Nikolai Demidenko

Philip Hammond admires the Russian pianist's individual take on works by Chopin and Rakhmaninov at the Ulster Hall

I've had to rush to get to this 'rush hour concert', which is ironic indeed considering I retired years ago. So I find that the opening work in Nikolai Demidenko's BBC Radio 3 recital (which will be broadcast in June) at the Ulster Hall is both calming and reflective. Well, at least in the opening theme, and the first one or two variations.

These are Rakhmaninov's 'Variations on a theme of Corelli'. It is a work not as often performed as its orchestrally enhanced sister set on a theme by a certain Paganini, but the pianistic turns of phrase, the spikey ornamentation, the harmonic inventiveness and the rhythmic drive are all trademarks of a musician whose virtuosity as both performer and composer are justifiably legendary.

Demidenko has all the experience to know this music from the inside out. His provenance is profoundly Russian, through and through, and he plays with a thoughtful, undemonstrative comprehension, which is underpinned by a technique that is uniquely at ease with the difficulties, and versed in the particular colours and intensities, of each piano register.

If the Rakhmaninov variations lull me into a sense of well-being again, admittedly on the sombre side, Chopin's 'Berceuse' picks up the softly comfortable theme perfectly but in a lighter vein, a lullaby of delicacy and filigree where the flights of melodic fantasy drift effortlessly and freely above the grounding repetition of the bass line. And, in an instant it seems, it is over!

The controlled drama and intensity of Chopin's 'Second Sonata' comes as a wake up, but not a surprise. I think this is because Demidenko is able to take a homogenous view of a recital. He doesn't ignore in any way the differences of style or content, but he is able to envelop the emotional impact in a strength of interpretation that relies on his own very individual vision of the music.

As a performer of outstanding communicative capability, Demidenko allows the listener to absorb fully the diversity of effect while exposing its underlying unity. He shapes every phrase, maybe every note, with tremendous care and beauty.

It is this attention to intimate detail, emphasised by his very considered choice of tempi, which draws in the listener. I feel as if Demidenko is playing not for this audience as a corporate whole, but for each and every individual in this packed Ulster Hall.

The last two movements of the Chopin sonata again return me to the sombre, dark moodiness of the Rakhmaninov variations. The funeral march is implacable but devoid of sentimentality; the wind blows coldly and relentlessly over an imagined grave.

Two encores later, both by Rakhmaninov’s great friend Nikolai Medtner, I leave the hall thoughtful, yes, but mainly in paradoxical admiration of Demidenko's power of understatement resounding hyperbolically in my head.

Nikolai Demidenko is soloist with the Ulster Orchestra on Friday, May 3 in the Ulster Hall, Belfast when he plays Grieg's 'Piano Concerto'.