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The Perfect Storm

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/30/2008 -  
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Three Pieces from Snow Maiden
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Excerpts from The Seasons, arranged for orchestra by Alexander Gauk
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Denis Matsuev (Piano), State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra) Mark Gorenstein (Artistic Director and Conductor)

The young Siberian piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev produced a perfect storm—or the perfect Niagara, or perfect cyclone, yesterday afternoon. But was it a perfect Rachmaninoff? Ah, that was the question one had to ask when he appeared with the bulkily-named State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia.

Matsuev, who has been on the way to conquering the world since winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1998, is fearfully large, with hands that are essential for the Third Concerto. For this is by far the most virtuosic of Rachmaninoff’s four concertos, and without the right physical equipment and the fearlessness of conquering such an Everest of concertos, the effort is useless.

Matsuev certainly has the right proportions. He has a huge percussive sound, he sprinted up and down the keyboard, his fingers a herd of wild stallions. For all the blazing notes, he is a serial arsonist. For the fiercest tempos, he is a Prometheus of strength. Oh, yes, he sometimes blurs those infinite note-runs, but just as frequently he can turn delicate passages with all the suitable delicacy.

He played an Olympic Rachmaninoff, true enough. But again, the question which goes to the heart of Rachmaninoff himself. That the composer was one of the greatest pianists ever is without question. But he was also an artist, with layers of feelings, sometimes melancholic, sometimes anxious, but most often—and most intriguingly—actually opalescent.

It was this ambiguity which Matsuev frequently ignored. Missing too often was the breathing space which gives the concerto such breadth. After the first movement cadenza, one needs that breath before launching into the allegro molto. The end of the movement is noted poco accelerando, which Matsuev certainly accomplished. But without the contrast of clarity, and grading, the velocity lacked spontaneity.

The second movement gave a bit of breathing space, before the pianist gave one entrance like aforesaid cyclone. And if the last movement was pure explosive energy… well, that was the way Rachmaninoff wanted it. One could make out the themes amongst the dazzling piano work but they seemed irrelevant interferences with the pianist’s athleticism.

He did play a most unexpected encore: a piano “transcription” of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, but played (or composed) with such disregard for the original that it became a piece of quite mad bravura.

For the record, Matsuev can play a brilliant Rachmaninoff, and his recording this month The Unknown Rachmaninoff is a jewel of pianism.

The orchestra played another set of transcriptions from their ex-conductor Alexander Gauk, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. While these were pedestrian, the opening three excerpts from the composer’s Snow Maiden, composed a few years before the Rimsky-Korsakov opera, based on the same Ostrovsky drama. While not great Tchaikovsky, it showed a very, very Russian orchestra. The strings played hard and darkly, the brass had a church-like solemnity, the work could only have come from a Slavic orchestra.

With such idiosyncrasies, it might have been risky to play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. But conductor Mark Gorenstein spent several years in Budapest with the MAV orchestra, so he knows his Hungarian music well. It was played beautifully, though the tempos were too relaxed. The wonderful “Game of Twos” should bring a smile to the audience, but it was played straight.

The finale is described Presto, and Gorenstein finally got his orchestra moving, finishing with a terrific fugue, and more than a dash of Magyar magic.




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