Auckland Museum Auditorium
On Sunday, Nikolai Demidenko launched Auckland Museum's 2015 Fazioli International Piano Recital Series with a thoughtful and testing Chopin programme.
The Russian has played in this venue before and this, combined with some impressive concerto appearances with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, ensured a good, responsive audience.
Demidenko seemed determined to reveal the more explorative side of Chopin's music, opening with the late Polonaise-Fantasie. In a work that tempers exhilaration with mystery, he treated the leisurely introduction as a moody improvisation and, later, sculpted contrapuntal shadings from within the musical textures.
The B minor Sonata that followed had its problems, with recurrent slips in its opening Allegro maestoso and some bumps in the ride through the Scherzo. Demidenko's explanation, between movements, was the unsympathetic and distracting coloured lighting, which was turned off for the second half of the evening.
However, even with blurs, this man, with artistry and intelligence, showed how subtleties of pedalling, tempo and touch can lend cohesion to a sprawling first movement.
After interval, we heard the 1846 Barcarolle, another work from the composer's last years. This was pure magic, using delicate pedalling and expressive rubato to make it seem as if Debussy or Scriabin had written a soundtrack for Death in Venice.
Whether Chopin's four Ballades were inspired by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz is a moot point, but many do find a sense of narrative underpinning this music. If so, Demidenko brilliantly created stories within stories, from a wry phantom waltz springing from the first, to those intriguing touches of winding canon in the last.
After such a demanding evening, we were generously given three encores, including a spectacular zoom through the popular Minute Waltz.
The third was the piece de resistance. A C sharp minor Mazurka introduced the earthier Chopin, with Demidenko's flamboyance hinting at a Szymanowski or Bartok waiting in the wings.
To offer an international soloist in such an intimate setting for just $50 is the musical bargain of the year. Don't miss Kirill Gerstein's recital of Bartok, Bach and Liszt on August 7.