Yesterday afternoon, Denis Matsuev played a recital in Carnegie Hall. Vladimir Horowitz, too, liked to play on Sunday afternoons—but his recitals started at four, whereas this one started at two. Like Horowitz, Matsuev is a Russian pianist, though I should really call Horowitz “Russian-born,” for he became an American.
Matsuev is a thunderous virtuoso—and, yesterday, he played music appropriate to the type. He can play all sorts of music, as all real pianists can. But if you got it—thunderous virtuosity, that is—why not flaunt it? Let other pianists play “Clair de lune” . . .
Matsuev began with the Liszt Sonata, that outstanding piece by the father of virtuosos. There is more than one way to skin this cat (the sonata, I mean). I once heard Yuja Wang play it, unusually and commendably. She cannot really make a big, fat, deep sound. She does not produce a lot of thunder. But, in the sonata, she used what she had. I described parts of the sonata as “Debussyan” (speaking of “Clair de lune”).
Yesterday’s pianist? Well, my review of him a year ago was titled “The Brawniest Pianist Alive.” I have not heard a bigger, fatter, more virile sound than his—not from Rubinstein, not from Berman, not from anybody. In addition to that fat tone, he has power. He plays from the shoulders. And in addition to power, he has speed—lightning speed. (So, thunder and lightning?) His arms are utterly loose, with nothing to hinder them. The piano in his hands is a toy.
Before he began the Liszt Sonata, he waited for the hall to quiet down. (The piece begins quietly.) He kept waiting. The hall never really quieted down, so he began anyway. The opening measures were duly suspenseful and well calibrated. Soon came the virtuosity—the staggering virtuosity. Octaves were frighteningly fast, and accurate. Matsuev made oceans of sound. I have to tell you, I have never heard a louder sound from the piano, and there was no pounding whatsoever.
Midway through the sonata, I thought, “Matsuev is in his glorious prime.” Checking later, I found that he is in his mid-forties. I also had another thought, and for this one, you may have to bear with me.
Arnold Palmer hit the ball hard—very hard. Once, his fellow golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez said to him, “Arnold, I don’t know how the ball can take it.” As I listened to Matsuev, I thought, “I don’t know how the piano can take it.”
The Liszt Sonata has thunder and lightning, yes, but it also has rumination. In these sections, Matsuev embroidered melodies with delicate, sparkling passagework. But some of these sections were a little slow, in my view, threatening stagnation. And there were times when the playing could have been spikier and more impish.
No matter. This was a singular, memorable Liszt Sonata. I would not have believed it if I hadn’t heard it. Before the final note, the audience began to applaud—which was annoying. I thought, “Where do they think they are, the opera?”
Many times in my life, I have felt I should stand, but have not. I rationalize it by thinking, “I’ll applaud, and stand, in my review.” Yesterday, I made myself stand. I took a little teasing for this later, but at least I could live with myself. I would have felt cheap, not to stand.
Nothing could have, or should have, followed that sonata, in my opinion—but the show had to go on, and Matsuev continued it with more Liszt: the Mephisto Waltz No. 1. I wondered why. Wasn’t this gilding the lily? More of the same, essentially? In any case, Matsuev did many impressive, dazzling things in the Waltz. How could he not? But he also did some rushing, slopping, and bulling. This was not his most refined, pianistic Liszt.
Let me pause for some bathroom talk—I mean, comments overheard in the men’s room at intermission: “superhuman”; “looks like a football player.” Later, Google told me that Matsuev is six-foot-four, and he is solidly built.
He began the second half of his program with a rarity by Tchaikovsky—it is rare in the West, at least: the Dumka in C minor, Op. 59. A dumka, according to my dictionary, is “a Slavic folk song that alternates in character between sadness and gaiety.” That describes Tchaikovsky’s piece exactly. And Matsuev played it with great beauty, thoughtfulness, and finesse.
The piano in his hands is a toy.
Then came Stravinsky, the Three Movements from the ballet Petrushka (arranged by the composer himself, in collaboration with the aforementioned Artur Rubinstein). Best about Matsuev’s performance was the rhythm: he gets the rhythm, feels the rhythm, enjoys the rhythm. Also, he showed some gossamer passagework. Overall, however, he jabbed, punched, and pounded. In the Liszt Sonata, I heard no pounding—none—big as the thing was. Petrushka, I’m sorry to say, was a pound-fest.
Matsuev always gives a “second recital,” which is to say, a slate of encores. Yesterday afternoon, he went through his usual: a Liadov character piece; a Rachmaninoff étude-tableau; that Sibelius étude that everyone has been playing for the last ten or twenty years (I think Leif Ove Andsnes started the trend). He ended with “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, souped up by one of Matsuev’s great Russian predecessors, Grigory Ginzburg. By that I mean that Ginzburg arranged it.
Matsuev did not improvise on “Take the A Train,” as he has been known to do. This disappointed me. I quickly learned he had to catch a plane to Milan. When next he is in town, I hope he’ll have time to catch the A train.