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18.11.06

The Thin Line Between "Great" and "Impressive" - Denis Matusev Dazzles at the Terrace Theater

Denis MatsuevDenis Matsuev, the latest pianist to have graced WPAS’ Hayes Series, is a pianist who could elicit a long-overdue tirade against the practice of 'Piano-Bench Gymnastics'. Together with Lang-Lang and Fazil Say he would form the unholy trio of carefully studied emotional acrobatics where the effect of the contortion takes precedence over the sound of the playing. But Matsuev’s recital was too good, too interesting to warrant wasting much space on this.

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons op.37b is rarely programmed and all the more welcome. Simple – but not simplistic – works that they are, they can be the perfect antidote to all that overly romantic, ever-yearning, sweet orchestral Tchaikovsky that usually comes our way. A ballet for pianist in twelve movements, we got to see the many sides of Denis Matsuev: DM – the calm center for January. DM – the firebrand in February. DM – the dreamy poet in March. The delicate DM in April, the lavishly punctilious DM in May. DM as a dainty rose in June, “DM got rhythm” in July and DM as ‘Eusebius and Florestan’ in August. DM – in powerful rapture during September. Sensitive DM in October, DM of ‘obvious subtlety’ in November, and finally the languid and composed DM in December.

There were fine and acutely accentuated moments (January) and displays of his prodigious technique far exceeding the demands of the piece (February). Muted colors dominated the most famous of the months: June. It was in the soft passages that Matsuev displayed the musician (as opposed to the pianist) – a display that might have gone lost elsewhere, because Matsuev (visibly not somebody who is lacking in self esteem) does not only play effortlessly, but also effortlessly loud. In combination with the Yamaha piano that he had at his disposal, the sound was not always very pleasing and indeed rather harsh; shrill even, in the upper register. It accentuated the moments of banging (more of which were to come) in a way that made Matsuev – unfairly, I presume – seem like he had the touch of Garrick Ohlsson (except with the body language of Lang Lang and the technique of Arcadi Volodos).

The showtime element of his recital started after intermission with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz no.1. Amid left-hand flights of fancy (carefully studied in a mirror, no doubt – and to great theatrical effect) and a few missed notes while he was playing with the intent purpose of impressing the living hell out the audience, there shone through a bit of that sensibility that distinguishes genuine playing from a mere run-through.

Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka can make any pianist feel a little queazy. Matsuev’s performance – unabashed and bold – was a feat… even if the piano’s sound was unpleasant above fortissimo, even if the color, joy and rhythmical feel of a Kissin or the clear brilliance of Pollini was missing (players admittedly in a different category). This was fitfully impressive stuff, an exceptionally good second movement, and if the enjoyment of it was slightly uneven, he cannot be blamed for having been anything less than consistent in his approach to the work. Merely that it worked better in some places than others. Having reached the right virtuoso-operating temperature (indicated by a lobster-red head), he dazzled the delighted audience and cooled down only during a series of understandably mellower encores that were demanded.

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