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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.