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.