"Liszt and jazz"

January 2 2012


Dazzling – this might be the right word to describe Denis Matsuev’s achievement. Listening to the encores was almost intimidating: I had a feeling that the piano may get engulfed in flames at any moment, with Mephisto emerging from it, commanding the artist to stop: “Your contract is up; it’s time for you to come with me”!

The last time a period saw so many exquisite pianists competing for winning over the audience must have been in the 1830s, in the salons of the Pleyel and Érard piano factory in Paris. Kalkbrenner – of whom Chopin once noted “I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals” and who only had one mis-hit in Chopin’s presence – was downright thrilled about the event. Alexander Dreischock once disappeared from the company for two weeks and upon his return he played the left-hand arpeggios of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude all the way through in octaves. Sigismond Thalberg – who was partly Hungarian from his mother’s side and rumored to have the ability to play the piano as if he was using three hands – famously had a keyboard duel with the young Liszt in 1837. The result was a tie. As the main organiser of the event, princess Belgiojoso, diplomatically put it: “Thalberg is the greatest pianist, but there is only one Liszt”.

Who is “the only one” in our days, I do not know. However, I would, albeit with some hesitation, award the “greatest” title to the Irkutsk-born Russian who, at the age of 23, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998. For we also have, for instance, Arkady Volodos (another Russian, which makes us wonder whether Russian music education has a secret we don’t know about) or Cyprien Katsaris (with a somewhat more complicated heritage: the French-based artist was born to Cypriot parents in Cameroon). Both artists have astonishing technical skills. Even I was screaming with delight (and God knows, this has never been a habit of mine) listening to Volodos’ performance of Liszt’s Rhapsody No. 13 at one of his concerts at the Academy of Music. Katsaris dazzled me similarly by Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (as a matter of fact, he recorded all transcriptions on CD). Having said that, the former gave a really dull rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata Nr. 31 As-dur, Op. 110 in the first half of his concert (prompting a very nice colleague and former teacher of mine to leave, greatly disappointed, during the intermission), and the latter bored the audience with a likewise forgettable performance of a Shubert sonata. Without a doubt, Denis Matsuev knows more than them. Not only is he a breathtaking circus showman, who winds up his performance by the theatrical gesture of throwing both hands in the air (one of his less likeable habits to me), but he is also capable of grasping the deepest segments of music. He has an unerring instinct to find just the right sounds to underscore in the polyphonic variations of the Danse Macabre, while he plays the slower, dreamy parts with magnificent poetry and tones. He tends to present the triumphant parts with an overwhelming vigour, and understandably so. Liszt’s piano concertos are like that; quite uproarious sometimes. But isn’t this the very reason why we like Liszt? For the marvellous lyrical details and for the heroic and triumphant parts? In my humble opinion, those trying to suppress or restrain the latter are misguided. Artists of the 19th century were pervaded through and through by a fervent belief in a better future, progress and the ultimate victory of the “good”; the fact that this feeling is reduced to just a flicker in the more sceptical 21st century should be no reason for us to reject it outright. Indeed, we should draw strength from it.

During the encores (which started with Lyadov’s phenomenal musical snuffbox and continued with another four pieces in succession) we gradually crossed the boundaries of what we call “classical” music, and entered the realm of jazz improvisations. After some research on the internet I found that Matsuev was the first person to play jazz at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He is a first-rate artist even in this area. In my younger years I collected records by Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, the saxophone player John Coltrane, the unforgettably wonderful Ella Fitzgerald and some others; this kind of music was really hard to get in Hungary at the time. Admittedly, later I distanced myself a bit from this world, not the least because I got distressed by the cheap gibberish committed in the name of jazz. Matsuev, however, plays real jazz, worthy of the spirit of the great predecessors.

Accompanied by the Danubia Symphony Orchestra Óbuda, the concert featuring Liszt’s piano concertos (in the order of the E-flat major, the Danse Macabre and the A major) rewarded the audience with an unforgettable experience. I have not heard the Orchestra for a long while; possibly, not since they were renamed from “Youth” to “Óbuda”. Given the great hopes attached to the foundation of the Orchestra, I was worried that the initial enthusiasm would lapse into dullness in time. It appears, however, that my concern was unfounded. They are still good; very good, even. It was a pleasure to hear their perfectly timed entries and some brilliant solos (clarinet, cello!). And it is somewhat reassuring that their leader, Domonkos Héja, has recently taken up a prestigious post at the Opera House. I do hope that he will remain true to his high standards in preparing his productions there, and at the same time he will not abandon his former company either.
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