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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Sonata No.24 in F sharp major, Op.78 (1809) [11’03]
33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1823) [58’37]
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
rec. St. Paul’s School, London 17-18 Feb 2005
ASV GOLD GLD 4017 [69’40]
When you match an artist as gifted and volatile as Nikolai Demidenko with a work as emotionally wide-ranging and technically fearsome as the Diabelli Variations, the result is bound to be worth investigating. Demidenko has proved himself in a number of key repertoire areas (Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninov) but this was my first encounter with his Beethoven.
It’s pretty obvious from the outset – and no great surprise – that Demidenko sees the contrast and sheer scale of stylistic variety within the piece as the platform for his interpretation. He dispatches the little opening waltz as the trifle Beethoven obviously viewed it as, and we already get the feeling that dynamics in particular will be highlighted, in this case the heavy sforzando accents in the left hand.
As the variations progress and the bigger picture unfolds, so Demidenko digs deeper into Beethoven’s multi-faceted keyboard writing. Variation 1’s march is perhaps less maestoso than Brendel - particularly his live BBC recording from 1976 - but there is a tremendous weight and, again, heavy accenting that underline this first transformation of the theme. The faster variations, such as 6, 7, 10 and especially 16 and 23, are flung out with thrilling, devil-may-care virtuosity that is undeniably exciting but may not please everyone. Brendel takes a more intellectually measured, long term view and fits these quicker sections into a broader canvas, as does his protégé William Kinderman on his impressive Hyperion version, now re-issued on bargain Helios. But I have to say I love Demidenko’s attitude here, as if he’s demonstrating how Beethoven would have shocked his audience with his treatment of the waltz. He is suitably bluff in variation 9, misses none of the intentional wit and irony in the ‘Figaro’ variation (22) and captures the full splendour of the Handelian fugue in number 32. It may also be Demidenko’s famous Chopin credentials at work, but I had never realised just how Chopinesque variation 31 sounded, its elaborate arabesque figurations emerging like some long-lost nocturne. Of course, some of the slower variations are very slow, particularly number 20, where we seem suspended in a temporal vacuum, but it really does point up the contrast of the presto and allegro con brio variations either side of it.
Having lived with this for a few weeks now, I have to say I am deeply impressed. The work has many superb stereo versions in the catalogue – three from Brendel, the already-mentioned Kinderman, Benjamin Frith also on budget price, Kovacevich, whom Demidenko most closely resembles, the list goes on – but this Russian master is as good as any I can think of. He also throws in a wonderfully light and elegant performance of the tiny, delightful F sharp sonata for good measure. Another point of interest is his instrument, a brightly voiced but wonderfully rich Fazioli. A number of top-class pianists are using these splendid Italian pianos, among them Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough and Piers Lane, and its tonal qualities fully support Demidenko’s approach to the work, with super-soft pianissimos offset by bold, massive chordal sonorities, all beautifully captured by the ASV engineers. The venue does have a fairly resonant acoustic but is perfectly acceptable. Throw in Ates Orga’s original, quasi-philosophical notes and you have a release of outstanding interest to both pianophiles and lovers of this wild, occasionally wacky, astonishing masterpiece.
Tony Haywood


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