A live performance is a therapy both for the audience and for the artist.

April 17 2020
Where Cherries Ripen
A live performance is a therapy both for the audience and for the artist.

What set of qualities beholds the expression "larger than life" evades straightforward conception. Like "love" and "beauty", "larger than life" appears a phenomenon that inexplicably yet most definitely presents itself upon the right and only the right occasions. Still if one can attribute to the phrase a personality that can instantly sweep a place, a force that attracts both admiration and excitement, to this, one must count Denis Matsuev.

While no two individuals are exactly alike, I know there is definitely no one like Matsuev. From the moment I arrived at the rehearsal of Prokofiev's tragic 2nd piano concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, I was immediately struck by a powerful presence. The elements were at play; where strong wind accompanies gushes of sound, Matsuev was the wind itself, his piano, that what gives this part of nature its wuthering allure.

Startling the final chord, the pianist pridefully shook hands with the conductor, before darting off. Following his roaring voice as a guide throughout the maze-like corridors backstage, it was both strange and impressive that I was now directly facing the confidence that so characterised Matsuev on stage minutes ago. Conversing with him, my probing questions concerning the Russian soul, Matsuev's childhood, jazz, and football, all merged together in a fairy-tale-like flow, abundant with laughter, too. With our exchange deepening, the audible construction noise outside the venue felt increasingly distant and surreal, as if the real world outside was becoming the fairy-tale, and Matsuev's childhood portrayed in his stories, the real.


Young-Jin Hur (YH): Thank you for making time; it's a pleasure to meet you. You come to London relatively often. What is London to you?

Denis Matsuev (DM): London is a city of special feelings for me. I was in London the first time 20 years ago through a personal invitation from Andrew Lloyd Webber, the famous composer. Specifically, Andrew Lloyd Webber had invited me to the Sydmonton Festival, held at his private mansion. This is a festival that holds special theatre, musical, and opera productions. The invitation came through to me immediately after the jury announced me as the winner of the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition... a touching fax message arrived from him at around 3am. When I was invited, I was the first classical music pianist to play a recital there. I not only played a classical programme, but I also performed my own improvisations. I was invited back the next season, too.

After the Tchaikovsky competition, I came to London regularly to play with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and with various Russian orchestras. I played at the BBC Proms but also had my own recitals. I have a lot of friends here. London is an absolutely cultural and musical city, but it is also a very busy city.

YH: How is it like to perform in London?

DM: London concerts have a unique atmosphere. I'd say that London audiences have an understanding of silence. This is silence that emerges not because of politeness. Rather, this silence is part of a deep understanding of music; through silence, the audiences co-create music with the musicians on stage. It's a wonderful tradition, and I feel very comfortable here.

[Note. Click here for my take on the role of silence in music.]

YH: Tonight, you will be playing Prokofiev's 2nd concerto here at the Royal Festival Hall.

DM: Yes. This is a special concerto for me. I look forward to playing it with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I learned this concerto 4 years ago. It was Gergiev who made me learn it. He said, "you must go and learn this concerto. This concerto is written for you!"

(both laugh)

DM: It was a dream of mine to play this concerto. I had waited a long time to be ready to learn this genius piece of music. Although I've performed this work in Birmingham before, tonight is my London debut of this concerto.

YH: How does it feel to debut a piece for a city? It must be a special feeling.

DM: Yes, I feel very special, especially because the music is also incredible. Prokofiev wrote this concerto five years before the revolution. He dedicated this piece to his friend Maximilian Schmidthof, who had committed suicide not long before the composition. The suicide was a big blow to Prokofiev given how close their friendship was. The resulting concerto is a truly tragic piece of music. I call this concerto one of the "power" concertos. I lost 2.5kg to 3kg playing this piece.

(both laugh)

DM: The culmination in the first movement is really something. You lose 2kg during just the cadenza. There is a sense of disaster in its intensity. But this is also why I love this piece so much. I feel I am in close contact with the music.


YH: Talking about Russian art reminds me of the Russian soul. I am curious what this means to you. Do you have this so-called Russian soul?

DM: (grinning, then laughing) It's difficult to explain.

(both laugh)

DM: For both composers and soloists, I think true talent or genius transcends nationality. Of course, we have what we call a Russian tradition of musicians and we also have a remarkable music education system. But if I were to characterise the Russian soul (DM pauses)... the Russian soul is something that comes from the inside, is something that opens you up, is something very powerful, very touching, and very true. At the same time, there is something very sensitive.

YH: And there is sadness, too.

