Music review: Denis Matsuev at Strathmore

May 8, 2011

I am going to try to avoid all the cliches about burly Russian bears at the piano, mindless Soviet-style technical training, and brawn without brains in this precis of Denis Matsuev’s extraordinary recital Friday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore.

When, after intermission, Matsuev detonated the Liszt ‘‘Mephisto Waltz” and tore through the Rachmaninoff Sonata in B-flat minor, it became clear that the Schubert and Beethoven sonatas on the first half were simply place-holders, appetizers for what was to come.

And what was still to come was a parade of blistering encores that nearly finished off the poor, bruised Steinway (which needed a technician’s ministrations by intermission). In works of Liadov, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Grieg and a crazy jazz mash-up presumably of Matsuev’s own creation, the artist set and then broke speed and sound barriers for the instrument.

It is clear why Matsuev has such a successful career, particularly in concertos; his massive sonority is ideally suited to carry over an orchestra. He sits erect and close to the keyboard, the power projected instantly from his back into his fingers.

But the color is bass-heavy, and he sounds impatient at the lower dynamic levels. The two classical sonatas suffered from carelessness of stress and meter, and few phrases showed real depth or imagination; it was as if he didn’t know where to park all his technique. Even in the lyrical middle section of the Liszt, the playing had a dutiful quality, Matsuev seeming to bide his time until the fireworks returned.

— Robert Battey

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