It’s doubtful anyone could have wanted more from Denis Matsuev, who played to a full house in Jordan Hall on Saturday Night. A few might have, in rare moments, wanted less. But that’s quibbling. Matsuev’s near superhuman piano playing allows him to do as he wishes at the keyboard, and almost all that he wishes to do is in greater service of great music, making this music fresh and exciting.
With Beethoven’s penultimate Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, no. 31, op. 110, Matsuev brought tenderness (and much rubato in just the first few seconds) while gently propelling the music forward. There were ravishing (not a typical Beethovian adjective) climaxes, with artfully delineated voices between not only the two hands, but between the individual fingers of the broad-chorded left hand. Sounds at times sweet, even crystalline, and at times big, and lush.
The Adagio (recitativo) leading to the fugue was almost delicate, not overstated, an introduction to a story about to unfold. Matsuev’s rendering of the fugue—and later, counter-fugue—was remarkable in its absence of vertical accent. It was all horizontal fugal flow, floating and lyrical to the extreme, but in perfect rhythm and subdivision. Interspersed, the return of the Adagio material (now labeled L’Istesso tempo di Arioso) reinforced the story-telling quality of the music. Getting all metaphysical here…there was no pleading, but rather narration, as if to say: “I tell what is… it cannot be changed.” All seemed introspective, then, finally (and perhaps paradoxically) exultantly introspective. Matsuev in tune with his feminine side? Maybe. Matsuev in tune with Beethoven’s op. 110? Absolutely.
Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes are so named for the coloristic symphonic reach of the piano in these ‘variations.’ Matsuev brought colors and textures in abundance. They were at times dreamy, and at times, sharp, crisp, bright and sorrowful all at once. Sometimes impetuous sounding, and occasionally sinewy and Rachmaninoff-sounding. No surprise that the variation loaded with left hand octaves (ala Chopin’s Etude) would be a mini-tour-de-force, but it was the final etude, the “Allegro Brillante” (almost one-third the length of the full set) that did surprise. It was not just that Matsuev began faster and more brilliant than should be possible—there will be compensatory sacrifices; something will have to give, I thought—but that he maintained not only the tempo but all the musical excitement without coming across as relentless (as he did, to me, with his Rachmaninoff 2nd piano sonata performed at Sanders in 2014). Here, all was in heightened balance, from the opening phrase’s uber-crescendos to the cascades of pure circle-of-fifths joy-making that compelled humming-along in the audience.
I had wondered about including Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz in the program proper until the work began to unfold, and unfold it did! This was storytelling, music-making loaded with mystery, sensuality, and passion. All the piano fireworks were in evidence—and with such clarity and precision!—but so secondary to the event. An especially rewarding, memorable interpretation. In the audience, devilish grins gave way to sighs, then to wild bursts of applause and bravos.
Tchaikovksy’s Méditation, op. 72, no. 5, was, as promised, a welcome respite in a virtuosic recital. Matsuev’s playing, deceptively complex, was both sentimental and stately, with Matsuev’s signature richness of sound.
The two sonatas that framed the program could hardly have been more different in mood, the earlier Beethoven had been serene, while Prokofiev, in his 7th Sonata, op.83, had written in his most fearful, violent, and angry vein.
Matsuev’s opening movement was nothing short of astonishing. Not too fast, not too slow. And not too much. But much, much darker than the Liszt. Every note and section articulated with power, evenness, and relentlessness (in a very good way, here.). Ugly sounds in balance, sounding beautiful and terrible, dissolving into semi-psychotic nothingness.
Matsuev’s vision of the 2nd movement of this sonata was atypical. The opening droll, chromatic theme in the lower registers begins to haunt as it (usually) marches or drags itself slowly forward. Matsuev made the music float forward (in some ways like the Beethoven, but so different in mood), near beat-less. The building tension didn’t, at first, seem to harbor as much terror as when more rhythmically grounded, groundless as it were. But then it seemed more a dreamscape, and the sense of foreboding was just as creepy. What a foil for the outer movements! Particularly the last…
Let’s be clear: we were all waiting for this. The Precipitato (a perpetual-mobile toccata in seven) opened not too fast, with evenness not just in the attack but in the release of every note. Power-precision and tension built while mode of attack shifted (now shorter notes) and sharper jabs, brittleness surrounding density in an unrelenting (again, a very good thing) pace. The coda loomed, and Matsuev sprouted two more arms (I thought maybe he’d made a deal with the devil!) enabling him to play with other-worldly power through to the final octaves and chords. Or maybe it just seemed, in the moment, that he sprouted those extra arms. No matter.
A momentary glitch at the (slightly) over-pedaled coda proved that Matsuev is human. We forgive him for that (being human, after all) and for accelerating through the coda. This did nothing to diminish the overall effect of feeling run over by a virtual tank while thrilling in the experience. Maybe not a poet, Matsuev. More a storyteller, painter, action hero. And killer pianist.
I, for one, would have been happy to have been done at this point, but encores were demanded and encores were delivered, four of them. Liadov’s Music Box was played as Matsuev played it two years back in Cambridge. Then, I had described it as:
“…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.”
I had not really meant this as a compliment at that time, but I see how it could have been so construed. Certainly nothing wrong with that prettiness.
Sibelius’s Étude in a minor offered some bouncy relief to both the Liadov and the heavy-weight program. Rachmaninov’s Étude Tableaux, op. 39 no. 2, gave us rich, Romantic lyricism, and more bravura playing. And finally, another signature encore: an improvised Jazz Fantasy based on popular jazz pieces, Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train; Caravan, and more. We were pummeled with talent, sound, and power. Too much for me, but the audience ate it up. Had this been a cartoon-animated performance on the big screen, the piano would have imploded after the last encore.