to come out. Moreover, the pianist exhibited a tightness — a physical tightness — that had not been evident in the fantasy.

He next played real Bach, which is to say straight, untranscribed Bach: the Italian Concerto. This work is so familiar, especially to students, we don’t hear it in pros’ recitals so often.

In the first few measures, Mr. Demidenko had trouble picking a tempo. Which was a shame. One must decide beforehand, and stick to one’s guns. And there were other problems. Ornaments lacked crispness, and the playing overall was slightly thick. I’m all for pianistic Bach on the piano, but Mr. Demidenko was too free with the pedal. In addition, dynamics were a little strange, with unwanted diminuendos.

And yet Mr. Demidenko was quite logical about his playing.

The Andante of the concerto was very, very strange. In the left hand, Mr. Demidenko was extremely detached, and mechanical. He did some decent singing in his right hand, however.This movement is difficult to bring off, and when it is truly brought off, it is sublime. Mr. Demidenko did not succeed on Wednesday night.

The closing movement (Presto), unfortunately, was worse. It should trip merrily, or excitingly. Under these hands, it was neither merry nor exciting, but clattering and almost bumbling.

After the concerto, more Liszt, with Bach involved — and this work is a real rarity. It is Liszt’s Variations on a Theme from Bach’s Cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.” It is a thoughtful and demanding piece, and Mr. Demidenko traversed it satisfyingly.

In that G-minor fantasy, the pianist included tension, suspense. We had doses of that here, too. And these variations revealed a big-time, Lisztian technique. Particularly to be appreciated were Mr. Demidenko’s fortissimos, which were not pounded.And the introspective sections were beautifully so. Mr. Demidenko gave us Romantic piano playing of a very high order.

I described these variations as “thoughtful,” but Liszt still can’t resist some vulgarity. At the end, he throws in his tremolos and repeated chords; they are as unnecessary as they are gross. But Mr. Demidenko managed them as capably as possible.

And following intermission? Just one work, and a mighty one — often a quietly mighty one. This was Schubert’s Sonata in D, D. 850. Long ago, Artur Rubinstein made an unusual statement. He said that Schubert’s sonatas are “full of music.”That is a hard statement to understand, or to explain, but I think that musicians find it perfectly true.

The first movement of D. 850, Mr. Demidenko played very, very unusually. He took it like a bat out of you-know-where. It was hardly recognizable as itself. Think of a 33 rpm record being played at 45. The music was hardly savored, hardly Schubertian. Sometimes it had an almost Haydnesque sprightliness, or an early-Beethoven verve. But, you know? By the time he was through with the movement, Mr. Demidenko halfway convinced me.

The second movement is one of the glories of the piano literature, and Mr. Demidenko played it gloriously. It is a song, essentially — an extended song — with a quasi-religious character. Mr. Demidenko was spellbinding in it.You remember how I said that he missed the sublimity of Bach’s slow movement? He certainly expressed the sublimity of this one.

Consequently, the rest of the performance mattered little. But the third movement, the Scherzo, was needlessly brutal and loud. It was as though Mr. Demidenko thought he had to wake us up, after the second-movement reverie. The Scherzo was sloppy and ill-defined, too.

Schubert surprises us in the last movement: It is unassuming, simple, matter-of-fact (but also somewhat sly). Mr. Demidenko largely adopted the character of the music, but he did some slapping around, which was too bad. He ended very nicely — demurely, almost apologetically, as Schubert wants.

The audience — which included many students — responded with tremendous enthusiasm. And they weren’t wrong. It was something of a bumpy ride, but it was well worth going to Mannes College on Wednesday night.

International Keyboard Institute & Festival until July 30 (150 W. 85th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, 212-580-0210).

The New York Sun

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