"Grand Recital in Carnegie"

January 2 2012

Anthony Tommasini, "The New York Times"

February, 25, 2010

Most young classical musicians feel pressure to stand out. If handled right, though, this pressure can be a productive force in an emerging artist's life.

It is not enough to play an instrument — or sing or conduct — brilliantly. You have to search within yourself and define your artistic identity. Your performances should convey what you believe in, what excites you.

Then, on Sunday evening, the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, 34, played an all-Russian program at Carnegie Hall, capped by Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in a concert presented by Maestro Artist Management. Mr. Matsuev, who came to attention after winning the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, is an athletically virtuosic pianist. He has made his name with Russian Romantic works. From a certain perspective, this is an unadventurous choice. Still, here is an artist embracing his heritage, surely one way to be true to yourself.

Though Mr. Matsuev has played his share of diverse repertory, he has focused on Romantic and early-20th-century Russian works. By claiming this particular mantle Mr. Matsuev raises the stakes. The implication is that he brings special insight to that heritage. Over the years I have heard of lots of flashy, expressively indulgent performances of Russian repertory in the name of preserving the Russian Romantic style. Some of Mr. Matsuev's playing came across that way here.

Not at first. To begin, he played Tchaikovsky's suite of novelty pieces, “The Seasons,” one work for each month of the year. These miniatures are generally considered charming, if slight. Not so fast, Mr. Matsuev said through his engaging performance. Played complete, the suite lasts 40 minutes, and there are challenging and inventive elements in each piece.

Built like a weightlifter, curly-haired and boyish, Mr. Matsuev exudes charisma. His piano sound has depth and body, even in soft passages. He brought lyrical grace and rich detail to “The Seasons.” He then gave free-wheeling, big-toned and technically polished accounts of Rachmaninoff works: two Etudes-tableaux; a prelude; and a toccatalike Fugue in D minor, a student work.

The house was packed, and people everywhere were speaking Russian. The ovations were enormous, especially for Mr. Matsuev's virtuoso-circus-act encores, including an arrangement of Grieg's “In the Hall of the Mountain King” played with sledgehammer power. Pity the poor Steinway.

Yet you have to say that Mr. Matsuev has a clear artistic identity. And, as his Tchaikovsky showed, he is capable of refined music making.

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