(-) A Major Plunge!
C. Pontus T. | SE/Asia | 02/12/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)
"It does break my heart to write this review. Nikolai Demidenko indeed put some of the greatest Chopin playing of the 1990s on record for Hyperion. His Scherzos and Concertos were quite good (Chopin: The Four Scherzi; Variations, Chopin Piano Concertos); his early Polonaises-juxtaposed recital was excellent (Demidenko Plays Chopin); his Ballades and Third Sonata were of reference quality (see below). This new release of some 15 years later is, simply and frankly put, a major plunge.
So, what the heck has happened here? Indeed, a somewhat declining quality trend could be identified in Demidenko's 1990s recordings from the peak around 1992/1993 (the Medtner Concertos, Liszt Sonata recital and Chopin Ballades/Third Sonata), with some rather disappointing Prokofiev Concertos at towards the end of the decade. However, German AGPL released a Rondo-focused Chopin recital with Demidenko in 2007 (not available on Amazon) that made its way onto Gramophone's Editor's Choice list for June, receiving rave reviews from Bryce Morrison: 'Yet judging by this new offering AGPL's gain is Hyperion's loss. For here Demidenko's razor-sharp articulacy and immaculate dexterity are complemented by the finest musical grace and individuality, a moving advance on his earlier, more fiercely applied virtuosity.'
Hence, it appears too early to jump to conclusions as to any permanent decline in Demidenko's pianism. Some of the positive adjectives in Morrison's review to some extent apply to Demidenko's remake of the Third Sonata--although it's still inferior in virtually every aspect compared to the 1993 Hyperion version: lax in the first movement, undexterous in the second and unclimatic in the fourth; only the third movement can stand up against the mastery of the earlier rendition. Thus, there is hard to find any rational motivation to justify the remake. But the Preludes are the real disaster here.
I don't have much positive to say about Bolet's, Biret's or Zaritskaya's Preludes (Chopin: 24 Preludes; 2 Ballades; Fantasie [Australia], Chopin: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 10 and Chopin: Preludes, Opp. 28, 45, Op.Posth., respectively); Demidenko's join them as the least successful accounts this reviewer has yet come across. In rather stark contrast to Morrison's above description, Demidenko's Preludes are characterised by sloppy articulation and laboured dexterity, complemented by clumsy musical formation and highly disturbing idiosyncrasies. There isn't a single Prelude that is completely satisfactory; I guess the least deficient would be the E-flat minor (which on the other hand is nearly impossible to screw up), followed by the D major and A-flat major.
Annoying mannerisms with perverse rubato permeates most of the slower Preludes--such as an A minor that combines murkiness with monotony, a B minor and A major that are just drenched in excess pedaling (if you find Argerich blurry, Demidenko will 'soak' you away!), and an F-sharp major, D-flat major and B-flat major that are simply wayward. Also the contrasts in tempo and dynamics are handled with an offensive liberalism bordering on indifference--the E major is mostly mezzo-forte and stumbling, the B major is anything but vivace, the G-sharp minor is neither presto nor crisp, and lastly the F minor at 1:16, E-flat major at 1:47 and D minor at 3:01 sound just about as inapt as can be expected (cf Pogorelich's 0:57, 1:08, 2:40; Ohlsson's 1:05, 1:16, 2:30; and Argerich's 0:47, 1:04, 2:12).
The four-star reviews of the British newspapers (Sunday Times and Guardian) published on Onyx's website are hard to understand to say the very least. Tony Haywood (MusicWeb International) provides a far more accurate description: '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.' Indeed, I think all four factors deserve blame for the not only harsh but also frustratingly swampy sound results; not even ardent Demidenko fans need to bother about this unwarranted release.
Since Demidenko belongs on the shortlist of greatest pianists of the early 1990s, he more than deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt--at least so I will, as far as Chopin goes, until I've got my hands on the above-mentioned AGPL record (and once I do, I will report back). Until then, Demidenko's Onyx debut disc is one of the greatest disappointments in recent memory.
REFERENCES: Preludes--Pogorelich (Chopin: Préludes, Op.28); Third Sonata--Demidenko (Chopin: Ballades; Third Sonata)"