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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Monday, March 15, 2010

This Week in Toronto (March 15 - 21)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky
(Photo: Pavel Antonov)

The big news for voice fans this week is the blockbuster concert starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky on Saturday 8 pm March 20 at Roy Thomson Hall. It is part of a concert tour the two are taking to a number of cities in North America, including Montreal and New York. This event is not to be missed! For a little preview, Radvanovsky will be giving a mini-recital live from the concert lobby at The New Classical 96.3 FM tomorrow (Tuesday 16) at 1 pm. You can tune in to your radio, or listen to it in a webcast. I am not positive but the concert may even be available for view on the website. Go to (Note: I just had confirmation from Linda Litwack, the publicist of this concert for Show One Productions that the concert will indeed be videocast live on the internet!)

Hvorostovsky is of course a frequent visitor to Toronto - I must have heard him here close to ten times since his first appearance here, around 1992. And I try to catch him wherever I can in my operatic travels. It is rare, however, to find Sondra Radvanovsky singing on local stages. This is particularly strange as she has been living in the GTA for quite a number of years, having married a Canadian. I heard her at the Met and Santa Fe as Violetta in La Traviata, but in Toronto, it was limited to only the LUNA concert of the first year of the Luminato Festival. If memory serves, she sang Casta Diva from Norma and wowed everyone. With her voice, it just takes two seconds and you just know that this is not your usual soprano voice. It is dark, rich, powerful, expressive, with stunning breath control and exemplary agility. It is, in fact, an authentic Verdi soprano, an extremely rare species. She arrives home fresh from a triuAdd Imagemph as Elisabetta in Don Carlo at the Opera Bastille in Paris. I spoke with a friend who was lucky enough to catch her at the performance last Friday. She was in fabulous form, receiving endless ovations from the enthusiastic audience. Here is the photo of a smiling Radvanovsky backstage at the Opera Bastille after Don Carlo last Friday.

(Photo: Pierre Couture)

Another exciting event this week is the appearance of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Orchestra), all the way from St. Petersburg. Anytime this orchestra tours, it is always an unforgettable event, so this time it'll be no different. There will be different programs on the two nights. The first, on March 16, has Berlioz's Royal Hunt and Strom from Les Troyens and selections from Romeo et Juliette, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5; the second performance has Denis Matsuev playing Rach 3, and Shostakovich Symphony No. 15! Either program is terrific and if you can, go!

The Aradia Ensemble under conductor Kevin Mallon presents the music of Purcell's Theatre Music (Don Quixote presented with excerpts from Thomas D'Urfey's play Boduca), on Sunday, 8 pm March 21, at the Glenn Gould Studio. The soloists are sopranos Eve Rachel McCleod and Laura Albino, tenor Nils Brown and bass Jason Nedecky. For more information, go to

The Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music presents a staged version of Massenet's Cendrillon conducted by Uri Mayer with stage direction by Graham Cozzubbo, with students from the GGS Vocal Program and Opera in Concert Chorus. I once saw this show at Santa Fe Opera, in the Laurent Pelly production, and it was incredibly funny. I am sure with the youthful enthusiasm of the GGS students and the expert baton of Mayer, this will be a very good show. It opens on March 20, 7:30 pm at Koerner Hall, with additional performances on March 21, 23, and 35, at different times. For details and tickets, go to

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