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Matsuev Exciting and Confident at Sanders


Dennis Matsuev (file photo)
Dennis Matsuev (file photo)

Pianist Denis Matsuev played to a packed house at Sanders Theater on Saturday night, summoning massive sounds and structural force, while at other times conjuring the most diaphanous lines and textures. He clearly enjoys playing, and the feel of being at the piano. The opening chords to Haydn’s Piano Sonata, No. 52 in E-flat Major, Hob XVI/52 (his last) were startling in their sheer weight, but balanced nonetheless, and Matsuev did back off immediately, propelling the work forward to reveal line, arc, and form, sections of differentiated sound moving forward in time. The three-blind-mice-sounding 2nd theme of the first movement brought notable contrast with no attempts at cuteness, as did the finely phrased and arced 2nd movement. The last movement probably set a speed record, but it was not at all rushed. Time enough for the pianist to add some personal embellishments. Exciting, controlled classical sonata playing, assertive and confident.

You could say the Schumann was dispatched in similar fashion, but with far broader Romantic parameters, including a lot of effective and sudden Schumannesque mood and character shifts, as well as brazen shifts in gear and meter. (Sometimes we think we’re in two, but we’re in three, but we’re really in three over two over three. Don’t bother…these rhythmic ambiguities certainly didn’t trouble Matsuev.) The individual and often wacky character of each of the twenty-one played pieces was in clear evidence, but also in check, as well as the voicing of lines within the individual works, particularly in the dreamy “Eusebius,” with a near obsessive lilt to the player’s melodic line. Like the Haydn, the overall effect this evening was one of driving the music forward towards final resolution—a good thing since any production of the set is akin to herding cats—though perhaps this (effect) is an illusion—pitch structure arguments aside—and this only occurs upon hearing the final piece of the group, when much is restated, combined, and culminated, dispelling much of the crazy disparity that precedes. Matsuev seemed to frame the work between the two outer pieces (stately chords, breathtaking passagework, and, in the final piece, yearning left-hand octaves) and within, the music unfolded with the guiding support of his thoughtful mix of Schumann’s supporting cast, and his exhilarating “Pause” before the final “Marche.”

After intermission came moody Tchaikovsky: Méditation and the far more meditative Dumka (Scenes from a Russian Village) delivered attaca. Given this pianist’s incredible ability to improvise, it was a bit surprising that Dumka did not come across as more improvisatory. Matsuev did, though, make it sound jazzy, particularly in the chordal exchange before the last quiet and poignant statement of the main theme, here sounding both questioning and resigned.

Two Rachmaninoff Preludes followed, also without pause. The G-sharp minor then the famous G minor. The latter was a huge, relentless outpouring of sound. Despite the mass of sound, we heard here, as with the opening of the Schumann, this interpreterv’s ability to present piano music symphonically, inner voices and chords having a different controlled attack than outer. Impressive.

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Sonata was the last piece listed on the program. Power, color, and thickly pedaled sound predominated. I don’t know if it was the order of musical events, Matsuev’s complete comfort at the piano, or something else, but this came across (to me) as a big encore. The music seemed pushed along, but I’ll confess a lack of appreciation for the work. Matsuev brought grace and charm to the slow movement, a brief respite from the first, and the feeling that he was remembering much (sorrow and happiness), that singular Rachmaninoff melancholy. The last movement—restraint free—brought pryrotechnics, great, pedaled washes of sound and a super sub-woofed bass. Over the top, but controlled, chaos.

Generous applause brought two fairly quiet encores (unrecognized) before a 3rd encore of, I believe, the Scriabin D-sharp Minor Etude. Matsuev’s approach: appropriately relentless. Amazing control and power, but was there enough emotional weight, projected anguish, to balance? It tipped more towards showpiece.

A fourth encore, Liadov’s “Music Box,” took us to the crystalline upper registers of the instrument for too much sweetness and prettiness. There was no touch of brittle bitterness in this interpretation, and no imitation of a faltering music box as it winds down.

