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How Do You Solve the Problem Like Matsuev?

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/09/2022 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas No.31 in A flat Major, op.110 & No.32 in C Minor, op.111
Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen, op.15
Sergei Rachmaninov: Sonata No.2 in B flat Minor, op.36

Denis Matsuev (piano)

D. Matsuev (© Vyatcheslav Prokofyev)

I have to make a confession: I have not heard Mr. Matsuev in recital for several seasons, though he is one of New York’s favorites, and up until the pandemic put our lives on pause, he appeared in Carnegie Hall almost every season. As much as I have appreciated his pianistic gifts, regarding our musical tastes and sense of esthetics we differed quite a bit. I was thus under the impression that musically speaking he has already showed me everything that there was in his pianistic and musical arsenal. I felt that after attending several of his solo recitals I would be able to predict with some accuracy his future interpretations of the staples in the piano repertory.

What aroused my curiosity this time was an unusual combination of the works Mr. Matsuev offered on his program: it is rather uncommon to find the late Beethoven sonatas, arguably the most profound examples of piano repertory, and a pure virtuoso vehicle such as the Rachmaninov Sonata No.2 on the same program. There were in the past some great pianists, able to play both types of the works, albeit never in the same program: one that comes to mind was the great Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yet, there seems to be a general agreement that there are not too many interpreters equally convincing in both types of piano repertory. Thus the lingering question: how well will Mr. Matsuev acquit himself in those two interpretively demanding Beethoven sonatas, for no one was too worried about his handling of the virtuoso part of the recital. The short answer is: he did very well, thank you.

From the very first moments of the lyrical, vocal opening of the Sonata in A flat Major and the later rippling passages, it was obvious that I was hearing a different pianist than I expected. He produced a warm, sensitive, rich and singing tone and surprising control of the form. It was a full‑bodied, romantic approach, yet it filled the movement full of tenderness and gentleness. The opening of second movement, Allegro molto, is a study in contrasts: a descending chordal melody is answered with almost violent outburst. And there Matsuev surprised me again, for unlike many, he didn’t overplay those contrasts, staying close to composer’s markings which indicate only piano(soft) and forte(loud). I don’t mind saying I was impressed. The tempo was also not exaggerated and thus the difficult passage‑work on the top of the keyboard was far easier to negotiate. After that came one of the most heart wrenching, affectionate moments in Beethoven’s piano writing (well, perhaps next to the hundreds of others), first the pensive, brooding recitative and then the famed aria, Adagio ma non troppo, with a later indication, rarely seen in composer’s scores: “Klagender Gesang/Arioso dolente”. It is an example of a mournful cantilena that probably would make Chopin proud. Matsuev created bell‑like sound like the bells, fashioning a gorgeous aria with the sighs‑effects, which became Beethoven’s landmark in his late string quartets. Another surprise awaited us at the midpoint of the last movement, in which the fugue suddenly stops as if to give another chance to Arioso. This time, before going back to the fugue, Arioso concludes with the series of G Major chords that grow from the very soft to...? Well, very often pianists misinterpret Beethoven’s markings making the last of the ten chords loud enough to cover the symphony orchestra. Matsuev, to his credit, restrained himself showing respect for the score which doesn’t even indicate the dynamic marking. There were also impressive gear‑changes in the last return of the fugue, where the composer awkwardly introduces the theme in diminution and it takes a good strategist to make it sound convincing.

