Mariinsky Orchestra Invades Toronto In A Night To Remember
November 13 2017
As a tremendous bonus, Denis Matsuev, the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition winner (1998), was along for the ride and torched the hall with an absolutely stunning Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2 in G Minor, but more on that later. Gergiev’s conducting and Matsuev’s playing comprised the main story Friday night.
But it was Matsuev who, for a time, stole the show right out from under Gergiev. The brutal Prokofiev second piano concerto is unforgiving, some say to both performer and audience. Let’s dispense with this nonsense. I love this concerto for its musical language, much of which summarizes some of the golden moments to be found in the composer’s intimate and virtuoso chamber music writing, as well as his larger concert works such as the concertos. All are among my favourite musical works of the entire twentieth century. I have grown tired of the put-downs, both upon the composer and this concerto.
Matsuev redeems this piece entirely with virtuoso passagework of explosive incandescence and contrarian moments of harmonic complexity and délicatesse. He remained continually in perfect counterpoint with every orchestral colour throughout. His bravura focus was admirable and he missed nothing. If you sat close enough to see his arms, he gave the impression he had grown a third hand just for this performance.
Most impressive of all may have been his restoration of the killer five-minute cadenza at the end of the first movement which he subdued with an authority I have never seen before in this work. I find that few can play this summit of the piano concerto repertoire, and fewer still with tonal command, moreover on a Steinway whose upper octave needed a retune (and that’s no one’s fault — it was just the nature of that particular piano in that space and at that time).
The famous ‘colossale’ and ‘tumultuoso’ sections seemed to lift Matsuev and the piano off the stage. But it wasn’t all flash and flare, bombast and blare. The Second Piano Concerto is a work of compositional sophistication, replete with bitonal chords, forward-looking harmonies, intimations of a futuristic sonic landscape and at the same time, a study in violent contrasts up and down the dynamic and emotional range.
In a way, the performance of Prokofiev 2 was the perfect calling card for Gergiev, Matsuev and company because it allowed them all to play as a composite, blended unit. At times, the piano could sound like it was only another instrument in the orchestra, a direct nod to how Prokofiev himself heard many such harmonically blended passages in his own concertos. Here was an appropriate tribute to the musicianship of all on stage, and to how well Matsuev and Gergiev could make such music mindfully and meaningfully for their audience.
And their reaction was instantaneous and overpowering in itself, and elicited the tour encore of Anatoly Liadov’s filamented solo Music Box, a silvery gem of ornamental beauty, but it was what happened after that surprised us all most. After the applause, Matsuev next nodded to a few of us, acknowledging what we all wanted — a second encore. He produced the ripping Precipitato finale from the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7, a moto perpetuo nightmare and one of the most technically demanding movements in all the piano repertoire. I guess the concerto hadn’t tired him out enough. Energized, he produced a dramatic display of all the movement’s hidden, toccata-like colours. It was outstanding. Matsuev had virtually stolen the show.