Denis Matsuev: “A Russian pianist’s quest to make classical music relevant”

January 2 2012

Paris: For concertgoers fr om Beijing to Tokyo, Salzburg or his native Russia, Denis Matsuev, the towering 31-year-old pianist from the Siberian city of Irkutsk, is a phenomenally gifted performer who regularly sweeps audiences to and off their feet.

For the Times of London, “perhaps he is the new Horowitz.” After a Matsuev recital at the Kennedy Center last November, Tim Page wrote in The Washington Post that “Matsuev seems to be the very real thing - an absolute powerhouse of a pianist, capable of vanquishing the most technically demanding music in the repertory,” adding, “I hope the piano is feeling better again soon.” Writing last month, The Cincinnati Post recommended buying a ticket “on the left hand side” of the symphony hall in order to be able to watch firsthand the “power and panache” of Matsuev.

With such plaudits ringing in his ears, why was the Russian musician pondering late into a recent night “the horror and tragedy of our profession?”

The answer, he suggested, lies both in the contemporary view and structure of classical music, and in the nature and timing of his and other young careers in the often opaque Russia of today.

While he is confident that the Russian tradition of rigorous music training is alive and well, he is less sure that the world prizes classical musicians. Gifted with elastic hands and a great memory, and aware that “crossover” is among the hottest words in the music business, he embraces jazz. A good friend, he often invites less well-known talents to share his stage. It is a quest for relevance and recognition that idols like Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter did not face.

Matsuev himself has lived a life seemingly so charmed that Eric Dahan, writing in the French daily Liberation on Jan. 25, compared it to a fairy tale. Born in June 1975, the only child of two pianists, Matsuev displayed his talent at age 3, turning to the instrument at home to pick out perfectly a tune he had just heard on television.

At age 9, he gave his first recital; eventually, his parents moved to Moscow (“a tiny, one-room apartment, with an upright piano, brand: Tyumen” recalls today's artist, under contract to Yamaha) so their son could study at the Tchaikovsky conservatory. In 1993, he won his first international competition, in Johannesburg; in 1997, the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow itself.

Since then, critics worldwide have classed him with Yevgeny Kissin and Arkady Volodos as the latest example of the abiding and astounding strength of Russian pianism, and indeed even compared him to Horowitz. (A generally well received CD in 2004, his first with a major recording label, BMG, was called simply, “Homage to Horowitz.”) A debut solo recital at Carnegie Hall awaits in October.

At home, Matsuev has played often for President Vladimir Putin, and sits on Putin's Kremlin commission for culture (“we've only had one meeting, but we will do more,” said Matsuev). While his wealth by no means rivals that of Russia's business oligarchs, he lives very comfortably, currently overseeing the renovation of a 300 square-meter, or 3,200 square-foot, apartment near the Kremlin.

In between recordings, foreign tours and frequent performances in Russia, he finds time — and, most relevant in modern Moscow, money — to organize two festivals: “Crescendo,” which began in the Russian capital and has its fourth iteration in Paris this year, and “Stars of Baikal,” back in his beloved native Irkutsk. (Matsuev said he misses Lake Baikal, and says his favorite pastime is returning there, catching and grilling fish on the shore.)

Other young classical musicians know this kind of pace, though few if any are as familiar with juggling the stark demands, and the sudden joys, of Russia. In Matsuev, it seems all part of a struggle to make a talent for classical music count in the 21st century.

“An exact recipe doesn't exist,” he said. “You should tell that to the pianists, the 14– or 15–year–old wunderkinds — this is the whole tragedy, if we talk not about the talent, but about the conditions” in which it can be realized.

Growing up, he explained, he and many others believed that “talent will always shine through, and triumph. But this is not always the case.”

In Russia, this is due at least in part to changes brought by the end of Communism. Even five years before he won his first international competition in South Africa, Matsuev noted, it would have been impossible for any Soviet musician to travel abroad and enter such a competition without specific state sanction.

