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Denis Matsuev (piano)
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons op.37b (1876) [41:15]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Movements from Petrushka (Abridged) (1911-1921) [15:06]
Denis Matsuev (piano)
rec. date and location not given
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876788612 [56:29]


Pianists who love their Tchaikovsky symphonies and other orchestral works have to face the fact that his extensive solo writing for their instrument never produced anything quite on that level. In reality, once allowance has been made for what his solo piano music is not, a good deal of it is attractive, characteristic and even inspired. To a greater degree, I would say, than in the case of Dvořák or Sibelius, where a similar sort of situation exists. Even so, exaggerated claims are likely to arouse disappointment in the listener. The accompanying booklet states that the twelve pieces of “The Seasons” contain “music of subtle melancholy, profound poetry and great diversity which rates the pieces among the most important Romantic piano cycles”, and so implicitly among those of Schumann or Liszt. This claim is hardly supported by what we hear. In truth Tchaikovsky wrote the cycle for a Russian magazine which asked him for a piece to illustrate each month. He apparently accepted the commission so casually that he asked his servants to remind him a few days before the end of the month that a piece was to be written He thereupon sat down and dashed it off. September seems to have got him with his trousers down, producing a Hunting Song that is amazingly conventional and threadbare in invention, especially when we remember what Mendelssohn had achieved in this line. Had it been penned by Mackenzie or Cowen, it would have been seized upon as damning evidence that the Land Without Music was deservedly so named. The fact that it happens to be by Tchaikovsky doesn’t make it any better.

November, on the other hand, inspired the delightful “Troika”. This was for long a popular encore piece, as is witnessed by the fact that Rachmaninov made no fewer than two recordings of his somewhat odd interpretation. Also “June” produced a “Barcarole” full of piquant counterpoint which was much appreciated by our grandfathers. The “Autumn Song” (October) opens up vistas of desolate wastes while the “Song of the Lark” (March) has something of the melancholy of the “Canzonetta” of the Violin Concerto. “Snowdrop” (April), too, mingles compassion with elegance and could easily have found a place in one of the great ballets. The faster pieces find the composer more on automatic pilot but if you don’t expect to be overwhelmed you will be entertained and occasionally moved.

I’ve been moaning a bit lately about pianists who don’t separate the different strands of the texture by varying their tone colours. I’ll say at once, then, that Matsuev has his pianistic house fully in order from that point of view. Melodies, counter-melodies and accompaniments are all heard in their right proportions. At first I thought he was going to be a spontaneous but unduly interventionist guide, but “Carnival” (February) and the other faster pieces show that he can play with rhythmic grip when needed. I much preferred his lilting “Barcarole” to Richter’s lugubrious affair. Doubts only came in the last three. The “Autumn Song” has been known to yield up more bleak tension and I regret that he has chosen to ape Rachmaninov’s antics in “Troika”. This means playing the opening part “Andante lugubre” instead of the written “Allegro moderato”, speeding up to a good, lively tempo in the middle and then alternating two tempi in the last part. There’s a fast tempo when the original theme is accompanied by “snowy” semiquavers, then he goes back to the lugubrious one when those stop. People are going to get the idea that Tchaikovsky didn’t know what he was doing. Even Richter makes a strange compromise between what Rachmaninov did and what Tchaikovsky wrote, and yet the piece sounds absolutely charming if played as written.

The cycle ends with a Christmas waltz which has been made to sound full of seasonal joy but here emerges strangely subdued. The static middle section, though, is seemingly a blip in Tchaikovsky’s own inspiration and I doubt if anyone could save it. The question whether these lapses, measured against some notable successes, amount to a recommendable “Seasons” falls by the wayside in view of what happens in “Petrushka”.

It is clear by now that Matsuev is a pianist with a fine control of sonority and he is unfazed by Stravinsky’s extreme demands. His textures can be magical at times. The trouble is, he seems to think he is playing Liszt. Just to give one example, at the change to A major on p.6 of the “Danse Russe” he makes a notable rallentando, where none is written, so as to create a soft, delicate, Debussian quality. All through he applies a sort of rhythmic flexibility which recomposes the music in an unduly romantic light. We know very well from Stravinsky’s writings that this sort of thing was anathema to him even in romantic music. His own recordings of his music, as well as those of musicians we know he admired such as Monteux and Ansermet, leave no doubt of the importance of rhythm and dance movement in performing his music.

However, any residual respect for the performance goes completely out of the window when the pianist makes a whacking great cut in the last movement, from p.35, line two, to the più mosso on p.37. Ours is an age when traditional cuts are being opened out, when long-omitted repeats are being increasingly observed and when opera recordings often come with supplements of alternative arias etc. It seems all the more incredible, therefore, that anyone can even dream of hacking bits out of a composer who knew exactly what he wanted, like Stravinsky. And if Matsuev really must demonstrate the superiority of his own genius over that of Stravinsky by rewriting his music, the potential buyer could at least be told – the word “abridged” in the header was added by me. To sell something as implicitly complete when it is not is tantamount to misleading the public. I really wish that somebody one day with money to burn (that rules me out!) and a taste for legal battles would bring a test case. In the meantime, the least we can do is not to buy the record.

Christopher Howell







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