A Stunning Recital by Denis Matsuev

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninov: Denis Matsuev (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.1.2015 (CC)

Tchaikovsky                The Seasons, Op. 37b
Liszt                            Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514
Schumann                   Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Rachmaninov              Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (revised version)


A decade ago now, I reviewed Denis Matsuev’s BMG Melodiya disc Tribute to Horowitz. Heard live in a solo recital he is just as impressive technically; yet the programming here revealed an intent to show us a deeper, more thoughtful side.

 So it was that the recital began with Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons (more properly, The Months, of course, as each of the twelve movements takes the name of one of those). Apart from the First Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s piano music has been woefully neglected so it was good to hear this long cycle in the hands of a foremost pianist. Matsuev’s achievement was to set up an immediate impression of intimacy despite the vast space in which he was performing, bringing proper poignancy to the core Tchaikovsky characteristic of descending scalic gestures. Matsuev’s tone was beautifully varied, from the bright and witty through to the warm-toned doloroso passages. Not immediately linked with charm (in this reviewer’s mind, at least), Matsuev brought a touch of suave class to the tender and affectionate waltz of the concluding ‘December’ movement. The cycle lasts around 40 to 45 minutes, and although the virtuoso moments are few and far between, Matsuev was never less than gripping. His underlining of Schumann’s influence was telling, especially as he had replaced a group of Rachmaninov pieces in the second half with Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

 Parts of the audience seemed a little restless for the Tchaikovsky. Perhaps they had come for the virtuoso offerings? If so, they must have been delighted at Matsuev’s performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1.  There was something remarkably chthonic about the way the opening fifths seemed to emerge from some primal depth, some lower region of Hades, and here was the key to Matsuev’s Liszt: it was far from mere show, and was born of a proper understanding of the sheer genius of this composer. Coupled with an awareness of the daring of Liszt’s writing (and a parallel sense of diabolic abandon from Matsuev himself) was supreme technical command. Staccato could appear as mocking laughter; Matsuev’s delineation of textures could seem nothing short of revelatory. It was a remarkable end to the first part of a concert – the bouquets of flowers (and a book) that people thrust at him seemed an entirely apposite response.

 Matsuev replaced three out of four scheduled Rachmaninov items with music by Schumann. We ‘lost’ the Corelli Variations (surely the greatest loss), the A minor Etude-tableau Op. 39/2 and the famous G sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32/12.  But we got Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and in a performance that swept all before it. Kreisleriana does not seem to crop up on concert programmes as much as it would seem to deserve, and possibly the fiendish challenges – including the very opening – are the reason. The technical difficulties hardly seemed to bother Matsuev, meaning that the opening could emerge as turbulent in extremis, with Matsuev deliberately using a very full sound. His understanding of Schumann, as with his Liszt, was the most noteworthy element, here in his unapologetic way with the composer’s obsessively-repeated rhythms.  The core dark strength of the piece was projected with no loss of clarity, the sound deeply resonant. Of all the pieces in this concert, this was by far the most impressive.

 Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (in its 1931 revised version) provided the end of the published programme. Another piece that uses a descending scalic gesture – this time Rachmaninov’s famous ‘bells’- this is one of this composer’s finest pieces (somewhat annoyingly, the Corelli Variations is another masterpiece, but one that will have to wait for another occasion). The arresting moments of the finale were never shallow here, as Matsuev unleashed chords of simply huge power.

 Unsurprisingly, there were encores: Liadov’s Musical Snuff Box was a delightful opener, followed by Études by Sibelius and Scriabin. Then he gave us that Rachmaninov G sharp minor Prelude (Op. 32/12), which we had thought we would have to do without; it was terrifically atmospheric. Finally – and most gloriously) – came Matsuev’s own arrangement of Take the A Train, a mix of Kaupustin, Nancarrow and Matsuev’s own particular strain of super-virtuosity. It was a long concert, for sure but simply stunning in so many ways.

Colin Clarke

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