Denis Matsuev, the Russian pianist, returned to Carnegie Hall for a recital last night, playing some of the greatest music ever written for his instrument. Over the years, I have described Matsuev as “brawny.” (Many have, surely.) He also has poetry within him. I have heard him play like an angel—like some combination of Hofmann and Cortot. I have also heard him play like Godzilla, stomping all over Tokyo.
The first half of his program last night was devoted to the last two sonatas of Beethoven: Op. 110 (A flat) and Op. 111 (C minor). The usual practice, over the generations, has been to play the last three, starting with Op. 109 (E major). But Matsuev had a different plan.
About Op. 110, a few points. Matsuev had a clear conception of the work, and a valid one. I did not care for some rubato—some license with time—but that is a matter of taste. In the first movement, he showed ample lyricism. He also provided a rich baritone or bass line. That is one of Matsuev’s specialties, I think: a marvelous left hand. Not an afterthought of a hand.
In this first movement, he also did something curious: he let go of some long notes—took his finger off the keyboard—to let the sustaining pedal do the work. I’m not sure this worked.
Op. 110 ends with a grand, glorious, beautiful fugue. Matsuev did some royal playing in it—majestic and warm.
He left the stage briefly and launched into Op. 111 before the applause for Op. 110 died down. He is a no-nonsense (bullheaded?) presenter. In the first movement of Op. 111, Matsuev was orderly. He knows his own mind, knows what he wants to do. The most virile of pianists, he played in big, fat tones.
The first movement was certainly orderly and impressive. Was it soulful enough? Probably, yes.
Beethoven’s final movement—the Arietta—is marked “Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.” An adagio very simple and singing. Matsuev largely adhered to this. He seemed to me a bit hurried—but only a bit. And I’m glad he did not handle this music with sugar tongs. He did not treat it as some dainty, fragile, holy thing.
The Arietta cast its spell.
But not on everyone. A young man in the row in front of me was playing with his phone. How you can be in the presence of the Arietta—well played in Carnegie Hall—and fiddle with your phone, I don’t know.
After intermission, Matsuev played a Schumann work: Kinderszenen, or “Scenes from Childhood.” This work takes simplicity, gaiety, imagination, and sympathy. You can express dearness, and must. But you must not condescend. “Child-like” and not “childish” is what we want, I think. Matsuev came through, admirably.
It used to be said that you couldn’t hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Can you hear “Träumerei” (“Dreaming,” a part of Kinderszenen) without thinking of Horowitz? (It was his signature encore.) Another question: Is “Ritter vom Steckenpferd” (“Knight of the Hobby Horse”) the biggest tease and cheat in all of music? It is forty delightful seconds. I wish Schumann had made a whole piece from that material.
Upon finishing Kinderszenen, Matsuev did not leave the stage, as I recall. Before the applause could die down, he unleashed a B-flat-minor storm—beginning Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2. Matsuev is made for this music. He is a big man with big hands, commanding the keyboard like a toy. Earl Wild was such a pianist. So was Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Matsuev was reasonable and exciting, at the same time. He obeyed the musical line, allowing no clumsy accents. His fortissimos were huge, with no pounding. He put on a clinic of virtuosity and Romantic power.
I need to update you on the cellphone guy. During the Schumann, he was playing with his phone, and an usher came down to ask him to stop. The cellphone guy stared at her sullenly. He put his phone away for half a minute and then resumed.
During the Rachmaninoff, the guy again played with his phone, and another usher came down to admonish him. Same sullen stare. Same brief compliance. Same resumption.
Could he have been expelled? But how is that done, without great commotion? Commotion that’s not worth it?
Denis Matsuev has many regular encores, and he chose a good one, to follow the Rachmaninoff sonata—all those B-flat-minor storms. He played Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise (in whose transcription, I can’t tell you). The melody was especially beautiful in the left hand, way down on the piano. I thought to myself: “Ah, another Russian bass.”
Encore No. 2 was a Chopin waltz—the one in C-sharp minor. Matsuev shaped the piece winningly. I have never heard the faster sections faster. But they were limpid.
To bid farewell, Matsuev played something jazzy. I cannot identify it for you. He likes to improvise, at the end of an evening. But at some point, he broke out into one of his signature encores: “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” by Grieg, in the arrangement of Grigory Ginzburg. This was Godzilla stomping all over Tokyo, or Bergen, or whatever. It was the vulgar and barbaric Matsuev.
But never mind: it had been an outstanding recital.
A footnote. There were protesters outside Carnegie Hall. Denis Matsuev is something like an official artist of the Russian government. He was a torchbearer at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He played during the closing ceremony. He signed a letter, supporting Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Earlier in the day (yesterday), I did a podcast with Kateryna Yushchenko, a former first lady of Ukraine. She is married to Viktor Yushchenko, who survived a poison attack—a murder attempt—in 2004. Of course, Mrs. Yushchenko, like other Ukrainians, is deeply worried at present.
So, an interesting day, all around.