Fort Worth — The Cliburn Foundation’s Cliburn Concerts at Bass Performance Hall continued on Tuesday with Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. He is best known as the winner of the prestigious Russian Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998 when he was only 23 years old. This same competition capitulated Van Cliburn to international fame in 1958. Cliburn’s win had political overtones because of a confluence of events: it was the first time the competition happened, it was in Moscow, it was right in the middle of the Cold War, and Cliburn was an American—worse than that—he was youngster from a small Texas town and had the twang to prove it.
This bit of history came to mind concerning Matsuev. Cliburn’s political firestorm swirled around him but the one surrounding Matsuev is of his own making. Along with conductor Valery Gergiev, violist Yuri Bashmet and others on the Russian cultural “A” list, he published a statement in support of Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression against the Ukraine and Crimea. There have been protestors at some of his other concerts, but none showed up on Tuesday in front of Bass Hall.
If there was any protesting going on concerning Matsuev, it was more about his bizarre performance than his political faux pas.
It is difficult to know what to say about his recital. Matsuev is obviously a master of piano technique and a fine musician. He has complete control over the keyboard and able to produce both softer and louder sounds than you would think possible. He can make the piano thunder with hammer strokes that make you wonder why he didn’t break a string in the process. He also has the nimblest fingers of anyone that immediately comes to mind, and is able to play passagework with almost unbelievable speed.
All of the above came into play in this recital, with results that spanned from the divine to the profane. Stunning beauty in one moment became strange clatter in another. We were frequently astounded, sometimes by the gorgeous and sometimes by the bizarre.
Matsuev played an attractive program. There were some famous showpieces as well as some of the lessor known works of very well known composers. Two of the selections, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Schumann’s Kreisleriana, are cycles of pieces that paint a specific picture. Matsuev was quite successful in creating this effort.
The Tchaikovsky suite features pieces dedicated to each month. It is doubtful that anyone could determine which month was which or even that this was the program without knowing it ahead of time. However, Matsuev brought out the subtle differences and it was good to hear the entire cycle played in this manner. (Mostly, we only hear some of the movements by themselves.)
Liszt’s over-the-top showpiece, Mephisto Waltz No. 1, is also full of contrasts that were excellently realized. However, parts of this already astoundingly difficult piece was taken at what you would think was an impossible tempo, even though notes were blurred.
Schumann’s Kreisleriana got a sympatric treatment, only marred by the same exaggerations. This cycle is based on a fictional character created by the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. His short stories and novellas were the source for many musical creations such as Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet. This suite concerns the fictional Johannes Kreisler, an alter ego for Hoffmann himself, who is slightly manic as he bounces back and forth between the two natures of his personality: the impulsive Florestan and lost-in-the-clouds Eusebius.
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 also contains much in the way of contrast. In fact, that contrast is at then heart of the piece. As such, it requires a master of contrast as well as an awesome technic but it must be tempered with some controls. Here, it ran wild.
The problem with Tuesday evening’s performance is best described by revisiting Hoffmann’s Florestan and Eusebius. Matsuev was an incarnation of these two disparate characters. When he was the dreamy one, his playing was exquisite. Long spinning lines as lyrical and vocally based as you will ever hear. The soft passages kept us on the edge of our seat and created absolute silence in the hall as we strained to hear the final notes. However, rubato was exaggerated to the point of distorting phrases. Ritards almost come to a stop.
When Forestan took over, Matsuev attacked the piano with a scary ferocity. The instrument itself vibrated under the onslaught. Matsuev appeared to care more about the effect than the notes and many of the big chords landed with a splat. Fast tempi were absolutely astounding and his hands were frequently a blur during these passages. Tempi were so fast that it sounded like a recording that has been speeded up past what is humanly possible. Matsuev’s daring roller coaster ride had a number of concert pianists in the audience gasping in disbelief.
The big question is—does any of this matter? Matsuev delivered a performance, unmatched by other artists, as far as excitement goes. His performance was also notable for his sensitive musicianship and ability to entrance the audience because of his roadmap though whatever he was playing and he brought the enchanted audience with him.
Does quibbling about overplaying, show-off velocity and exaggerated phrasing, in the midst of an exceptional performance, really matter? The spontaneous and ecstatic ovation from the audience in Bass Hall says that it doesn’t, at least to the majority—or is easily overlooked.
But there has to be some limits imposed by plain ol’ good taste, if not the parameters of the music itself. Otherwise, there will be a competition among artists like track events, with the fastest getting the glory instead of the artist who delivers the most compelling performance of the composer’s intentions. The most promising takeaway is that Matsuev is still young and equipped with an amazing toolbox of pianistic skills. All his sins are those typical of youth and he will surely mature, both musically and politically. He has lots of time to do that.