Unknown Rachmaninov

Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 [Revised Version]
Suite in D minor [world premiere]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 [Revised Version]

Denis Matsuev (piano)

Russian National Orchestra
Dmitri Liss

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 4 December, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Sergey Vasilyevich Rakhmaninov (1873-1943)“Unknown Rachmaninov” was the title of this somewhat unusual programme centred upon the playing of the gifted Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. As the Suite in D minor was claimed to be a world premiere, the title was not entirely misleading, but the First Piano Concerto and Second Piano Sonata hardly constituted unfamiliar fare.

It is pity that with all the support this concert received – from the Serge Rachmaninov Foundation, Sony BMG, Boosey & Hawkes, Bosco di Ciliegi Family, Alfa Bank – more attention could not have been paid to the information contained in the programme booklet. Many in the audience, I am sure, would have been interested to know the titles of the Suite’s individual movements, and that Alexander Siloti (dedicatee of the Concerto) was Rachmaninov’s first cousin (their mothers were sisters). Instead there were bland assertions that we were going to hear the world premiere of a Suite in D minor, which is a version for solo piano of an orchestral work sent to Tchaikovsky and which is now lost. It was also claimed the music is 100 percent by the 17-year-old Rachmaninov.

Denis MatsuevIn purely musical terms, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds this Suite, and there are highly regarded Rachmaninov experts in the West who doubt much of its authenticity – no matter what current post-Soviet Russian musicologists may say. This is because a great deal of the music does not sound like the young Rachmaninov (apart from the first four notes) for by then (January 1891) he had written a number of far finer works in his natural and authentic style – including the original version of the First Concerto – and was immediately to write the First Trio elégiaque.

The suggestion that the orchestral version of this Suite was sent to Tchaikovsky who praised it is absurd; I have no doubt that Tchaikovsky would have not given the piece the time of day. If this work is by Rachmaninov, it sounds like something he may have written much earlier, when he was about 13 or 14 years old. In terms of what we know about Rachmaninov, it sounds as if it were music by a child who could play the piano well, not by the great composer that Rachmaninov – approaching his 18th-birthday – was on the verge of becoming.

Although published in Russia in facsimile, it cannot be ascertained conclusively that the manuscript is in Rachmaninov’s hand – it could be, but it could equally be by anyone with a neat script. In this regard, it is also not fully convincing. As for the performance, Denis Matsuev played it extremely well, making the best he could of some very second-rate music. He was more successful in the ‘well-known’ Rachmaninov works which made up the rest of the programme: the First Concerto was brilliantly played, well partnered by the Russian National Orchestra under its alert conductor.

The Second Sonata, in its Revision, was also well projected, although at times, both here and in the Concerto, one felt that Denis Matsuev could have adopted a more yielding approach in the longer lyrical stretches, although the enthusiastic audience demanded from him – and got – no fewer than four encores.

Sony BMG (on RCA Red Seal 88697155912) has recorded this Suite, played by Denis Matsuev, on a CD called “Unknown Rachmaninv”, which also contains a Fugue in D minor. This latter piece is doubtless authentic and is worth hearing.

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