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Denis Matsuev -Tribute to Horowitz
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année, S161 (1849) – Sonata, ‘Après une lecture de Dante’ [16’13]. Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514 (1859-60) [11’23]. Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 2 (1847, cadenza by Matsuev) [9’12].
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)/Vladimir HOROWITZ (1904-1984)

Variations on a Theme from Carmen [3’21].
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)/Grigory GINZBURG (1904-1962)

Fantasy on a Theme from Il barbiere di Siviglia [4’17].
Denis Matsuev (piano).
Rec. Moscow, Russia, in October 2003. DDD
BMG RUSSIA RCA RED SEAL 82876 61273 2 [44’25]

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This is, at times, staggering virtuosity. Short measure at under 45 minutes, perhaps, but there are more notes here than in most 80 minute CDs.

Denis Matsuev was born in 1975 and is a product of the Moscow Conservatory. He has a string of competition successes under his belt, including the XI Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow, 1998; if you look at the list of winners you will find that coming in third was a certain ‘Frederick Kempf’). With a technique and sound like this, small wonder he has been so successful in this field. Unleashed now onto the world at large, can he live up to promise?

The repertoire on this disc is clearly his forte. ‘I always dream the composer is pleased with my interpretation’, says Matsuev. As if idle speculation isn’t enough he continues, ‘While performing Liszt, for example, I always feel he’s playing the piece’. Whether this is literally communing with the composer’s spirit - as John Lill has claimed to do - or merely good promotional blurb I wouldn’t like to comment. But he does, he says, want the public to be excited about the music as well. My pulse rate certainly soared at times. Technically, Matsuev is a phenomenon in an age where phenomena are commonplace. It is easy to see the Horowitz connection.

There are five works on the disc. To start with the ‘Dante’ Sonata and get progressively more difficult is noteworthy in itself.

The ‘Dante Sonata’ is indeed as infernal as its title implies. But this being Liszt, the score allows for hugely variant viewpoints on a score that could superficially be seen as mere virtuoso material. Alfred Brendel showed this clearly in his Philips recording (Duo 462 312-2), marrying technique and intellect - a fierce grasp of Liszt’s processes - unforgettably. Matsuev’s virtues are, perhaps surprisingly, a true pianissimo and his dynamic range is huge. Much less surprisingly he shows a total disdain for any ‘difficulty’ that gets in his way. I use inverted commas because it seems clear that there are no difficulties on this disc ... to him, at any rate. Matsuev can create magical webs of sound; pianissimi that hang by a thread yet carry full tone.

The occasional trace of the literal is present in another ‘diabolical’ piece, the First Mephisto Waltz, but what really carries this reading is the feeling of narration. Matsuev, it seems, is telling a story and a gripping one it is, too. Great washes of notes regale the ears, yet nowhere does he lose definition. If Van Cliburn and Berman (Melodiya) remain at the top of the mountain, Matsuev is not too far from the summit.

The Hungarian Rhapsody will raise eyebrows, of that I am confident. It is because of the cadenza (by Matsuev himself, 7’54ff). That it is a showpiece is unsurprising; that it is jazz-inspired is. Actually it is like combining Schoenberg with jazz, and at times it is so fast it invokes Nancarrow. Outrageous, and great fun to boot. A descending glissando brings us back, briefly, to Liszt himself. Pre-cadenza, Matsuev impresses by a real sense of vocal line at the beginning, a honeyed touch (around 1’15) and a truly superb cimbalom imitation (4’18 onwards).

The final two items - they are given the same timing on the disc, erroneously - are more of the same, but more so. The Carmen Variations, complete with ‘laughing’ staccato precede a fun yet affectionate account of the Rossini/Ginzburg morceau. Is that just a trace of awkwardness I detect in the final item?. Well, maybe, but it’s good to know Matsuev is human after all.

Colin Clarke

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