Denis Matsuev

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Examiner Review on the Concert in Philharmony of Paris


It wasn’t the first time they’d stood on stage together and it probably won’t be the last, but this past Sunday afternoon at the Philharmonie de Paris, Valery Gergiev, Denis Matsuev and the London Symphony Orchestra generated a little more magic than usual. It was the kind of performance where there was a crackle of electricity in the air because everyone knew they had just heard something special that wasn’t about to be replicated anytime soon.

Just on his own, Matsuev is a dynamic pianist, using his body to transmit the music’s message just as much as his hands on the keys. As his curly-haired head bobs up and down, sharply and in accordance with what the sheet music directs, it’s impossible not to get swept up in his interpretation.

At this performance, he was playing Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concert No. 2”, a lively and stirring piece in three movements. The first movement began with Matsuev’s fingers carefully poised over the keys, ready to launch a slow-burning attack. As his right hand delicately elicited the melody line, his left thundered down to hammer out chords, playing the “Moderato” as though possessed by Rachmaninoff himself.

The zest of the first movement gave way to the “Adagio sostenuto”, a movement that was languid not just as a break in between the first and the third but as one that almost needed to sit back and take a breather from the energy expended in the first. The motifs here drew on inspiration from other great composers, but Matsuev wasn’t able to channel them as well as he can with a purely Rachmaninoff sense of musicianship. There seemed to be a slight gentleness missing, a bit of that middle ground that makes it possible to spot the extremes of musical emotion.

But whatever was lacking in the second movement was more than made up for in the third, with Matsuev, Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra operating as one well-oiled machine. There was communication between all sections and musicians, with the percussion section signaling the end with electrifying bangs and smashes.

And not more than a split second after the final note sounded did the audience wait before breaking out into thunderous applause, collectively showing they all understood they had just witnessed something rare and great. It was one of the few instances where a performance came together on nearly all points: the soloist was at the top of his game both physically and psychologically, the conductor managed to coax out a spellbinding combination of intensity and relief, and the accompanying orchestra showed why it was one of the best in the world with its ability to support without overshadowing.

Matsuev, striding back onstage numerous times, played two more encores, giving the audience a longer taste of why he’s one of the most exciting young pianists out there. He plays with passion and vigor and doesn’t let a few wrong notes stop him from forging ahead – instead, he focuses on the bigger picture, which is to present a piece with the original spirit intact. And if he can perfect the technicality of the music, he’ll be an absolute fireball to watch.

With such an invigorating first half, the question of what the second half, which featured Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 1”, hung in the air. How would the orchestra managed to keep up with the standard it set with Matsuev, never mind think about surpassing it?

They needn’t have worried about the possible consequences there as the LSO performed superbly under Gergiev’s baton. “Symphony No. 1”, a piece as epically tragic as it is heartbreakingly beautiful, requires its musicians to understand the nuances of the emotional spectrum. It also needs its players to perform it with Rachmaninoff’s history in mind, one in which he suffered a grave public humiliation before regaining his confidence with the psychologist Nikolai Dahl.

By these two accounts, the LSO wonderfully captured the subtleties of the piece, with Gergiev adding exclamation marks where necessary. It was thrilling to watch him flutter his fingers as he asked the first violins to sing sweeter and soar higher, while waving his other hand around broadly to get a snarl from the trumpets.

It was a performance with blazing colour, a vividness that isn’t usually seen in orchestral performances. And for one afternoon at the Philharmonie de Paris – a concert hall stunning in its quirky modern aesthetic – the space was transformed into something Rachmaninoff himself would have surely been proud of.

Christina Strynatka

Examiner

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