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The Carnegie Hall Recital
Schumann: Kinderszenen; Lizst: Sonata in B-minor;
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83
Liadov: The Musical Snuff-Box, Op. 32 Scriabin:
Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 12; Grieg (arrangement by GrigoryGinzberg): In the Hall of the Mountain King
Denis Matsuev, piano.
Review By Max Westler

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  These days the younger generation of pianists doesn't necessarily like to make an issue of their fabulous technical abilities. Artists like Krystian Zimmerman, Stephan Hough, and even the very young Yundi Li would rather have you consider their scholarship, repertory choices, and interpretive points-of-view. Which is not to say that each of these pianists can't produce the requisite thunder and lightning when the music calls upon them to do so. 33-year-old Denis Matsuev, the 1998 winner of the International Tchaikovsky competition, is a throwback to an earlier day when Soviet-era pianists like Emil Gilels and Sviatislov Richter first burst upon the scene. As it turned out, both were complete pianists in every respect: Gilels' silvery legato was every bit as astonishing as his ability to hurdle double octaves, and Richter's Beethoven was just as convincing as his Liszt. But it was their ability to shock and awe that first commanded the attention of Western audiences and critics. Virtuosity was the calling card that opened the door.

Matsuev has been called "the next Horowitz," and after hearing his recordings of the Rachmaninoff Third (with Gergiev) and the Tchaikovsky First (with Temirkanov), I wouldn't argue with that assessment. This new disc includes all but one item of his 2007 Carnegie Hall debut. Certainly the reviews that followed in the wake of this recital summoned up the heady enthusiasm that greeted Gilels and Richter. "When it ended, one fully expected to see smoke curling from his fingertips," said the New York Times critic. In Fanfare Magazine, reviewing this same disc, Steven E. Ritter goes even farther: "truly this man is capable of some astounding virtuoso pianism that practically redefines the word." Matsuev's playing is "so loud and powerful that one fears the piano will come crashing to the ground."

After all this, it's surprising that the recital begins with Matsuev playing sotto voce. In fact he's barely audible even with the volume tuned up. By choosing to open with Kinderszenen, Schumann's most delicate and gentle composition, Matsuev clearly wants to demonstrate his "completeness"; in this case, his tenderness and restraint. By so doing, he reminds us that Richter and Gilels were both great interpreters of Schumann's music. Certainly Matsuev's ability to strike a balance between impetuosity and inwardness makes for a very winning performance.

But of course, it's the Liszt B-minor and the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 that bring us to the heart of the matter. By choosing to play two of the most technically challenging compositions in the entire piano literature back to back, Matsuev is clearly establishing himself as the true successor not just to Gilels and Richter, but also to the traditions of the Russian school of piano playing. I have many favorite recordings of these two pieces (as I'm sure you do too). But I wasn't thinking about those performances while listening to Matsuev's edgy, adventurous, often astonishing journey through these thickets. Here is the kind of high-voltage playing that can leave an audience flushed, breathless, as if they'd all just downed a bottle of Tabasco sauce in a single gulp.

The three encores all suggest the range of Matsuev's technique: his sensitive touch in Liadov's delightful Musical Snuff-box, his ability to swoon in the most well-known of Scriabin's etudes. As for GrigoryGinzberg's transcription of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, I'm not sure I've ever heard the like. Appropriately, Matsuev ends with a lightning-bolt, and the live audience responds as if stricken with its current.

There is, of course, a major difference between Gilels and Richter and Matsuev. Gilels and Richter had been concertizing and recording for more than twenty years before the "iron Curtain" lifted and permitted their tours to the West. Matsuev is at the very beginning of his career. But judging from the results thus far, it's a most promising and auspicious beginning indeed. This recital suggests he'll definitely be a force to be reckoned with for some time to come.

As for the sound, to these ears the piano sometimes seemed a little close, airless, and brittle. I think Matsuev's style requires more warmth and spaciousness. But that caveat shouldn't dissuade those of you who want to experience "the next Horowitz." The sound is at least good enough to capture the sheer visceral excitement of this important occasion.

 

 

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