La Scena Musicale

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bear-like Pianist Denis Matsuev a Knockout

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

There was a bear on stage at Roy Thomson Hall Wednesday night, and he consumed the black Steinway concert grand like a toy piano.

OK, the Siberian-born pianist Denis Matsuev isn’t a bear, but the 34-year-old with all his Russian roar was bear-like in his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 — lovable and cuddly on the outside, powerful on the inside, and prone to be violent in extreme situations.

Backed by conductor Valery Gergiev and the touring Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Orchestra), the Rach 3 was the centrepiece of an all-Russian program that marked the end of the Mariinsky’s two back-to-back concerts in Toronto.

Matsuev, a pianist with inhuman techniques, was more than generous in his delivery of the world’s toughest piece of piano music. The sound was big, to say the least, and depending on where you sat in the hall, it often drowned out the entire orchestra with seemingly little effort. At least that was the case sixth row from the stage and off centre to the right.

That being said, Matsuev was a pure knockout. His lyricism was subdued (lovable and cuddly), his sense of harmonics multi-dimensional (powerful), and his blistering climaxes extreme (prone to be violent). Even as he pounded across the keyboard in full force and oversaturated intensity, the lid shaking and all, there was something ecstatic about his playing that made you want to stay with the music instead of tuning out.

Gergiev and the fabled Mariinsky Orchestra did their best to keep up with the soloist, but there was only room for one bear on stage.

The crowd gave Matsuev a persistent standing ovation before receiving a solo encore prior to the intermission. With the orchestra still seated on stage, Matsuev played Figaro’s aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville in a flashy Liszt-like transcription.

This is a pianist with a big heart and he holds nothing back. If you like things hot, you’ll love Matsuev. If you have a low tolerance for heat, Matsuev is better appreciated in small doses.

The rest of the program consisted of Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.

Anatol Liadov (1855-1914) was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and teacher to Prokofiev. In The Enchanted Lake, which opened the concert, Gergiev created a romantic soundscape with serene colours and rich textures. Conducting baton-less and without a podium, Gergiev’s hands didn’t beat times (they musicians know how to count perfectly well by themselves). Rather, his incredibly soft-looking and what seemed like battery-run tripe-jointed fingers fluttered about in the air, sending out vibrations of feelings.

As a listener, Gergiev’s hands were intriguing to watch throughout the concert. However, by the end of the concert, in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, one wondered whether it was a necessity, a conducting style, or a nervous tic that those fingers fluttered as much and fast as butterflies do.

The Mariinsky Orchestra was a powerhouse in Shostakovich’s last symphony, which isn’t an easy piece to take in for an average listener. Throughout its barren four movements — the fastest being allegretto — the musicians responded to Gergiev’s ever-animated hand gestures and displayed a well-absorbed understanding of the piece’s dark inner meaning. The solo cello was especially haunting and beautiful while the percussions offered a striking blend with absolute precision.

Gergiev gave an encore following another standing ovation. After several more bowings, he signaled section principals to exist the stage and waved goodbye at the audience.

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