WORKS: Piano sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58; Ballade No. 1; Ballade No. 2; Ballade No. 3; Ballade No. 4
PERFORMER: Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66577 DDD
Chopin’s music is so well known, and the number of recordings so huge, pianists ought to have something special to say before they think of adding to the list. To someone who has never heard the four Impromptus, the Barcarolle and the Third Sonata, Howard Shelley’s disc is a safe introduction. Safe, because nothing is controversial and everything is according to the score. To someone familiar with the music, the effect is of detached, impersonal professionalism.
With Paul Badura-Skoda, the impression is at least more distinctive. Though there are much older pianists enjoying thriving careers, Badura-Skoda is technically fallible; the physical demands of the music are evident and his rapid finger-work is not always even; nor does he achieve the subtle gradations of tone of the best virtuosi. The piano sound is also a little unusual, because he plays a 70-year-old Bösendorfer with a thinner, shallower sound than a modern Steinway.
The only one of these discs which really does say something fresh about the music is Demidenko’s. He doesn’t hold together the first movement of the sonata as rationally as Shelley because his contrasts of mood are so strong they disrupt the flow; and the tempo of the third movement is so extreme it loses a sense of line. But the Scherzo is as light as gossamer and the finale has both a heroic sense of struggle and passages of the most delicate filigree.
Demidenko keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’re never quite sure how he will play anything. His swings between poignancy and fury in the second Ballade are quite unprecedented. He floats the lyrical later stages of the fourth Ballade with ravishing buoyancy and opens up a glimpse of heaven before the final torrent which Badura-Skoda never suspected was there.
Shelley’s recording is among the best Chandos has produced because the acoustic sounds less like a bathroom, while Demidenko on Hyperion sounds rather as if he’s in one. Adrian Jack