"Mariinsky Orchestra, pianist Matsuev display finesse and power at Hill Auditorium"

January 2 2012

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, AnnArbor.com

October, 10, 2010

Can 3 and 5 make a perfect 10? They nearly did on Sunday afternoon at Hill Auditorium, when the Mariinsky Orchestra, conductor Valery Gergiev and pianist Denis Matsuev appeared in concert with the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 followed by Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

That’s a heady combination: two titanic turn-of-the-century compositions from titans — very different titans — of their times. And those words — heady and titanic — do pretty well to describe the Sunday’s performances.

If Gergiev and the Mariinsky — formerly known as the Kirov Orchestra — are old friends hereabouts, the 35-year-old Matsuev, making his University Musical Society debut, was the newcomer to town. May he come again early and often.

Playing the opening theme of the Rachmaninoff, his tone was so hushed and beautiful, his phrasing so understatedly elegant, it took the breath away. That he could follow this with playing of immense power and windswept force was equally moving. And throughout, whether in finger-blurring, barnstorming passages or more lyrical moments, the architecture of his sound was pitch-perfect, revelatory of small details and big picture.

Throughout, the orchestra matched his playing exceptionally, both for volcanic push and poetry. There were places in the first movement, though, where the players’ enthusiasm tended to overwhelm the piano — no mean feat given the force field Matsuev had established there. But the balance issue was fleeting and perhaps dependent on where in the hall one sat.

I’m pretty sure, though, that no matter one’s seat, every note of Matsuev’s crystalline solo encore, Liadov’s “Music Box,” came through with diamond clarity. It was exquisite playing of a little gem, perfectly and delicately set.

The orchestra brought the same strong emotional energy and plush sound to the Mahler that it did to the Rachmaninoff under Gergiev’s direction. The brass playing was exceptional (celli, too, not to slight the other strings), and it was unusual, but not at all out of place, for Gergiev to call the principal horn and principal trumpet to the front of the orchestra for special bows.

If there was a disappointment, for me it was the Adagietto, where the sound seemed too bright and the aching tension and slow exhale of the lyrical theme were in short supply. Yet the performance as a whole was marked by a wonderful sort of operatic sweep and drama that only rarely came at the expense of precision or glossing over detail. Mahler’s grand plan and march from death to life was securely in Gergiev’s fluttering fingers.

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