"Beyond perfection"

January 2 2012

Zoltán Végső, Élet És Irodalom

The coat of arms of Denis Matsuev’s native Irkutsk features what looks like a lynx, carrying a blood-soaked prey in its mouth. At first glance it symbolises the raw strength of the eternal winner and actually the lynx could be Matsuev himself. You don’t see a burlier, more athletic pianist on stage and our observation is not even overshadowed by his noticeably expanding waistline, compared to last April. Surpassing his mesmerising previous performances, he tried to do the impossible in his forth concert at the Palace of Arts, but it is unimaginable that he can top what he has achieved so far in his future career, which is just as long as his past.

Of course, the hardest thing of all is to stay on the top and if you want to see Matsuev at his worst, just go to youtube.com. There is one video of him playing the piano in a circus, surrounded by goats with ribbons (well, there is another video right next to his, featuring Evgeny Kissin enthusiastically reciting Happy Birthday for one of the imprisoned oil tycoons). This is just a testimony to the different views on the relation between high art and entertainment, but it is evident that Matsuev, representing the finest traditions of the Russian school of performers, regards entertainment as one of his top priorities. The promotion of the Liszt Year features the artist’s well-known hairstyle and other visual clichés, and it would have been easy to find an epigone in Hungary with a similar appearance to perform at the bicentenary concert, but we had better luck this time. The image, created of Liszt by one of the top performers of the world was anything but what we have seen before. He realised that his skills enabled him to escape from the canonised and exaggerated romantic overtones to show such nuances and shades of the piano concertos that had been hidden for some reason so far. We could say that Matsuev is the artist who succeeded in overcoming the 150 years of head start that Liszt had over us, providing a complete perspective of these works. In spite of this, there was a certain trepidation on our part, in light of last year’s concert, where he was somewhat restrained by the Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra at times and tried to up the tempo by gesturing from the piano. Our doubts were soon set at rest by the first sounds of accompaniment to the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major. The Danubia Symphony Orchestra’s performance was mature and excellent, without any hesitation or misunderstanding. The various sections of the orchestra all deserve a special praise, as well as conductor Domonkos Héja, who realised that next to Matsuev, forceful tunes will shine with even more attractive tones. His praise is also deserved, because he was in full control of the musical concept throughout and the orchestra did not surrender to Matsuev’s fame. This, however, required intelligence on Matsuev’s part: he knew exactly where he fitted in and he was willing to share the interpretation of the pieces. It is a rare sight, especially in a concert hall of this size, when an entire symphonic orchestra is trying to keep up with the pianist in volume, but it was obvious that their aim was to have a performance that was befitting to the grand occasion and show a new side of these pieces. In this clear and understandable interpretation we were not trying to spot the dividing lines between the attacca movements that followed each other without a break. We understood the relations, set by Liszt, and we came to the realisation yet again that these are unsurpassable masterpieces. The carefully elaborated Dies irae theme in Danse Macabre and the six variations behind the four movements are classic examples to every composer in terms of orchestration, composition and the creation of a unique genre, not to mention the freedom that Liszt provides to performers. Naturally, Matsuev made the most of this freedom and his cadenza between movements IV and V was a true testament to his feelings about Liszt’s legacy. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major of the second part features less solos compared to the other two. The piano is often used here as part of the orchestra, playing certain harmonies and melodies that drive the piece forward. The symphony-like character of this concerto underpinned the success of the collaboration between Danubia and Matsuev.

We were treated to four encores, including Matsuev’s outstanding hits, which were more like a cracking firework display to finish off the event. The short character piece by Anatoly Lyadov, A musical snuffbox was counterbalanced by the brutally heavy rendering of In the Hall of the Mountain King (or Dance of the Elves). The final jazz improvisation on the Caravan and other impressions, such as those of Zawinul seemed to be coming from the realm of a non-classical pianist. What’s more, we saw him practically dismantle his piano in an astounding fashion; a few more of such thundering performances and the Palace of Arts needs to be renovated ahead of time. What interests me the most, however, is how Matsuev views Liszt and other great composers. I am dying to know.

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