Not another Russian banger
by James Leonard
There's a thin line between staggering virtuosity and stunning brutality, and Russian pianists tend to lean toward the latter.
Even the greatest Russians (Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz spring to mind) are sometimes carried away by their own excitement and pound at climaxes--check out their recordings of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. And the worst Russians (here we'll name only Boris Berman, though a half-dozen others spring to mind) too often pummel with giddy abandon during difficult passages to cover their lack of technique--try Berman's recording of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto.
But as anyone who's heard him play will tell you, Denis Matsuev is not another Russian banger. Sure, he can bang, or at least get mighty close to it. The recording from his Carnegie Hall recital of a piano transcription of In the Hall of the Mountain King builds to a climax of almost-but-not-quite-out-of-control power. And sure, he's a virtuoso in a long line of Russian virtuosos. His performance last season of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra recalled Horowitz's performance of the same piece here at a May Festival thirty-odd years ago in its heroic strength, though the youthful Matsuev displayed more fidelity to the score than did the aging Horowitz.
Immediately reengaged by the UMS, Matsuev returns to Hill Auditorium on Monday, January 23, to perform his first local solo concert. In contrast to Yuja Wang's recent recital, which consisted mostly of encores, Matsuev's program is all hard-core repertoire: Schubert's haunting A minor Sonata, D. 784, Beethoven's barnstorming Appassionata, Grieg's romantic Sonata in E minor, and Stravinsky's bulldozing Three Movements from Petrouchka.
Judging from his recordings of two of these works, it seems likely that Matsuev will repeat his Mariinsky success as a solo performer. His Appassionata scowls, squalls, and storms in the opening movement, sings a hymn of love and peace in the central movement, and rides hell-bent for glory in the closing movement. Matsuev is plainly playing for the last row of the last balcony,
but since Beethoven is, too, it's absolutely appropriate.
The Three Movements from Petrouchka ought to bring down the house. Transcribed for solo piano by Stravinsky from his ballet for Arthur Rubinstein--who famously complained it was too difficult and declined to perform it--the Three Movements are indeed transcendentally intractable, and only the greatest pianists have had the guts to essay it. In his recording, Matsuev plays with unerring accuracy, unnerving energy, and unrivalled intensity. If his performance here is as good, only In the Hall of the Mountain King could serve as an encore.
[Originally published in January, 2012.]