"At 33, pianist ready to Rachmaninoff"

January 2 2012

Andrew Patner, "Chicago Sun-Times"

July 15, 2008

Will one Ravinia triumph follow another?

It wasn't just worth driving through a thunderstorm to hear Russian pianist Denis Matsuev play at Ravinia last week. It was worth driving back home in a second one.

For his Chicago area debut, the Siberian-born artist, 33, was taking on the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, the so-called Rach 3, a regular calling card for virtuosi. It's also the daunting showpiece at the center of the 1996 film “Shine” in which a young student appears to go mad trying to conquer the work.

The 1909 concerto is fiendishly difficult but also lushly beautiful. Piano titans Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Van Cliburn and Evgeny Kissin have made it central to their repertoire.

Expectations are high for Matsuev. The Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation — founded in 1999 by the composer's grandson, Alexander — selected Matsuev to make the world premiere recordings last year of two recently rediscovered pieces from 1891; Matsuev will give their first U.S. performances in an all-Rachmaninoff solo recital Thursday at Ravinia's Martin Theatre.

Geoffrey Norris, music critic for the London Telegraph and one of the great Rachmaninoff authorities, has found the imposing, 6-foot, 4-inch performer “rather larger than life,” with “the mantle of Horowitz fall[ing] easily on to his shoulders.” But, as Norris and New York critic Steve Smith also have observed, while Matsuev does bravura with the best of them, he moves from the showiest to the most gentle passage with impossible-seeming ease. Unlike Kissin and other predecessors, he gives off an air of real naturalness.

His keyboard fireworks managed to keep hundreds on the otherwise rain-soaked lawn surrounding a packed pavilion Thursday. After four ovations, he offered an encore of another Rachmaninoff favorite, the G Minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5. As a 10-year-old, Matsuev heard Horowitz play the piece as an encore at Horowitz's historic “Return to Moscow” recital in 1986. He has told interviewers that he remains “haunted” by that performance; his own interpretation, at once forceful and haunting, bears this claim out.

Thursday, he will play the recently rediscovered 1891 works, a fugue in D minor and a piano version of the Suite for Orchestra, as well as the Second Sonata, the Corelli Variations and two Etudes Tableaux. Wherever Matsuev's career is going, the recital promises to be a performance to remember whatever the weather has in store.

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