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Choral and Vocal
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Choral and Vocal
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RECITAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Saturday, October 22, 2016
Denis Matsuev, piano

Pianist Denis Matsuev

SOUND AND FURY IN MATSUEV WEILL HALL RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 22, 2016

A touring virtuoso’s reputation often precedes him or her, and usually that’s a good thing. The reputation of a Renée Fleming or a Yo Yo Ma can guarantee a sold out hall, and possibly a great concert. But not always, and so there was some concern at Russian pianist Denis Matsuev’s Oct. 23 Weill recital that he would very well be another in a long line of fleet and heavy-handed Slavic pianists. And so it was mostly to be.

Curiously the program’s first item, Beethoven’s autumnal A-Flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, received the night’s most convincing reading. Bounding on the stage Mr. Matsuev went straight to the piano and straight to a quick but workmanlike interpretation of the work, the composer’s penultimate piano sonata. Speed of conception and attack were to be the evening’s norm, but here the non-romantic interpretation had interest and clarity.

In the opening Moderato there was deft left-hand chord voicing and the ritards were in the right places, but never in the unexpected places. An occasional note was held into a following phrase but the artist seldom lets much air into a phrase division, preferring always to forge ahead. The Fugue was a thoroughly modern reading, masterly without mystery, with no relaxing of tempo and no ritard in the final ascending phrase to the final chord.

A standing ovation from the audience of 600 ensued (after the first piece!) and the artist then launched into Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 15. Mr. Matsuev was it his best in the strong rhythmic sections of the 12 studies, wide left-hand skips and in staccato chord phrases. He played the often-omitted five etudes (variations) with a warm touch. Lavish damper pedal was used, underscoring sonic contrasts, but the music had no inner voices, repose or charm. The pianist never seems to slow down, and the potent playing in the ending march produced another standing ovation.

Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz, a virtuoso specialty that was an odd choice to start the second half, was beautiful in slow sections but cacophonous in the fast ones. It was playing of prodigious speed and power and the contrary octaves at the end were the fastest I have encountered in many years. It’s that kind of piece, but a greater musical impact could have been made with Liszt’s later and cryptic Mephisto Two, Three or Four, or the Bagatelle sans Tonalitie. Pieces of depth and sacrament.

A bon bon before the onslaught of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, Tchaikovsky’s poetic Op. 72 Meditation, was overplayed and too operatic. The Prokofiev B-Flat Major was the expected barnburner piece, arguably the most popular piano sonata of the 20th Century. Mr. Matsuev perfectly caught the snarl and mechanical drive of the first movement Allegro Inquieto. It was a fast, loud and intensive approach to music that mostly demands such treatment.

The playing of the plaintive “rose between the thorns” Andante was brisk and never broke the original rhythm, but there was little notice of the lush harmonies and pensive theme. The ending with its enigmatic soft right-hand chords was haunting.

Mr. Matsuev then charged into the brilliant Precipitato with headlong abandon and Forte chords from the opening racehorse bell. It was a muddy but explosive interpretation that rose in an accelerated roar to four gigantic B-Flat chords. It brought down the house and brought the pianist in a dramatic physical leap from the piano bench to the front of the Weill stage. It was showy and acrobatic, an impressive feat for a husky physique that resembles the artist’s late compatriot Emil Gilels.

From the three encores two were memorable for opposite reasons. Liadov’s Musical Snuff-Box imitates a music box by tinkling in the piano’s upper register, and Mr. Matsuev played the old chestnut with chaste tone and limpid phrasing, teasing the theme with care. Then another volcano erupted, a five-minute work that was first Fats Waller, then Keith Jarrett, and finally a tsunami of flying and noisy figurations and clangorous chords. I have no idea about the identity of the composer, and it was probably the pianist.

An analogy to Mr. Matsuev’s recital might be the famous Vladimir Horowitz 1928 American debut concert performance with Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Minor Concerto. Backstage following the event Rachmaninoff approached Horowitz and said to him (In Russian) “It was very loud, and it was very fast, but it wasn’t very beautiful.”