Two Russians of Different Eras

Last night I was in Bristol to hear a concert at the Colston Hall, the heart of which for me was a performance of Rachmaninov’s 3rd. Piano Concerto. Nicolai Demidenko was the soloist. My favourite concerto and an artist which I greatly admire. A good combination. He is severe on the platform, you sense he is impatient of preliminaries, as quickly last night he got down to the job of playing what many regard as the most difficult concerto in the repertoire. Yet when I saw him interviewed before a programme in Sheffield some years ago, he showed himself to be charming and self-deprecating. Russian born but British by choice, I have several of his CD’s recorded by Hyperion, which benefit from the superior sound characteristic of that company.

It was the performance of a formidable virtuoso last night. He played what must have been the longest of the three cadenzas the composer wrote for the first movement, and did so with a poetic fervour and complete absence of flamboyance that other pianists might employ, and which made you hold your breath in wonder.

Somewhere I’ve read that this concerto has more notes for the soloist per minute than any other. Even Rachmaninov said he found it difficult to play! When it was over the audience called Demidenko back several times and he played an encore, perhaps one of the Busoni Bach transcriptions he has recorded.

The orchestra was the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Radio. Originally known as the official orchestra of the Soviet Radio Network it was renamed in 1993 ‘by decree’ of the Russian Ministry of Culture! They opened the evening with Carnival in Paris by the Norwegian composer Svenson, which I found a poor introduction to an otherwise exceptional concert. The second half was devoted to the music of another Russian but from a different era. : Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony which the orchestra and its principal guest conductor, Terje Mikkeisen, must know by heart and it was performed with the brio and passion it deserves and to the delight of the audience, which as usual only half filled the Colston Hall.

(Recently we were at a superb afternoon concert by The Philharmonia under Vladimir Ashkanazy when the house was full).

I was interested to note the layout of the players. The first and second violins were either side of the front of the platform with cellos alongside the first violins, the violas in a similar position the other side, the double basses central at the back. It was a formation favoured by Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley, but in my experience copied by few other conductors. It makes sense to me, and the argument that the two sets of violins are often in dialogue with each other, was born out as I watched the orchestra from my seat in the choir.