Denis Matsuev is the brawniest pianist alive. He may be the brawniest pianist who ever lived. This may be good or bad (I think it’s both, depending), but it is a distinction.
Is Matsuev without grace? No, not at all. But his distinction is his brawn.
The Russian pianist returned to Carnegie Hall on Friday night for another recital. He played a program of first-class music—which always aids an evening.
He began with a Beethoven sonata, an early one, Op. 2, No. 3, in C major. Many of us always associate this sonata with Michelangeli. From Matsuev, the opening movement was aggressive, blunt, and sometimes muddy. It was hard to defend. It would prove the pianist’s worst playing of the night.
I rather liked the second movement, frankly. (This is an Adagio.) Matsuev’s boldness—not bluntness or aggressiveness—worked here. I grow tired of hearing such movements played in a la-di-da fashion. I liked the Scherzo, too. (This is the third movement.) Think of a dramatic soprano singing something light and lyrical—but singing it musically, in her own style.
For me, the closing Allegro needed to be more playful or impish. From Matsuev, of course, it was bold, brawny. But he certainly executed his own conception of the music well.
Next on the program was Rachmaninoff: the Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Matsuev stated that theme with due calmness. Then he got into the variations, each of which had its right character. Matsuev played richly and solidly—gracefully too, where appropriate. He kept the structure of the work in mind. He was attentive to rhythm (as he had been in the Beethoven, actually). He gave some of the music a touch of jazz—which reminded me that he indeed likes jazz.
Denis Matsuev went through Chopin’s Ballade in F minor like a lawn mower—but not a musically thoughtless lawn mower.
“I take his virtuosity for granted.” That’s what I thought as I was listening to Matsuev play the Rachmaninoff. But this virtuosity should not be taken for granted. Matsuev has developed a rare technique.
All in all, this was the best Corelli Variations I have ever heard.
The second half of the recital began with Chopin: the Ballade in F minor. Matsuev went through this piece like a lawn mower—but not a musically thoughtless lawn mower. Then came a Tchaikovsky piece, one seldom heard, at least in America: the Meditation, Op. 72, No. 5. In Matsuev’s hands, it was enormous. Too big? Maybe. In any event, the pianist, while he was at it, put on a clinic of trilling.
He ended the printed program with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat. This is the sonata that concludes with the Precipitato, that famous encore. Before you get to the “encore,” naturally, you have two other movements.
The first one, Matsuev played reasonably. How about the second one, the middle one, marked Andante caloroso? It was much too short on the caloroso—much too short on warmth and songfulness.
But the Precipitato was a treat, and a thrill. It was fast, yes, but not too. It included a hint of jazz (rightly so, I believe). It was beautiful (something I’ve never written about a performance of the Precipitato, ever). It was a little overpedaled, but not enough to do any harm.
Typically, Denis Matsuev gives you a “second concert,” as they used to say: a slew of encores. So it was on Friday night. He began as he often does—with “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”), from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. Horowitz would begin with this too, at encore time. Matsuev played it dearly, sensitively, dreamily.
He continued with another “Horowitz encore,” or at least another “Horowitz piece”: Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat. You have never heard it so masculine. That wasn’t a bad approach. Let me note that Matsuev made a finger-slip—which reminded me of something I once heard about Horowitz: “He made a finger-slip in a Clementi sonata—which made the students feel better!”
Did Horowitz ever play Sibelius’s A-minor étude? I don’t think so, but Matsuev does, and did. Horowitz certainly played Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor. He played it over and over, all career long. That’s what Matsuev played next (fourth)—and he was bangier in it than he meant to be, surely.
After Scriabin came Grieg: “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” souped up (arranged) by Grigory Ginzburg, the Russian pianist who lived from 1904 to 1961. Eventually, Matsuev made this piece a slopfest—but it was interesting, nonetheless.
I told a friend that Matsuev would not leave before playing an improvisation on “Take the A Train.” But, alas, no Duke, no train. Grieg/Ginzburg was it.
Let me leave you with a footnote: These days, concertgoers take pictures and record videos. They especially do this at encore time. In Carnegie Hall, ushers police this activity, marching up and down the aisles, admonishing. One usher scared the hell out of me when she came from behind and rebuked a person in my row.
This is tremendously distracting, all the policing—and all the camera-use too, to be sure. I wish I knew what to do about it.