Denis Matsuev at Royal Festival Hall – Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata

The Seasons, Op.37b
Mephisto Waltz No.1
Kreisleriana, Op.16
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 [revised version, 1931]

Denis Matsuev (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 January, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Denis MatsuevPhotograph: www.cami.comRecent experiences of Denis Matsuev have not been that positive, so it was a pleasure that his International Piano Series recital went a long way to confounding expectations. True, Matsuev’s stage manner isn’t exactly ingratiating and his pragmatic engagement with the piano (here a beautifully voiced Steinway) gives very little away. Also, both halves of his programme were organised to keep the fans waiting for Denis the arsonist-as-virtuoso, which, to judge from the amount of coughing and phone-checking, was the audience’s prime interest.

The way Matsuev storms onto the platform is a bit like a can-do CEO about to whip a board-meeting into shape, but once he settled, his playing of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons persuasively caught the twelve pieces’ scale and spirit. These miniatures were published as a monthly part-work in a Moscow arts magazine, and they remind you that a few big orchestral scores cast a long shadow over the rest of Tchaikovsky’s output – the solo piano works alone take up about nine hours’ playing time. Matsuev instantly connected with the Schumannesque reverie of ‘January (At the fireside)’, and in general he made clear Schumann’s influence on the music’s intimacy, including an oblique homage to Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’ in March’s ‘Song of the lark’. Matsuev didn’t have to strain every sinew to finesse the music’s fantasy and innocence, which he expressed with a natural ease, and while each impression has its own identity, Matsuev made it clear that the sequence as a whole hangs on the quieter pieces for January, May, June and October. He relished the flashes of virtuosity of February (‘Carnival’), August (‘Harvest’) and September (‘The Hunt’), including the startling irruption of the First Piano Concerto into June’s otherwise reflective ‘Barcarolle’, but it’s the stillness of melancholy October or the nostalgia of December’s waltz that Matsuev caught so completely, like Pushkin’s intimacy standing firm against Tolstoy’s more overt universality.

After such perceptive restraint, Hercules was well and truly unchained in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. Apart from Matsuev’s convincing impression of diabolical possession – the coda was brilliantly unhinged – you couldn’t help being bowled over as much by the glamour and velocity of his technique as by his control of tone and volume and the efficiency of his pedalling (without any foot-stamping).

Matsuev’s second part had originally been Rachmaninov, familiar territory, some of which he replaced with Schumann’s Kreisleriana. As with the Tchaikovsky, Matsuev again homed in on the music’s elusive fantasy and the bizarre E. T. A. Hoffmann narrative, and, without any hint of contrivance, allowed the disparate elements to find their own focus in his thoroughly considered performance. He didn’t overplay the intensity of the first of the eight pieces and gave Schumann’s trademark Innigkeit an eloquence that subtly transformed the impact of the two rowdy intermezzos. Matsuev’s formidable punch and weight energised the third and fifth pieces, and No.7’s torrential fugue was a chip of the Mephisto block. The clarity of his articulation and, again, some deft pedalling enhanced the angular enigma of the closing piece, in which the music’s odd juxtaposition of mood summed up Kreisleriana’s strange inner logic. Add the attention he lavished on detail of phrasing and colour, and Matsuev really delivers as a player of Schumann.

His sense of fantasy, albeit on a much more extravagant scale, dominated Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata (as revised), especially in the majestically subjective slow movement, its delusional middle section brilliantly scarring the return of the opening material, and there were no surprises of volume and bravura in the demonic finale. Nor were there any in his five encores –Liadov’s Musical Snuff Box, Studies by Sibelius and Scriabin, a Rachmaninov Prelude, and Matsuev’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the A Train’, the last a monster of piano pulverisation that in a shameless act of manipulation predictably brought the audience to its feet.

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