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Music review: Denis Matsuev in solo piano recital at Royce Hall

January 25, 2012 | 12:47 pm

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev turned UCLA’s Royce Hall into the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory Tuesday night. At least it felt that way in his recital of works by Schubert, Beethoven, Grieg and Stravinsky, performed before an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking audience.

Matsuev, 36, is a virtuoso in the tradition of Gilels, Richter and Horowitz. He revels in playing at speeds almost too fast to absorb. At slower tempos, he creates a lovely, delicately judged musical flow. But his technical fireworks can be as exhausting as they are thrilling. Adding to the warp-factor feel of his recital, Matsuev walked briskly on and off stage, pausing only briefly between works. 

The pianist’s rendition of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D. 784) evoked the personal drama of a composer working on the edge. There was little Schubertian charm in the first movement’s spare accented chords, and Matsuev’s primal outbursts, especially in the finale’s rapid octaves, summoned an angry Schubert.

Similarly, Matsuev’s account of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” conveyed the composer’s cultivated anger and determination to push to extremes. Performed with Matsuev’s daredevil intensity, the sonata took on a darker profile, the Andante becoming a respite from its dominating emotional and rhythmic drive.

After intermission, Matsuev gave a persuasive reading of Grieg’s early Sonata in E minor, allowing its more superficial turbulence to portray a young composer beginning to find his own voice. Though the sonata is largely influenced by Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, Matsuev touchingly conveyed the lyrical Grieg to come.

Then, Matsuev, sounding like a full orchestra, dispatched Stravinsky’s rhythmically daunting Three Movements From “Petrushka.” Though his account occasionally lost some clarity, with one mood tumbling into another, the whole was infused with an irrepressible Russian spirit. There were four encores: Liadov’s “Music Box,” which displayed the pianist’s quieter, more charming side; Shchedrin’s “Humoresque”; Chopin’s “Butterfly” Etude; and a surprising jazz improvisation that brought the large crowd to its feet.


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--Rick Schultz

Photo from Sony Music Entertainment.