Denis Matsuev

Review: Denis Matsuev | Cliburn Concerts | Bass Performance Hall

Speed Racer

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev plays a technically impressive program for Cliburn Concerts, but is that enough?

published Thursday, February 12, 2015

Photo: Columbia Artists Management Inc.
Denis Matsuev

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.

Photo: Columbia Artists Management Inc.
Denis Matsuev

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. Thanks For Reading

Dates, Prices, & Other Details

View the Article Slideshow

Comment on this Article

Share this article on Social Media
Click or Swipe to close
Speed Racer
Russian pianist Denis Matsuev plays a technically impressive program for Cliburn Concerts, but is that enough?
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Share this article on Facebook
Tweet this article
Share this article on Google+
Share this article via email
Click or Swipe to close
views on theater, dance, classical music, opera and comedy performances
news & notes
reports from the local performing arts scene
features & interviews
who and what are moving and shaking in the performing arts scene
season announcements
keep up with the arts groups' upcoming seasons
listen to interviews with people in the local performing arts scene
media reviews
reviews and stories on performing arts-related film, TV, recordings and books
arts organizations
learn more about the local producing and presenting arts groups
performance venues
learn more about the theaters and spaces where the arts happen
keep up with fabulous ticket giveaways and other promotions
connect to local arts crowdfunding campaigns
post or view auditions and performing arts-related classes, services, jobs and more
about us
info on TheaterJones, our staff, what we do and how to contact us
Click or Swipe to close
First Name:
Last Name:
Date of Birth:
ZIP Code:
Your Email Address:
Click or Swipe to close
Join TheaterJones Around the Web

Follow Us on Twitter

Subscribe to our Youtube Channel

Click or Swipe to close
Search the TheaterJones Archives
Use any or all of the options below to search through all of reviews, interviews, features and special sections. If you are looking for a an event, use the calendar section of this website. This search will not search through the calendar.
Article Title Search:

Description Search:
TheaterJones Contributor:

TheaterJones Section:

Showing on or after:      Showing on or before:  
Click or Swipe to close
We welcome your comments

I am discussing:  

Your Name:
Your Email Adress:

please enter the text below and then click or tap SUBMIT :