"Keeping a Star Shining Bright"

January 2 2012

Ken Iisaka, "San Francisco Classical Voice"May, 15, 2011It’s difficult to be an international competition winner. Not only is it phenomenally hard to win the competition itself, it’s even harder to maintain the level of celebrity years after the competition. It seems that for every major competition winner, at least 10 competitors fade into obscurity, washed away from judges’ and audiences’ memories.Denis Matsuev, the first-prize winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998, is certainly one who still has the shine and maintains a loyal following, as seen from the enthusiastic audience at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday.Matsuev opened his recital with the dramatic, symphonic Schubert Sonata in A Minor, D. 784, Op. 174. The initially quiet, haunting exposition was layered with colors, evoking various orchestral instruments. His delicate use of the una corda pedal, combined with careful voicing, allowed the lyrical line to be liberated while being supported by the accompaniment in the bass.The clear, balanced delineation of the melody from the rich accompaniment was his signature throughout. The “horns” in the left hand in the middle of the second movement sounded quite convincing, while the quietness suggested by his relaxed disposition was richly indulgent.Matsuev then dove straight into the third movement with nary a breath. The twirling triplets in thirds were spun out into the air, then he went on showing off the range of power he possesses. The movement was full of contrasts and textures, held together with strong statements. The ending was an earthshaking affair, where the crescendo in the last page of the score just grew and grew, unleashing an explosive end. Perhaps it was not quite what Schubert had in mind, but nevertheless it was effective on a modern instrument.After making a quick visit to the back stage, Matsuev strode onto the stage, only to wait for some latecomers, and then began Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata. Here, he seemed to have lost some of the focus and the energy that he possessed earlier. The pervasive rhythmic figures, a quarter note tied to a 16th note, followed by another 16th note, were inconsistent and often lazy, resulting in a quarter note followed by an 8th note. While this style is not uncommon among pianists, it resulted in a loss of tension that holds the entire piece together. Regardless, he built powerful, dramatic climaxes with full application of the sustain pedal and surging crescendos.I found it rather troubling, though, that a lack of necessary emphases on offbeat notes, as well as the downbeats’ arriving late in the second movement, resulted in deflating the tension. Also with such powerful surges, strong but dry accents peppered throughout were left in the dark.To the HiltThe same reliance on the sustain pedal was, however, appropriate and particularly effective in the second half of the program, which comprised the first “Mephisto” Waltz by Liszt and Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata. The abundant use of the sustain pedal aided in extacting the maximum dynamic range from the piano, through exploitation of the last drop of resonance from the New York Steinway that was used in the recital.Matsuev played the “Mephisto” with ample bravura but with seeming ease. The aforementioned use of the sustain pedal was particularly suitable for deploying explosive moments in the piece. Yet the quiet passages, particularly the conversation with Gretchen, were exceedingly sensitive, delicate, and intimate. The contrast between emotional states made this particular performance riveting.Rachmaninov’s` Sonata No. 2 (1931) carried the limits even further. From the authoritative opening, Matsuev’s muscular power, firmly grounded on Mother Earth, filled the hall. The gloriously rich, sonorous notes and chords, blended through generous but deliberate application of the sustain pedal, were the key to a successful launch of this titanic work. The swells were grand, and the pushes-and-pulls were full of dramatic tensions. That rich drama is what makes this iconic piece succeed, and Matsuev provided plenty of drama. The torrential alternating chords, followed by big chords in the conclusion, sounded just right: delivered with no restraint whatsoever. The audience, many of whom were Russian, exploded into roaring applause, pleased with their compatriot on the stage, and with a compatriot composer.The ebullient listeners were rewarded by no fewer than five encores. Matsuev began with Music Box, by Liadov, which portrayed a delicate, tranquil scene in the treble register. The most memorable encores were the last two: Scriabin’s Étude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No.12, and a transcription of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, by Grieg. The étude evokes the late Vladimir Horowitz (comparisons of Matsuev to him have become something of a cliché). In the Grieg, the whisperlike pianissimo, followed by a perpetual crescendo, and the eventual thunderous fortississimo were delivered with a fistful of notes, literally and figuratively.Denis Matsuev’s star is still bright. Nevertheless, as he advances in his career, he must distinguish himself from younger successors. It appears that jazz may be such an avenue for him. I was told that he was the first pianist to perform a jazz concert at the Moscow Conservatory. I was secretly hoping that I’d hear some Nikolai Kapustin as an encore; I will be enthralled if he programs one of his sonatas on his next visit. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, say no more.

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