DM: Exactly. But having this soulful quality to open up hearts and souls is not unique to Russians. Verdi is also a very soulful composer. The same can be said about Bruckner, Mahler, and Beethoven.

A lot of people around the world think that if Russian musicians tour, they have to play Russian music (DM laughs). Whenever I discuss my programme with some non-Russian organisers, I am always asked to play Rachmaninov. Of course, I love Rachmaninov and I have a very special relationship with this composer. But I can play any music.

(both laugh)

YH: You mentioned something I was planning to bring up anyway (YH laughs). You give incredible performances of not only Russian music but also of works by Brahms, Beethoven, Lutosławski, and... (together with DM) Schumann, too. Do you feel frustrated that people can easily think of you as someone who exclusively plays Russian music?

(both laugh)

DM: I love good music. I never see the nationalities of composers (DM laughs). For instance, performing Szymanowski's Symphonie Concertante with Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra was an unforgettable experience. This is a fantastic, fantastic piece of music... a symphony with solo piano dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein. My repertoire consists of 47 piano concertos and 23 recital programmes. Every year, I schedule to learn one or two piano concertos and one recital programme (DM laughs).

YH: What will be the next pieces you will learn?

DM: Brahms' 2nd piano concerto, Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata, and two of Scriabin's sonatas.

YH: I have no doubt audiences would love to see you play these pieces.


YH: It must be said you're an incredibly versatile musician. You have a long history with jazz music. How did your relationship with jazz begin?

DM: I first heard jazz when I was very young. My father was my first piano teacher - and while he was a fantastic classical music pianist, he was also a jazz pianist and composer. I heard a lot of famous jazz recordings during my childhood. There was Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and so on.

YH: (pointing towards one of the walls in the dressing room) We've got an Oscar Peterson poster in this room, actually (YH laughs).

DM: Exactly. By hearing jazz every day, I fell in love with the music. After hearing a jazz piece, I could also repeat and improvise various passages immediately on the piano. For example, I was able to improvise in the Oscar Peterson style upon hearing his recording, imitating his style of rhythm and syncopation.

But jazz represents just one aspect of my early music exposure. Every Saturday or Sunday, our family would gather together to have huge parties in our apartment. Everyone in the family - which included my grandparents who were hugely enthusiastic about music - played some kind of instrument. My grandfather, a watchmaker by profession, played the violin fantastically. But there were also the accordion, guitar, and the violin.

Even before my interest in jazz, music endlessly flowed out of our apartment - jazz, pop, Soviet cinema music, operetta, and so on, although we didn't played operas. And whatever was played, I could repeat it on the piano by memory. I can thus say that all these genres played a big influence on my musical development.

I think a classical music performer should be open to all styles of music instead of just concentrating on classical music. Even as I trained, I never practised six to seven hours playing only Bach or Beethoven (DM laughs). I was open for everything and for everyone. This has done me some favours in other ways, too. For example, in my high school, I was the most popular guy in class because I could repeat any popular song on the piano. I used to play Modern Talking, for example. Do you remember? (YH looks somewhat confused) Oh no, I think you're too young.

(both laugh)

DM: This was a music duo from Germany extremely popular in the Soviet Union at the time. Because I could play all their music on the piano, I was close to all the prettiest girls in my class.

(both laugh)

YH: This conversation is not going in the way I prepared my questions! I prepared my questions expecting you to talk about how you trained yourself in jazz. But given that you essentially played everything using only your musical memory, it seems you actually didn't need any training at all.

(both laugh)

YH: So after you were exposed to these various genres of music from childhood, when did you seriously start playing the piano for classical music?

DM: My father and mother were both professional pianists and piano teachers. From a young age, I was exposed to many Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies. Probably my first experience of the piano that led me to take classical music seriously happened when I was three years old. I don't remember this, but I am told that one afternoon, this weather forecast music started playing from our television. Apparently, I played this melody on the piano just after hearing it from the television. My parents looked at me and said, "okay." (DM rubs his hands together with a grin).

(both laugh)

YH: "We have something here"

(both laugh again)

YH: Was this the time your parents pushed you to music school?

DM: They never pushed me. Likewise, I never pushed myself too hard. I never practised the piano for more than two hours per day. It's about how you practise, not how long you practise. My father knew my abilities and he was happy with this schedule. My memory is very good - I just need two or three days to learn a piece. I never practised technique, because it's all about the music.

[Note. The rapid speed in which DM learns a piece is comparable to the learning speed of Maxim Vengerov, who told me that he takes four to five days to learn a concerto. Substantial learning speed was also discussed in my interviews with Nikolai Lugansky and Sumi Jo (the latter, unpublished of yet).

