Pianist Nikolai Demidenko
Though this Saturday, October 22 concert by Symphony Silicon Valley featured only two compositions – the Piano Concerto by Alexander Scriabin and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – the quality of music-making more than filled the air with festive sounds from Old Russia. Two masters of the idiom collaborated in perfect harmony: Nikolai Demidenko (b. 1955), an esteemed pupil of Dimitri Bashkirov, made wonderful and plastic sense of the 1896-97 Scriabin Concerto, while a newcomer to my musical encyclopedia, conductor Edvard Tchivzhel (b. 1944), a pupil of Arvids Jansons and a colleague of the imperious Yevgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad, astounded us with his disciplined and fervent leadership at the conductor’s baton. Bearing a long stick and a thoroughly active demeanor, Tchivzhel coordinated every aspect, emotional and dynamic, of these intricate and often grandiose scores.
The Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op. 20 by Alexander Scriabin likely owes more to Liszt than to Chopin: its rhapsodic character suggests the mercurial character both of the composer and of the Liszt virtuosic rhapsodies; its choice of key relates directly to Liszt’s favorite color for transcendent emotional experience. When submitted to Rimsky-Korsakov for review, that conservative critic chastised the piece for its “disorder and inaccuracies of musical etiquette.” Still, the work has distinct virtues: lovely colors, many muted, with delicate lines rife with rubato markings filling an orchestra well beyond the scoring capabilities of Chopin at Scriabin’s age. While the outer movements move in ¾ meter, the Andante proffers a lovely theme and four variations, crystalline and songful. The last movement, an elusive polonaise, occasionally bursts into Russian lyrical vehemence, the very quality we all adore in the national style. The keyboard writing challenges even the most gifted bravura player, in that the textures and figures draw from Schumann’s sense of inward meditation, and the melodies, singing enough, elude our ability to recall them as distinct entities. Throughout and despite any of these ‘obstacles,’ Demidenko proved a rapt and brilliant executant. His passionate fingerwork seemed to find complements in his entire physical attitude, singing, gesticulating, and urging the orchestral line forward. In order to acknowledge the thunderous, unabated applause, Demidenko sat down and provided a seamless, breathlessly quick performance of the Chopin Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute” that really required no ovation, just awe.
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 (1907) has a long performance history with many of the great conductors and their ensembles; but Edvard Tchivzhel favors its uncut version, where the danger lies in turgid phrases repeated without dramatic progress, especially in the outer movements. Rachmaninov authorized twenty-nine cuts in performance, cutting one quarter hour from sound realization. Happily, Tchivzhel allowed no sag in the original’s musical line; in fact, his stick technique proved so competent that it seemed no gesture, no matter how embedded it might lie in the musical canvas, escaped his personal molding and inflection. What might have proved redundant became musical and poetic tautology. Standing upon a high box-podium, Tchivzhel had direct eye-contact with his prominent tympanist, Robert J. Erlebach, who delivered a robustly accurate realization of many commanding passages.
What captivated our attention, besides the sheer physicality of Tchivzhel’s style, came in the form of that “Russian wind sound” that ensembles outside of the national boundaries struggle to achieve. Having placed his bass fiddles far and upper left, Tchivzhel coaxed from them an opening motif whose sad melancholy infiltrated each of the successive movements. Rachmaninov’s gestures, always rife with nostalgic sentiment and high-flown, martial rhetoric, elicited from the Symphony Silicon Valley vast landscapes and affecting personal moments, in the oboe (Pamela Hakl) and clarinet (Michael Corner). If the climaxes in the outer movements rose to epic heights, so did the fervent melody in the course of the fiendish scherzo – which introduces the ubiquitous Dies Irae and whose second half includes a punishing fugue- rise to elegant heights. The twenty-measure clarinet melody of the famous Adagio floated in some reserved space in time, soon exchanging its ardent sincerity with the violins. The last movement, a splendid convocation of festive, dancing scales and Russian bells, had a momentum that carried us – with one brief (six measure) return to the Adagio – to a martial peroration that swept us into the conviction that only the uncut version of this work does justice to the composer, who would likely have broken that famous grim facial demeanor to smile on Tchivzhel, among his most gifted and conscientious adherents.