But ours jaws dropped as much as the registers of the piano for the final encore, Liszt’s Transcendental Etude S. 139, “Appassionata.” The pianist pummeled us with sound, speed, and power. It left me reeling, the crowd on its feet, and Matsuev? He looked refreshed, ready for a night on the town.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dear Jim McDonald,

    Dear Seth Herbst,

    It was very interesting to read your review, especially because I was not able to attend Denis Matsuev concert. As member of the group Music Lovers Against Aggression and organizer of the Arts Against Aggression Street Festival, I was outside of Sanders Theater during Matsuev concert. I am pretty sure that you are well informed about series of protests surrounding Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Spivakov and Denis Matsuev appearance in the US after they have signed a letter in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position on Ukraine and Crimea. As Harvard faculty you can’t but know about scandal during Spivakov concert at Sanders five weeks ago and about petition demanding President Faust to Investigate the anti-Ukrainian actions of the Harvard police and rescind the order against Dr. Torgovitsky Sign the petition: President Faust: Investigate the anti-Ukrainian actions of the Harvard police and rescind the order against Dr. Torgovitsky.

    I understand that you decided to separated music from politics in your review but how did you manage not to hear any music outside of Sanders Theater? Here is a quick roundup of The Arts Against Aggression Street Festival, which took place on the Plaza in front of the Harvard’s Sanders Theater (see below) on the same day. I hope you would be interested to cover this event as well.

    It is rare for an arts critic to write about a performance before it happens, but that is exactly what Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe did this past Saturday when he wrote about the performance by the well-known Russian pianist Denis Matsuev that was to take place later that evening at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. In his article, titled “Russian musicians’ support for Putin not playing well,” Mr. Eichler does a thorough job of reviewing and putting into context Mr. Matsuev’s (and Mr. Spivakov’s, who held a concert at the same venue some five weeks prior) shameful support for Russian President Putin’s policy of aggression towards Ukraine, including both men signing the letter by prominent Russian cultural figures in support of Mr. Putin’s policies on Ukraine and Crimea. Mr. Eichler not only asked for—but did not receive—responses from both Mr. Spivakov and Mr. Matsuev, but also spoke to their peers in Russia’s arts and culture community to establish that the signatures were not a matter of life or death, physical or artistic, for either men. The article includes a brief history of protests against musicians that have taken pro-Putin position in signing the letter and beyond, including the protests that took place in Boston over Mr. Spivakov’s concert and the Arts Against Aggression Street Festival that took place just prior to and stone’s throw away from Mr. Matsuev’s performance.

    The festival, organized by Music Lovers Against Putin’s Aggression together with Harvard Ukrainian Student Society and with support from the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, took place on the Plaza in front of the Harvard’s Science Center, and brought together musicians and artists who work in different kinds of media to create a joyful atmosphere celebrating creative powers of art and standing in firm opposition to use of art to justify and support aggression and war.
    Utilizing a Steinway and Sons baby grand delivered to the Plaza especially for the Festival, the concert included performances by an acclaimed New York and Ukraine-based pianist Pavel Gintov, musicians from the Boston-based Natasha Folk Project Natasha Dukach, Tony Wolf, and Galina Kryvanich, and a piano-sax duet of Victoria Razumov-Learn and Andrei Sobchenko. We were also treated to a performance by Harvard’s Noam Elkies, Professor of Mathematics and an accomplished musician, who could not resist the lure of a Steinway. Members of the community, including schoolchildren, also took part in the spontaneous pre-concert.

    The Festival also included showing of documentary films by an acclaimed Ukrainian film collective Babylon’13, face painting, traditional Ukrainian headpiece-making, and decorate-a-Putin contest, where children and adults alike got to beautify the tyrant’s visage to the best of their creative abilty. Multicolored feathers were a particular hit with at that table. Plans are now underway to extend the run of the silent auction, started at the Festival, into online and physical spaces in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for an announcement!

