Matsuev: “Muscle and Mind”, Beyond the Torrents of Notes, True Sensitivity When It's Needed

January 2 2012

Denis Matsuev's Saturday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, part of the Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series, proved an exhilarating affair.

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. The second half of the program contained both Franz Liszt's “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1 and Igor Stravinsky's Three Movements From “Petrushka,” back to back; and if Matsuev had only added Maurice Ravel's “Gaspard de la Nuit” into the mix, he might have won the world record for cramming thousands upon thousands of hammered, torrential, hyperkinetic notes into a single afternoon.

But Matsuev is more than a muscular phenomenon. He is also a thoughtful, proportionate and highly sensitive musician, as he proved with Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's “The Seasons,” which began the afternoon. This lovely and mostly neglected cycle — 12 pieces, one for each month, turned out by the composer quickly, for publication in a magazine — here sounded like nothing so much as a long-meditated homage to Robert Schumann. “Au Coin du Feu” (January), for example, could have come right out of Schumann's nostalgic “Scenes From Childhood,” while “La Chasse” (September) has much the same sort of clangorous reiteration of the Symphonic Etudes.

Then again, the two most popular movements, “Barcarolle” (June) and “Troika” (November), are pure Tchaikovsky, moody, glorious epics-in-miniature that suggest much more than they have time to say. I admired the way Matsuev emphasized the essential inwardness of this music; he let it sing out sweetly, modestly, rather than attempt to puff it up into fevered, stentorian pronouncement, a la the Piano Concerto No. 1.

Saturday's “Mephisto Waltz” may have been the most convincing performance I've heard of this music since the legendary William Kapell recording from 1942. If Matsuev missed a few notes toward the end, he nevertheless missed them magnificently. One had the sense, for once, that Liszt had given us a work of real musical substance, rather than just another vehicle for a virtuoso to show off his chops; the composer is lucky to have such champions.

The Stravinsky is joyful, raucous noisemaking, a riot of bright ferocity. Do you remember how rock groups in the early 1970s used to write something along the lines of “this record should be played loud” on the back of their albums? Well, the Three Movements From “Petrushka” should be banged. And they were, gleefully, guiltlessly and magnificently. I hope the piano is feeling better again soon.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Tim Page, "Washington Post"

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