It remains a regret that I didn't further follow up on DM's view that technique is not important. Notwithstanding my limited understanding of the details of this quote, DM's view is something that Maxim Vengerov would seemingly disagree with - for Maxim Vengerov, musical development stems from good technique.]

YH: Did you at some point feel a certain distance from your friends? Judging from your prodigious musical talent, it appears you were so different from the norm.

DM: Despite my abilities, I was an absolutely normal child. While I was a wunderkind in music, I also loved football, ice hockey... I loved life. I was an incredibly open-minded person, and I wanted to live a normal childhood.

YH: And did you always enjoy performing in front of others?

DM: I loved to perform as a child, and I still do. I found no difference between playing in my apartment and playing for a school exam. I always played as if I performed in front of an audience. The jury, the teachers, and my friends were my audiences.

This is why nowadays, I schedule so many concerts per year. For me, the stage is one of the most magical places in the world. I give my energy to the hall, but I also receive a lot of energy back from the hall. I call this "stage therapy." A live performance is a therapy both for the audience and for the artist. This is why whenever I have a fever, I never cancel performances. On the contrary, I try to proceed to the concerts as much as possible. After these concerts, I feel absolutely incredible. The stage is one of the most magical places in the world, and I am sure I am not the only person who thinks this way.


YH: Coming back to the idea of jazz and classical music, both genres are quite different, musically and emotionally. How much do you try to keep the two genres separate?

DM: The most important things in jazz and classical music are shared across both genres. For instance, both have opportunities for improvisation. A classical music performance is based on improvising on the same notes. Likewise, I don't think jazz is just a style of music. Jazz is a special feeling of collaborative music-making. In other words, in both genres, people improvise on stage, yet they all move and think together as a group.

In classical music, each performance is something entirely fresh. We never rehearse and discuss tempos about every single section; music doesn't work like that. Therefore, there are interpretations that happen on stage during a performance. This is an incredible thing if you think about it. During a performance, a conductor's job is to foresee a soloists's intentions a few bars in advance; similarly, a soloist must try to predict the conductor's moves. Classical music conductors might as well be jazz musicians, be it Temirkanov, Gergiev, or Zubin Mehta. There is so much spontaneity, both in classical music and in jazz.

[Note. Spontaneity seems crucial in classical music in other ways. When conductor Thomas Søndergård and I conversed on the nature of conducting, he emphasised the importance of a conductor preserving an orchestra's unique personality whilst still bringing his/her own personal interpretations. All this seems to happen in a split second, either during rehearsals or on stage.

Naturally, being a classical music performer does not mean one ought to only listen to classical music. Previously, Sunwook Kim talked about his love of jazz, and Shiyeon Sung, about her love of heavy metal.

DM's passion for improvisation is not reciprocated in Maxim Vengerov's career. As Maxim Vengerov says, the only regret of his career is his lack of training in improvisation.]

YH: On the one hands, we have a lot of jazz musicians with classical music backgrounds or jazz musicians who also play classical music. I think of Dave Brubeck.

DM: Gulda and Keith Jarrett also jumped between both genres. And Oscar Peterson was professionally trained as a classical musician.

YH: And Chick Corea was also classically-trained.

DM: Chick Corea, of course.

YH: But on the other hand, it is relatively rare to see classical musicians playing jazz. Why do you think this is the case?

DM: I think we should think that it is possible to move between these genres. In terms of difficulty, classical music and jazz are equal. Both jazz and classical music require serious dedication and concentration. I've said before that both genres have so many similarities.

[Note. In a sense, are not all things based on some form of spontaneity? For one to process the straightforward logical expression of '1+1 = 2', for example, one should understand '1', '+', '=', '2', and the correct relations between these components. What does it mean to understand? To understand is to have a feel for something that is based on an 'aha' moment, no matter how small or conscious that realisation may be. There is something instinctive, immediate, and irrational about this process, in the sense that one either has a feel for something or one doesn't. Logic seems to come afterwards as a means to explain these realisations. Likewise, what does it mean to plan? One plans if one gets a feeling that something has a good logical explanation or rational narrative - this feeling of being reasonable dawns upon one prior to the explicit plans, and rather instinctively.

As much as life cannot be purely spontaneous, life cannot be purely planned or purely logical. Great art has life-like qualities; like life, great art, regardless of its genre or style, is both spontaneous and logical.]

YH: Do you mean that when you listen to classical music recordings released by jazz pianists - Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, for instance - there is no way of telling that these performers are performing classical music in a jazz style or personality?

