Review: Demidenko, Symphony Silicon Valley give Scriabin his overdue place in the musical pantheon

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By Elijah Ho: October 23, 2016

In 1986, before his final concert in Moscow, legendary virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz was asked his opinion of two composers whose music he had played all his life. He lavished his highest praise on Rachmaninoff.

Hard to believe, but little has changed in the order of things. The name of Sergei Rachmaninoff still towers over that of Alexander Scriabin, as it has for a century.

On Saturday evening at the California Theater, however, the order of things was turned upside down.

Symphony Silicon Valley took a chance on a rarely performed work of Scriabin, and it paid off. It was a hit. In fact, they hit it so long and so far out of the park that we have no choice now but to wonder why this sort of thing is not commonplace.

With Latvian conductor Edvard Tchivzhel at the helm and virtuoso Nikolai Demidenko at the piano, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto Op. 20 in F-sharp minor came off with such exceptional brilliance that Rachmaninoff’s celebrated Symphony No. 2 Op. 27 in E minor, by contrast, sounded austere — at times, even stodgy.

To describe the beauty of hearing the Scriabin live, one has to conjure the hazy memory of hearing a Chopin nocturne for the very first time. There is nothing in the world quite like it. You simply want to live there.

If Demidenko’s 1993 recording of the work with the BBC Symphony was a careful, well-conceived affair, Saturday’s audience was treated to unimaginable flights of virtuosic artistry. From the opening Allegro, Demidenko delivered moment after moment of unimaginable beauty. Much, if not most of the difficulties in this work are in the left hand, and the pianist proved ambidextrous, as the many gradations of his tone stayed in mind long after the sounds and their inflections died. Like a flowing conversation, Demidenko and Tchivzhel rarely deviated, and they hid the difficulties of synchronized rubato well.

However, nothing on this night sounded as ravishing as the Andante.

The strings breathed life into this heavenly music, and Demidenko followed them with some of the most arresting sixteenth-note passages I’ve ever heard. Before I knew it, my eyes were moist. I could not believe this gift of Scriabin, 120 years old, was still relatively unknown. The Allegro moderato, on the other hand, was a force of nature, as Demidenko scaled the most breathtaking artistic heights, replete with sweeping arpeggios — and the kitchen sink.

The orchestra responded magnificently to Tchivzhel all night, as he offered a grand sense of proportion in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. From the opening Largo, thick, weeping textures were shaped with aristocratic elegance, and attractive melodies were supported beautifully by the harmony. Tchivzhel communicated the way Rachmaninoff composed: building toward a central climax and overwhelming the listener with emotion.

And yet, in spite of the beloved Adagio that was carried by the heartfelt singing and warmth of the strings, it was the insanely beautiful Scriabin that left me shaking my head all night in disbelief. President Andrew Bales and Symphony Silicon Valley deserve praise for the programming of it.

As it turns out, Demidenko was one of the lucky ones who attended that final Moscow recital of Horowitz, the man who did more for the advancement of Scriabin’s music than anybody else. In an interview, Demidenko exclaimed, “People say Horowitz’ recordings are great, but I can tell you his live sound is a hundred, even a thousand times greater”. After his performance on Saturday, I wish Mr. Demidenko knew how true that is of his own playing.

Contact Elijah Ho at Follow him on Twitter@elijahho