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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11 (1835) [34:13]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 (1836-53) [32:59]
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
rec. Snape Maltings, 22-24 January 1996.
Originally issued 1996
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55300
[67:17]
Experience Classicsonline


Schumann commented on the development of the sonata – “It seems that the form has outlived its life-cycle. This is in the natural order of things: we ought not to repeat the same statements for centuries, but rather to think about the new as well. So let’s write sonatas or fantasies” – “what’s in a name?” Certainly in these two big works Schumann is not entirely successful in his treatment of sonata form if judged by traditional criteria, yet his imaginative originality and fantasy are more than enough compensation.

Demidenko is among the outstanding keyboard masters of his generation. With his enviable technique, he magisterially overcomes the extremely taxing piano-writing in these two works. Whether or not he meets the purely musical and stylistic challenges Schumann presents is another question.

The First Sonata opens imposingly. Clearly, this is going to be a big performance, yet is this not just a little too forceful? Demidenko really hits the keys as though he is conquering the music. While impressive in itself, this overpowering, quasi-barnstorming approach would be more in keeping with much of the Russian repertoire or a Brahms concerto. Often throughout this opening movement I found myself wishing for a more transparent tone – lighter, more mercurial. Demidenko’s treatment of the lyrical second subject is beautiful in its own way, but a slightly morbid, lugubrious quality seems to intrude. The climactic return of the opening bars in the development is splendidly managed.

Following the brief second movement entitled Aria, which Demidenko plays most eloquently while observing the senza passione and semplice markings, Schumann writes a curious “Scherzo ed Intermezzo”, a typically original idea. The Scherzo has the traditional trio, lighter and more lyrical, but also an Intermezzo section of totally unrelated character. This leads to a passage of recitative, before an upward flourish prepares us for the shortened scherzo reprise. Here Demidenko is masterful without really achieving that elusive mercurial, cavalier humour. True, Schumann’s sforzando markings proliferate, but nevertheless the same heavyweight feeling persists. The “pomposo” direction for the grandiose Intermezzo section is strongly characterised, though surely an implied element of humour is missing.

Demidenko lauches into the Finale – separated from the scherzo by no more than a split second - with tremendous energy. The notorious rhythmic problem of the second main theme is not solved here. How does one play this spiky rhythm to create the correct impression that it begins directly on the third beat? Demidenko merely distorts the rhythm in an attempt to clarify. We need to track down Eliso Virsaladze’s recording for an interpretation much closer to ideal, and indeed a thoroughly recommendable performance of the whole work.

As an admirer of Demidenko, I feel some regret at carping in the face of tremendous virtuosity. Generally I feel rather overdosed on the massive and short-changed on the tenderness and inwardness. His approach does throw interesting light at times, but - although I shall be accused of stereotyping - his Russianness is inescapable. However, when another Russian – Sviatoslav Richter - played Schumann he somehow managed to capture more fantasy and avoid browbeating.

The Third Sonata rarely appears either live or recorded. Its history is complicated, an initial five-movement format being reduced – at the wish of the publisher Haslinger – to a three-movement “Concert sans orchestre”. This reduction was achieved by cutting the two scherzos, but in his revision of 1853 Schumann restored the second of these and made other alterations. Demidenko plays all five movements and also reinstates in the central movement two variations which never got beyond Schumann’s original autograph. According to Misha Donat’s exemplary sleeve-notes, these were only published as recently as 1983. This sonata is also one of Schumann’s most thematically integrated works, the opening five-note phrase appearing throughout in different forms.

Demidenko plunges into the opening movement – another example of Schumann’s startling treatment of sonata form – with typical power and assurance. However, while again admiring the technical mastery, I miss that last degree of lyrical fantasy, the essential buoyancy found in the very greatest Schumann performances. A little too often Demidenko’s weighty, saturated tone favours the vertical at the expense of the singing horizontal line.

The first scherzo, marked “Vivacissimo”, is one of Schumann’s most idiosyncratic studies in quasi-syncopation, defying the first-time listener to find the bar lines. The printed dynamic level is often quite subdued, a detail one would not necessarily guess from this hefty performance. Also, Schumann’s capricious wit is underplayed. However, Demidenko finds some of his most exquisite tone for the lovely melody of the trio. This lyrical music, devoid of all rhythmic puzzles, provides perfect contrast.

The central “Quasi Variazioni” is a deeply touching movement which Demidenko plays most beautifully. Its theme is supposedly by Clara Schumann but, as John Daverio has written, “the ‘Andantino by Clara Wieck’ … cannot be found in any of the surviving sources for her music”.

The second scherzo (D flat major) is robust in character, with a fluid trio section in D major. Again Demidenko impresses with his power, but reveals less of the whimsical.

Marked Prestissimo possible, the Finale has a vertiginous effect, with the kind of rhythmic wizardry which Daverio rightly traces to the influence of Paganini. Here Demidenko is in his element, carrying off a tour de force – though my general reservations about the sheer weight of his tone still apply.

Repeated hearings consistently reveal more of the beauties of these two works, especially the neglected Third Sonata. Clearly, Demidenko (marvellously recorded) will win many admirers for this richly characterful music, without being the last word in Schumann style.

Philip Borg-Wheeler


 


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