After deciding I couldn’t take another Mahler symphony with the Bolivar players under Dudamel this week, I headed over to UCLA instead for a solo piano recital from Denis Matsuev who is currently on a three-city tour of the U.S. that will end in New York on Friday the 27th. Matsuev shot to fame after winning the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition and he has continued to perform around the world since then. His name is everywhere lately with a new recording of Liszt's Piano Concerti on RCA and an upcoming performance of the two Shostakovich Piano Conerti with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. He’s also scheduled to make an appearance playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto 1 under Krzysztof Urbański this coming summer at the Hollywood Bowl in what is easily the most exciting program all summer in terms of scheduled performers and repertoire. (Note to Bowl programmers, big classical music stars are most interesting when they are performing something interesting.)
But before all that was this solo recital that had a lot more in common artistically with the kind of approach Dudamel takes to music than you might expect. The show was primarily very familiar piano sonatas: Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in F minor, and Grieg’s Sonata in E minor. The show concluded with Stravinsky's Three Movements from the Ballet Petrushka arranged for piano, a work he’ll also perform at the Bowl. Matsuev bounded onto the stage Tuesday and was clearly all business from the get go. He tore into the Schubert making it clear from bar 1 that timidity would not be the order of the day in this performance. The Schubert sounded incredibly broad and magisterial like some sort of music for a regal ceremony. Even in more quiet moments the sound could be on the severe side though never unpleasant. Matsuev was not trying to recast these works as something else, à la Marino Formenti’s take on the Diabelli Variations earlier this year, but was definitely pressing them into a service which called for high drama and big bold sound. The Beethoven gave off a flesh-bound burning passion in this version and the Grieg was no less intense or flashy.
The technique was a thing to behold, and Matsuev is surprisingly fleet given the level of energy and sound he puts out. But perhaps this approach worked best in the arrangement of Stravinsky's Petrushka. Matsuev amazingly made the piano sound like the entire orchestra in this work. It was an entire ballet from a single keyboard, but it worked brilliantly with propulsive motion throughout. Matsuev was swimming in floral boupuets from his many adoring fans in the predominantly Russian-speaking crowd. And while he didn’t make chit-chat or waste time lounging around, he did deliver a number of encores, most notable an unhinged version of Take the "A" Train. Matsuev is known as a jazz aficionado, and the encore was a chance to offer the audience something along the line of his other major performance area. It was an intriguing run through if no less intense than anything else on the evening's bill.