Arts & Culture

Review: Matsuev a poet at the piano

Thoughts of competition were in the air at Bass Hall on Tuesday night, even though playing for prizes was not in the cards. Denis Matsuev, winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition, had come to the home of the Van Cliburn Competition to demonstrate his skill and artistry at the piano.

The Russian pianist’s program would, with the exception of one piece, have fit quite comfortably in the Cliburn environment. There was music of Liszt, Schumann and Rachmaninoff, all regulars in Fort Worth’s quadrennial contest.

The one work that was off the beaten path was by the very much on-the-path composer Tchaikovsky. It was his collection of piano pieces titled The Seasons, which I don’t recall having heard at the Cliburn.

The Cliburn at the Bass program began with the Tchaikovsky. Given Matsuev’s Russian musical heritage, Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis’ preliminary remarks mentioning piano in the same breath as hockey, and Matsuev’s brisk, confident stride as he came out, I was expecting pianistic thunder and lightning.

But The Seasons is not like that. Neither is Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which came later. So one pleasant surprise was that a major portion of Matsuev’s recital was given over to poetry at the piano, of which Matsuev proved to be a master.

The Seasons is really a very appealing collection. There are 12 pieces, one for each month of the year. Tchaikovsky apparently made a point of composing each one in the month for which it was titled.

None is very pretentious, tempos tend to be moderate, and the whole collection is charming. Matsuev’s atmospheric performance created some appealing sound pictures. March, June and November were certainly winners.

Mephisto Waltz No. 1, one of Liszt’s less irritating sound flings, took the audience into competition territory. Matsuev gave it a blistering performance that established his technical bona fides and left no doubt he could handle the big stuff.

Back in tamer territory, he gave a flowing performance of Kreisleriana that re-created the charming atmosphere of the opening Tchaikovsky.

A deadline pushed me to the exit before Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (revised version; Van Cliburn favored the original). Given what had gone before, it seemed a sure bet it would go well.