Arts & Culture

Pianist Denis Matsuev inspired by Rachmaninoff, other Russian masters

Denis Matsuev
Denis Matsuev

You can credit Sergei Rachmaninoff with the fact that Denis Matsuev does not smoke.

Matsuev, a prominent winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow who will make his Fort Worth debut at Bass Hall on Tuesday night, told this story in a recent email interview with the Star-Telegram, which had to be translated from his native Russian to English before publication:

“This happened three years ago, after my recital on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Alexander Borisovich Rachmaninoff, a grandson of the composer, came to me and said that if I promised to quit smoking, he’d give me a present.

“I was not really a heavy smoker — a cigarette or two after a concert — but for the Rachmaninoff [family] smoking is a really sensitive issue, because Sergei Rachmaninoff — a really heavy smoker — died of lung cancer.

“So I promised to quit and asked for the present. He said, ‘I’d like to give you two unknown Rachmaninoff works: a suite and a fugue.’ These were student works. Legend is that he sent them to Tchaikovsky to hear his opinion on them, as he respected Peyotr Ilych very much. And, they say, Tchaikovsky’s secretary just lost them.

“Only five years ago, personnel at the Glinka Museum found them. It was an urtext, you know, just notes. And not only did I get these unknown pieces, but also performed them on Rachmaninoff’s own grand piano in his Senar villa in Switzerland.”

Naturally, Rachmaninoff’s music plays a major role in the Russian Matsuev’s career. He’ll end his Cliburn at the Bass recital on Tuesday night with the composer’s 1931 Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. (Also on the program is music by Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Schumann.) He’s recorded most of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos and many of the composer’s solo works.

Matsuev says that an important guide to his performances of Rachmaninoff’s music is the composer’s own recordings, especially of the piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Absolutely! And not only when I prepare for performing his concertos,” he says. “I listen to his recordings, as there are three genius roles that he combined in himself — as a composer, a pianist and a conductor. His conductor’s recordings are also outstanding.

“This is the most important, exemplary musician for me. He plays his own music so ingeniously, profoundly, naturally. When I performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, I was in awe of his recording with [that orchestra].

“And I felt even more thrilled when I got a chance to perform Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto on Rachmaninoff’s grand piano in the Lucerne Festival that Rachmaninoff opened himself when he lived in Switzerland. It was the first time that this piano left Senar and was on the stage of the concert hall.”

Matsuev won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998. He’ll be a juror in this year’s competition, which will be held in June and July.

“I like the concept of the Cliburn Competition in Texas a lot,” he says. “It is an example for imitation in my mind.”

One thing that the Tchaikovsky will be doing, like the Cliburn in recent years, is placing an emphasis on furthering the careers of those placing at and near the top.

There are other changes. At the insistence of conductor Valery Gergiev, chairman of the competition, students of jury members will not be allowed to compete. This is in response to charges of favoritism.

Age limits are being expanded. Now 16-year-olds will be allowed to compete, as well as 32-year-olds at the other end of the age spectrum. A grand prize of $100,000 is being offered, in addition to other prizes ranging from $1,000 to $30,000.

Matsuev says that, starting with the second round, contestants will get a chance to show more of their stuff.

“We divided the second round into two parts: Participants will perform their solo program and a Mozart concerto,” he says. “Before that, several participants were eliminated after performing the first part. Now they will play both parts and only after that the elimination will take place. I believe it’s fair, because a musician can show all his or her performance capability.”

Matsuev has a hectic schedule that might defeat the less hardy. So far he has played in 62 countries. Next year he will add India to his list.

He admits that jet lag can be a problem, but says, “the most important recipe in coping with jet lag is excitement about a forthcoming concert and meeting with the audience. Performance on the stage gives a lot of energy.”

Cliburn at the Bass presents Denis Matsuev

▪ 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

▪ Bass Hall, Fort Worth

▪ $20-$90

▪ 817-212-4280, www.basshall.com

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