Prokofiev does not go easy on the soloist in his Piano Sonata No. 7. Turning on a dime from brooding introspection to full-frontal assault, the piece demands a pianist who can forge a cogent path through the wild swings of emotion. Denis Matsuev, at his Strathmore recital Sunday, showed just the right temperament to honor the sonata’s bipolar moods, offering a cool, tension-filled beauty in the lyrical pages, and pounding home the relentlessly percussive final movement to thrilling effect.
He made a comparably dazzling sweep through Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 — a work no less punishing than the Prokofiev. Here, though, despite some notable delicacy of touch in the music’s fleeting moments of repose, Matsuev’s reliance on speed and expressive intensity slighted Liszt’s winking playfulness. Likewise, Tchaikovsky’s “Meditation,” Op. 72, No. 5, lacked nothing in fervor, but was rather wanting in wistful reverie.
All of those red-meat works were packed into the second half of the program. But before intermission, Matsuev’s readings of Beethoven’s penultimate Piano Sonata, Op. 110, and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes told a different interpretive story. With a pianist of such attention-grabbing technique and primal power at the ready, one wouldn’t have expected what was heard: Beethoven that was breathtaking in its eloquent understatement, and Schumann that engaged us with its warmth and patrician grace.
If there were constants running through the recital’s poised first half and galvanic second, they were Matsuev’s razor-sharp articulation, suppleness of phrasing and unerring sense of the way a musical argument unfolds.