In the topsy-turvy 1990s, when many Russians ended up losing all their savings, Matsuev's parents took a risk, moving to Moscow without jobs. But their son got a stipend for music studies — a princely $1,000 a month from a Russian foundation, New Names — and that soon conjured its own absurdities.

Matsuev remembers, for instance, having enough money to slip the odd $10 to doormen at the Praga restaurant, then one of Moscow's most prestigious, and thus, while still an unknown teenager, being ushered in to a table ahead of longtime stars of screen and stage.

The change in values in Russia, wh ere culture has always been so revered that the very word seems to carry a capital C, only reflects larger shifts outside.

In classical music, Matsuev said, international competitions and even festivals have been devalued or become rote and predictable, and the Sol Yuroks of bygone days have not been replaced.

“Unfortunately, contemporary managers are needed only to buy one's air ticket and to book the hotel room,” he said. They are not ready to take on new names.

“The circles of classical music have really moved,” he added, “and this is the real pity. Even if you have money, and connections, and a big name - it's not a guarantee.”

No one factor is really to blame, he added. “There's a long line of things to name when you ask, 'Who killed classical music?' ” he said, citing the book by Norman Lebrecht.

While this may sound jaded, Matsuev exudes energy, enthusiasm and good humor. At 1.92 meters tall, or 6 feet 4 inches tall, he strides on stage briskly, with giant steps. In the past 12 months, he has given some 120 performances. He enjoys a night out, and has the Slav love of word play — a favorite pastime is treating friends to jokes recorded on his cellphone.

His thirst to conquer new works is unquenched: he is determined to keep bringing the renowned St. Petersburg conductor Yuri Temirkhanov out to the Baikal festival in Irkutsk; he has concert schedules and plans mapped out two and three years ahead.

But there is a constant tussle between creativity and the commercial pull, the socializing with benefactors, and the new (for Russia) phenomenon of gossip media. “There are talents, but they don't really write,” he said. “There's more coverage for a concert if I come on a motorbike with a blonde than for my playing.”

In almost every Russian lurks an emotional patriot, and Matsuev is no exception. “The Russian audience is the most difficult in the world,” he said. “The love of the Russian audience you have to win with your blood, and your teeth.”

Currently, he observed, classical music can be something of a fad with the new rich of Moscow. The most expensive tickets — roughly $300 each — are the first to sell out when he performs. “Everyone's tired of pop stars,” he said, noting that orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic command their top fees for performances in Moscow.

But whether that gives today's young musicians the kind of inspiration Matsuev drew from, say, attending Horowitz's legendary return concert in Moscow in 1986 is far from clear.

As encores, Matsuev often offers Rachmaninov's Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 32 and Scriabin's Etude in E flat minor, Op. 8 — two ur-Russian pieces Horowitz performed then, to tumultuous effect. “Those pieces stayed in my head,” he said, pointing to his brain, “and some kind of true shift took place there. The memory of this concert still haunts me.”

Although Matsuev staunchly insists that there are great young talents coming behind him in Russia, and himself showcases other young musicians, the fanatical attention to music and detail that could be observed, say, in the 1986 audience for Horowitz, or in the fierce debates surrounding the Tchaikovsky competition of old have faded, even in Moscow.

“There was always a golden selection” for the top music schools in Russia, Matsuev noted. If that process gets neglected, the well of talent can dry up, he suggested, comparing it to his other passion — soccer — and Russia's relative weakness on the football field because kids stopped kicking balls around courtyards.

When nurturing talent, perhaps even plaudits are perilous.

Fans frequently gush, “You played like a genius,” Matsuev noted. His father and mother, meanwhile, can tear a performance to shreds. “My whole success is due to them,” he added. “It's our team. Without people around you like that, you are nothing.”

April 3, 2007 

Alison Smale, "Herald Tribune"

Tags: press review

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