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Sonorous Monuments: A Recital by Denis Matsuev

A substantial portion of the Russian musical community attended the spectacular piano recital by Denis Matsuev at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, Sunday, January 24, given under the auspices of The Cherry Orchard Foundation. Mr. Matsuev (b. 1975), winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, 1998, offered three works on his original program, of alternately salon and virtuosic character: Tchaikovsky’s 1876 suite “The Months” (also known as “The Seasons”); Schumann’s suite after E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kreisleriana, Op. 16; and Stravinsky’s arrangement (for Artur Rubinstein) of Three Scenes from the 1911 ballet Petrouchka. 

Of course, when the last, crashing chords from Stravinsky ceased, the ravenous audience demanded and received a handsome set of four encores, guaranteed to maintain the adoration long after Matsuev ducked away to avoid any confrontation with ‘politicos’ protesting the concert out front, with anti-Putin sentiments.

Of Matsuev’s many keyboard virtues, besides his huge palette and dynamic range, perhaps his multi-faceted emotional span marks him as a grand master. The Tchaikovsky piano suite – conceived as a monthly contribution to a music magazine – occupied the recital’s first half. The Tchaikovsky Seasons, with its homespun sentiments, its salon charm, emerged in modest gestures, with its deeper current subtly shaded under the surface as in June’s G Minor syncopations. The September Hunting Song bore aspects of the composer’s revered Schumann – whom we could hear in the February Carnival – who likewise supplied several tunes for “The Nutcracker.” Matsuev’s capacity for rich arpeggios held sway in May’s starlit “White Nights.” The last two entries, November’s “On the Troika” and December’s wistful “Christmas-Tide” waltz, captivated us with Matsuev’s suave, expressive grace.

The second half swept aside the demure side of Matsuev’s temperament, unleashing the tiger. Schumann’s 1838 Kreisleriana, a suite of eight fantasias, opened with a frenetic toccata, characteristic of Hoffmann’s mad Kapellmeister whose own psyche – like Schumann’s – had split into Cyprian, Ottmar, and Theodore, to find parallels in Schumann’s aggressive Florestan, poetic Eusebius, and worldly Raro.

The keys of G Minor and B-flat Major soon alternate between meditative lyricism and scathing satire. The sudden propulsion from one mood to another – siciliano and scherzo – gave Matsuev’s ebb and flow an uncanny, nervous energy, the titan in competition with the bard. In the slower, langsam episodes, the tonalities would merge to create a tonal and affective ambiguity, an uneasy “peace” in hypertension. Matsuev often urged his colors with potent fortes, and just as deftly applied subito, spun a magical phrase pianissimo. By the final tarantella section, Schnell und spielend, we felt that sense of the Schumann epilogue, a commentary of the passing reveries and fairy-tale marches (Märchen) that had enthralled our collective vision.

The formal recital concluded with an absolutely kaleidoscopic, percussively charged version of Stravinsky’s 1921 piano suite from the puppet ballet Petrouchka. Even our prior familiarity with the score could not anticipate the sheer momentum of Masuev’s foray into the Russian Dance, with its color panoply for Shrovetide Fair pageant. Attacca, without pause, Matsuev cast us into the Moor’s Room. In which Petrouchka’s ardor for the Ballerina suffers metric turbulence and dissonant jeers from the Moor. Just as suddenly, the vivacious undercurrents of La Semaine Grasse rose from Matsuev’s bass, soon accompanied by blistering glissandos and potent block chords. Rocking, thumping, dancing, whirling, the competing motions of the scene collided and then sang the love of the puppet in marvelous folk song. The Moor swept down upon Petrouchka with a scimitar, but his soul lives on, thumbing his nose in a scalar pattern that defies even Wagner for an evocation of a love-death.

From the massive to the delicate music box, literally, Matsuev graced us with the first of his four encores: the Liadov Musical Snuff Box, Op. 32. Soon, another moment of reflective serenity came by way of Sibelius. Perhaps lulled by Matsuev’s shift to lyrical meditation, we abruptly found ourselves in the throes of Scriabin’s impassioned Etude in D-sharp Minor, a Horowitz specialty. And to polish off a most variegated series of keyboard colors, Matsuev granted us his patented jazz medley, ranging from blues to boogie-woogie that rivaled anything we know from Oscar Petersen, Errol Garner, and Keith Jarrett. For sheer mass and range of expression, Matsuev remains a force in music that defies easy reckoning.

Dr. Gary Lemco

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