Gergiev, Mariinsky—and a Speed-Demon Pianist

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff: Denis Matsuev (piano), Timur Martynov (trumpet), Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 11/15.10.2013 (BH)

11 October
Shostakovich: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35 (1933)
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65 (1943)

15 October
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 (1909)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940)

It’s hard not to like Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, written when the composer was in his mid-twenties and filled with exuberance and optimism. A reflection of the composer’s exposure to jazz, the work has attracted the attention of many fine pianists over the years, from Richard Brautigam to Marc-André Hamelin. It should have made a fine opening for the second of three Carnegie Hall concerts with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinky Orchestra.

This was my first encounter with pianist Denis Matsuev, who comes with an impressive resume, but this was not his finest hour. During the bubbly initial movements, his tone and pedal use were not unattractive but seemed too weighty, more appropriate for the grandeur of the Tchaikovsky concerto, without the lightness that this Shostakovich requires. But worse, he and Gergiev could not agree on tempos, with the pianist constantly straining to go faster. In the final Allegro con brio, the pianist sets the pace, and Matsuev tore off at a blistering clip, leaving the conductor and orchestra to play catch up. What should have been a delightful finish was marred by lack of articulation. One of the orchestra’s principal trumpets, Timur Martynov was excellent, with crisp fingerwork and gleaming tone, though I wish he had been placed front-and-center, since the witty trumpet part was sometimes buried in the piano onslaught.

Nevertheless, many in the audience felt the need to give Matsuev a standing ovation, and he obliged with two encores. The first, Liadov’s “A Musical Snuffbox,” was shimmering, weightless, and showed his best work of the night. If he had only stopped there. But the applause commanded one more, a Horowitz-style arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. After a striking rumble of an opening—which bode extremely well—the relentless increase in speed quickly degenerated into “how fast I can play,” completely sapping articulation, drama, and the big “pow” at the end.

Written just ten years after the Concerto, the Eighth Symphony could not be of a more different sound world. Where the former is gleeful, the latter is despondent. Where the former has the suppleness of Haydn, the latter is massively Mahlerian (and long, almost an hour). From the opening string sonorities to the ending with its spare pizzicatos and dying woodwinds, this was both majestic and sad. Climaxes were eyeball-searing, yet the ensemble showed its ability to retreat into a velvety hush. The swaggering second movement Allegretto was edgy, taut and not too fast, and the relentless Allegro non troppo that followed brought the tension to a breaking point. If parts of the Largo had their longeurs, there was plenty of compensation in the Mariinsky double bass platoon, making a groaning foundation for the other instruments and blanketing the movement with pain.

In the evocative finale, the cellos had some of the group’s finest moments of the evening, singing over brass pulses and swirling, piquant winds. And in the quiet coda, there was a parade of exceptional solos—concertmaster Alexey Lukirsky, principal cellist Yury Afonkin, and principal bassoonist Igor Gorbunov, among others—before the symphony comes to rest like a dying beast. But as in many great Shostakovich readings, ambiguity only enhanced the result. The intensity seemed to be an admonishment against blind hand-wringing; if we cry too much, we may miss the ax.

In the second evening, devoted to two of Rachmaninoff’s finest works, Matsuev still showed an instinct to rush, but his momentum was offset by his clear technical ability in the composer’s Third Piano Concerto. This time, the slightly aggressive approach worked more to his advantage, his large sound easily riding above the ensemble. As Gergiev’s rippling hands directed the dark, silvery currents underneath, Matsuev easily projected the themes as if on a panoramic screen. The final movement—still rather speedy—was at least together, rhythm-wise, and made a huge impact.

As encores, Matsuev began with more Rachmaninoff, his Etude-tableau in A Minor, Op. 39, No. 2, done with glittering confidence and mystery. For the second, he offered one of his own jazz improvisations—arms flying across the keyboard with virtuosity that would have made Art Tatum proud.

Perhaps the finest came last: the composer’s final piece, Symphonic Dances, done with careful attention to detail—relaxed, yet with a bite. Gergiev was calm, letting each glittering phrase breathe. The middle movement had the nightmarish lurch of Ravel’s La valse—at least, when it wasn’t evoking Tchaikovsky—with the conductor’s grace matched at every bar by the orchestra. In the finale, sparkling contributions from xylophone, bells, triangle and tambourine festooned broad swaths of bronze string timbre to brilliant effect. With many in the audience standing, an encore was inevitable—and we got a great one, the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, done with glowing assurance.

Bruce Hodges