Music and politics, those proverbially uncomfortable bedfellows, were forced into confrontation at Denis Matsuev’s piano recital Tuesday night at the Strathmore Music Center. In March, Matsuev joined other prominent Russian cultural figures in publicly endorsing Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Whatever comfort this may have provided President Putin, some signatories of the endorsement, published in the newspaper Izvestia, have faced protests outside of Russia by Ukraine supporters. Approaching Strathmore from the Metro on Tuesday night, concertgoers had to thread their way through about a dozen or so protesters.
Matsuev, 39, was born in Siberia of musical parents. In 1998, he won the gold medal at Moscow’s prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition.
Since the 19th century, Russia has nurtured and celebrated pianists, fostering a tradition that professionals call the “Russian School” of piano playing. Representatives of the Russian tradition were said to produce a big, beautiful sound at the instrument. Their repertoire focused largely on romantic-era music and 20th-century Russian music. They played with highly developed technique and were renowned for accuracy in even the most difficult music.
During Matsuev’s recital, it became clear that, while some aspects of his playing are recognizably rooted in that fabled Russian tradition, other qualities are radically at odds with it. His choice of program seemed typically, even conservatively Russian. He began with a Haydn sonata, followed by one of the most familiar romantic war horses, Schumann’s “Carnaval.” After intermission came two Tchaikovsky pieces and three by Rachmaninoff, including two preludes and a sonata. At the softest end of the dynamic spectrum, Matsuev can produce a quiet singing sound of great beauty and refinement. At the other end, especially in big, growling bass passages, he can play very, very loudly. It is safe to say that, in nearly six decades of concert attendance, I have never heard a piano played as loudly as I did Tuesday night. With such carefully cultivated extremes of the dynamic spectrum, it would seem that Matsuev has an extraordinarily rich dynamic palette at his disposal. But this is not the case. If he is capable of producing the pianistic equivalent of a normal, conversational tone of voice, he chooses not to use it. Through most of the program, he seemed to be either whispering or shouting.
Matsuev has a fluent, though far from infallible, technique. He sits comfortably at the piano and his physical mannerisms do not generally distract from the music. The accuracy of his playing, on the other hand, seems below the norm of what is expected of pianists with international careers today. Particularly in passages of heightened emotion, he can release torrents of wrong notes.
Of course, wrong notes mean nothing when a performance is musically compelling. The great E-flat Sonata of Haydn, the last the composer wrote, seemed little more than a warm-up exercise, its inherent humor ignored. Schumann’s “Carnaval” came off as hectic, confused and sloppy. Even the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff pieces sounded overplayed and contrived, rather than emanating from the heart. During the one untroubled moment in the recital, Rachmaninoff’s G-sharp minor Prelude, a rare clarity and genuine simplicity of utterance shone through.
In fairness, it could be that the controversy, both in Washington and elsewhere, engendered by Matsuev’s political stance, has put him off form. Whatever the contributing factors, the most obvious thing about Matsuev’s performance Tuesday night was that his heart is somewhere else.
Rucker is a freelance writer.