    And no description of the Festival can be complete without description of the giant balloon sculptures of Putin and his Zombies. Three yard high sculptures were mostly assembled prior to the start of the Festival, though creation of the hand-painted Zomby faces by an internationally-acclaimed Moscow-born painter Alexei Neyman proved to be its own attraction. The giant figures sternly observed Festival events for the duration. At the end of the program at the Plaza, and just in time for Mr. Matsuev’s concert, the figures were carried over to the sidewalks in front of Sanders Theater. There, protesters sang a belated “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Matsuev, and punctured the balloon statures, demonstrating just how quickly a regime built on lies and intimidation can collapse.

    Protests preceding Mr. Matsuev’s concerts also took place in New York on Sunday and in Washington, DC on Tuesday. As Mr. Eichler says a the conclusion of his article, musicians who support Kremlin’s political stance should not be surprised when those actions result in protests far away from home. Russian musicians, actors, artists, dancers, writers, who support Putin’s regime now know that wherever they go, “Music Lovers Against Aggression” around the world will meet them, shame them, and let the world know of the odiousness for which they stand.

    Comment by Music Lover — June 18, 2014 at 11:50 pm

  2. A slightly different point of view from The Washington Post: Denis Matsuev delivers a sloppy piano recital at Strathmore


    Music and politics, those proverbially uncomfortable bedfellows, were forced into confrontation at Denis Matsuev’s piano recital Tuesday night at the Strathmore Music Center. In March, Matsuev joined other prominent Russian cultural figures in publicly endorsing Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Whatever comfort this may have provided President Putin, some signatories of the endorsement, published in the newspaper Izvestia, have faced protests outside of Russia by Ukraine supporters. Approaching Strathmore from the Metro on Tuesday night, concertgoers had to thread their way through about a dozen or so protesters.

    Matsuev, 39, was born in Siberia of musical parents. In 1998, he won the gold medal at Moscow’s prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition.

    Since the 19th century, Russia has nurtured and celebrated pianists, fostering a tradition that professionals call the “Russian School” of piano playing. Representatives of the Russian tradition were said to produce a big, beautiful sound at the instrument. Their repertoire focused largely on romantic-era music and 20th-century Russian music. They played with highly developed technique and were renowned for accuracy in even the most difficult music.

    During Matsuev’s recital, it became clear that, while some aspects of his playing are recognizably rooted in that fabled Russian tradition, other qualities are radically at odds with it. His choice of program seemed typically, even conservatively Russian. He began with a Haydn sonata, followed by one of the most familiar romantic war horses, Schumann’s “Carnaval.” After intermission came two Tchaikovsky pieces and three by Rachmaninoff, including two preludes and a sonata. At the softest end of the dynamic spectrum, Matsuev can produce a quiet singing sound of great beauty and refinement. At the other end, especially in big, growling bass passages, he can play very, very loudly. It is safe to say that, in nearly six decades of concert attendance, I have never heard a piano played as loudly as I did Tuesday night. With such carefully cultivated extremes of the dynamic spectrum, it would seem that Matsuev has an extraordinarily rich dynamic palette at his disposal. But this is not the case. If he is capable of producing the pianistic equivalent of a normal, conversational tone of voice, he chooses not to use it. Through most of the program, he seemed to be either whispering or shouting.

    Matsuev has a fluent, though far from infallible, technique. He sits comfortably at the piano and his physical mannerisms do not generally distract from the music. The accuracy of his playing, on the other hand, seems below the norm of what is expected of pianists with international careers today. Particularly in passages of heightened emotion, he can release torrents of wrong notes.

    Of course, wrong notes mean nothing when a performance is musically compelling. The great E-flat Sonata of Haydn, the last the composer wrote, seemed little more than a warm-up exercise, its inherent humor ignored. Schumann’s “Carnaval” came off as hectic, confused and sloppy. Even the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff pieces sounded overplayed and contrived, rather than emanating from the heart. During the one untroubled moment in the recital, Rachmaninoff’s G-sharp minor Prelude, a rare clarity and genuine simplicity of utterance shone through.

    In fairness, it could be that the controversy, both in Washington and elsewhere, engendered by Matsuev’s political stance, has put him off form. Whatever the contributing factors, the most obvious thing about Matsuev’s performance Tuesday night was that his heart is somewhere else.

    Comment by Music Lover — June 19, 2014 at 9:02 pm

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