DM: These musicians sound just as how classical musicians play. If you do a blind-test of classical music pieces, you will never be able to tell apart if the player is a jazz pianist or a classical music pianist. The two musicians you mentioned are geniuses. Classical music and jazz are deeply related, and the only thing that matters is how good the interpretation itself is.

YH: I should do a blind-test of comparing all these musicians, and include you in the mix too.

(both laugh)

YH: Going beyond music...

DM: Sorry; I want to say one more thing. Although I said jazz and classical music are very similar, and while I still believe in this similarity, I would never ever call myself a jazz musician. The reason for this is that you do not become a jazz musician just because you say you really like jazz. I never call myself a jazz musician because I never learned jazz seriously. I can play some tricks here and there, but this is not based on any professional jazz education. Jazz is just my special love dedicated to this wonderful genre.


YH: So going beyond music and talking about your other loves in life, you also have a big love for Spartak Moscow, the football club.

DM: You know everything.

(both laugh)

YH: In your blog, you say that football and classical music are similar.

DM: Of course, they are not directly comparable, but they share certain things. For example, the conductor is the manager; the orchestra members are the football players; rehearsals are football trainings. The most important thing is that the concerts are the matches. In both cases, you play for your audience.

Football is special for me. I played it professionally until I broke my hands two times (DM laughs). It was a disaster for my parents, but the injuries weren't too serious. I never forget when the chief manager of the Russian national team, Stanislav Cherchesov - who is also a huge friend of mine of almost 10 years - invited me to one of the training sessions. I actually played with some of the players and gave them my recordings as a present. It was unforgettable. After that, this Russian team defeated the Spanish team in the World Cup.

YH: I was cheering for the Russian team at the time (YH laughs). The penalties against Croatia were thrilling. There is competition in football - there is a winner and a loser. What is the role of competitions in music?

DM: I hate competitions (DM laughs). This is where music is entirely different from football. Music is not sports. Sports has world records and gold medals. But for music, it is not that easy to talk about winners or losers. Refereeing in music competitions requires a lot of subjectivity. Each member of the jury has their own ways of assessing music. It's difficult to be a referee. So many talented people go on stage. Someone can play incredibly virtuosic passages. Someone plays Liszt's Transcendental Études, while others play the Hammerklavier or the 32nd sonata by Beethoven. Who is the winner in this case? It's a difficult choice.

I referee two competitions. I have made it a rule that nobody loses. I don't kick anyone out. As a young musician, you're going through a very sensitive period of your life. But at the same time, the reality is that young musicians enter competitions. We'll have to try something and prepare something for people who do not reach the final stages. We must give opportunities for these people to play.

I forgot what your question was.

(both laugh)

YH: I think you answered my question. I think this is the beauty of conversations.

I will ask one final question. Critics have often described your playing as "thrilling" and "confident." Someone even said, "like a king" (DM laughs). Is your musical personality different from your everyday personality?

DM: Whether I play football or whether I play on stage, I am the same person. I never have a mask on, that's for sure. I've been like this my whole life. I think many of the audiences and critics know that I do not hide myself.

By the way, I love critics so much.

(both laugh)

YH: What's your view of critics?

DM: Critics are very important. They have their own personalities and they talk about performances. For any musician, it's very important to be exposed to viewpoints of others.

But for me, the most important judgements concerning my playing come from my father. My father is the only one who can tell me the truth. For example, I had a huge success playing a recital at Carnegie Hall. The standing ovation lasted 7-minutes. I was very happy. But when I returned to the hotel with my father, he had an absolutely different opinion of my performance.

(both laugh)

DM: I believe in my father's evaluations of my performance because he knows me well. Each musician, popular or not, has a person who can tell the truth.

YH: That's profound. So you want to be judged by someone who knows you well. If that person knows you as a person, he/she will also know your playing.

DM: Exactly.

YH: We are returning to the idea that your true self is linked with your musical personality.

DM: You must be truthful to yourself. If you pretend to be someone else on stage, that doesn't work. The audience can also sense this immediately.

Of course, the repertoire is also important. If you choose a repertoire, you must have a special love relationship with the music. That music must express yourself. This is why I do not play Chopin now. I never play Chopin in public. Of course, I can play both concertos, the 24 Preludes, and the 24 Études tomorrow evening if I wanted to. But this doesn't work because it's not the time yet. I am waiting to have a connection with Chopin's music.

YH: That's a brilliant answer (DM laughs). You said today that being on stage is therapeutic for everyone in the hall and that the stage is also a place to express your true self. I hope you can achieve all this on stage tonight.

DM: Thank you, it was very nice to talk with you.

YH: Likewise. Thank you.

Young-Jin Hur

Tags: interview

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