Even if the reader might find such a description tedious and detailed, sometimes it is the presence of such details that makes or breaks the interpretation: in the case of Matsuev it was a pretty damn good one! However, right there, the first major mistake, alas repeated several times during the recital, namely his inability to let the applause to die out before lurching into the octaves opening the next sonata, No.32. He played those octaves with two hands which would be a big “no‑no” for the old purists such as Rudolf Serkin or Claudio Arrau. Obviously Matsuev shares the belief of Duke Ellington who famously commented “when it sounds good, it is good”. Turns out that Sonata No.32 was no less impressive. The first movement was taken at a fast clip, but the pianist was perfectly able to retain the clarity of texture. Especially impressive was the contrapuntal beginning of the development section with the crystal clear trills, not a small accomplishment. Throughout the playing was energetic, confident, and turbulent just like the music. And there were many other places in that sonata where “it sounded good”, some even gorgeously, especially the whole last part of the Arietta with variations, which is the sonata’s second movement. Here our pianist-turned-into-real-musician skillfully manipulated with the pulse of each of the first variations and then didn’t hesitate to adopt a slightly slower pace for the other segments of great intimacy and emotion. I was indeed impressed with the last few pages with the notorious trills, which sounded both even and had a ring to it, but even more so with the subtlety which Matsuev has shown in the dying moments which foreshadow the closing page of the Diabelli Variations.

After intermission we heard a more familiar side of the Russian virtuoso. Some rushed and some beautiful moments in the Kinderszenen, which are deceptively easy: I sometimes wonder why even major pianists don’t convince me in those miniatures which may sound mannered. And then of course “the old Matsuev”, the thundering virtuoso and representative of the grand Russian tradition, one characterized by masterful command of the keyboard combined with showiness and rich, golden sound. He was both thundering and skittish, eloquent and stentorian, muscular and delicate. He made a case for the work that quite often serves only as a vehicle to demonstrate one’s virtuosity. He literally brought the house down with the thunder he created in the coda. The audience loves this kind of playing!

Then came the expected encore segment and here again, as often in the past, the encores were a mixed bag. Firstly, it would be great if the artists performing on the Ronald O. Perelman Stage (used to be known simply as Carnegie Hall) – and that includes our Russian pianist – restrained themselves from commencing their encores before everyone is again seated after offering the artists the customary standing ovation. Alas, with the patrons often leaving the hall before the end of the concerts, showing a total disregard for the musicians on stage, almost invariably the beginning of any encore is masked by the din of loud talking, noisy high heels and slamming of the exit doors. So here Mr. Matsuev again didn’t help by lurching into his first, and most lovely of the four, encore which was Rachmaninov’s Vocalise op.34 No.14 arranged by Alan Richardson. Here once more we had a display of great artistry: a simplicity of vocal line and beautiful legato, sumptuous and a rich sound with the judiciously balanced accompanying strains that never interfered or disturbed that wordless tune. After that came Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor op.64 No.2, a bit frivolous, a bit reckless, quite fast and yet possessing some vestiges of elegance. That was followed by the two last encores tied together, both based on Grieg. Matsuev started by jazzy improvisation, as he nowadays likes to do, which then veered into recognizable strains of “Solveig’s Song” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt and segued into what became the last encore, his favorite “In the Hall of the Mountain King" (arr. Ginzburg) from Peer Gynt. Grigory Ginzburg, who lived in Soviet Russia, luckily could never be considered a “Soviet” pianist: his tradition was the old fashioned Russian school and as such he was endowed not only with the jaw‑dropping virtuosity but also with a rare elegance, not typical among the Soviet musicians. Though I never heard him play his own transcription I strongly believe that he’d never play it as bombastically or would’ve descended into such a level of vulgarity as Mr. Matsuev demonstrates each time he plays that favorite encore of his.

My concluding thoughts? First, I wish that I had left the hall a few minutes earlier, with the rest of the disrespectful crowd. Secondly, my sobering recognition of the fact that just like with Maria, that adorable heroine of The Sound of Music, with Matsuev we will always have to take the good and the bad, the sublime and the profane, and accept that one moment he will caress the keys only to pummel the keyboard mercilessly a moment later. So I will perhaps wait for those memorable moments of his “good behaviour”. His next performance at Carnegie, this time of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, with Maestro Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, is scheduled for February 26. This should be great!

Roman Markowicz



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