Although he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998 -- frequently a launching pad for international stardom -- Denis Matsuev has not until recently made much of a splash in Western Europe and America. I suspect that is about to change. Matsuev is clearly a formidable virtuoso, unfazed by the technical demands of this repertoire. The "Rach 3” is one of those milestones that every young up-and-coming pianist seems to need to conquer in order to "make his bones," and the Rhapsody is to this listener equally challenging, albeit more in the realm of interpretation than sheer technique.
Matsuev charges into the Concerto in a fearless, take-no-prisoners style, relishing the virtuosic writing. His big, bronzen tone reminds me of his great Russian predecessor Emil Gilels -- and also, to some extent, to the young Van Clyburn. He relaxes a bit in the second movement, adding lyricism to the fireworks that dominate the two outer movements. Overall, very impressive playing. But for the pianism alone, I still prefer others: Horwitz (especially his 1930s first recording with Coates), Byron Janis/Kiril Kondrashin on a still fabulous-sounding 1960 Mercury Living Presence), and Pletnev/Rostropovich on DG, among others, find more poetry in this score than does Matsuev at this stage of his career.
But he does find the poetry in this performance of the Rhapsody. Here Matsuev sounds almost like a different pianist, showing tender phrasing, ravishing tonal color and dazzling dynamic scaling that make this one of the finest interpretations of the Rhapsody I know -- and a worthy competitor to my previous favorite by another Russian phenom, Dmitri Alexeev, with Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic on RCA.
Whatever one's feelings about Matsuev, what makes this release virtually a necessity for fans of the composer is the extraordinary contribution of Gergiev and the wondrous Mariinsky Orchestra. Only the aforementioned St. Petersburg Philharmonic can seriously challenge the Mariinsky for supremacy in the Russian repertoire. In the Concerto, Gergiev surrounds the soloist with such subtle phrasing, surprising insights and heartbreakingly beautiful orchestral sound that all criticism -- by me, at least -- is swept away. Same goes for the Rhapsody, in spades. I have never heard either work conducted better.
The two-channel SACD sound is superb. (I have not listened to multichannel SACD.) Taken as a whole, this release gets a very strong recommendation, even if you already have good versions of these warhorses. (A quick check of my shelves revealed that taking both works, I have about two dozen. But I have no intention of parting with this one.